Teddy Allen: So Close It Hurts
March 9, 2018
FRISCO, TEXAS — Jacobi Boykins was four feet outside the paint on his knees, his hands on the floor holding his head, as if he were praying that what had just happened wasn’t true.
His Louisiana Tech jersey, the one he’d take off for the final time once he got to the locker room, was halfway up his chest because his wet eyes were buried in its top half.
He doesn’t carry a handkerchief when he plays basketball, so something had to catch the tears after Tech’s season-ending 62-58 loss to Old Dominion, a game that came down to a bounce this way or that.
ODU will play in the semifinals today, an NCAA Tournament bid in their sites. The Bulldogs will replay the game in their heads, probably for a long, long time, and wait for next season to start.
If you’re an athlete, and if you’re a college senior, and if you’re on a team that has seen teammates leave and a coaching change and your friends sidelined by injury, but you’ve just played a game and you and your teammates have just left it all on the court, every ounce of energy and desire and hustle they can muster from the first whistle until the last — and you still come up short in your final game — you get a pass on crying.
“A League of Their Own” gave us one of the all-time great movie lines: “There’s no crying in baseball!?” Beautiful. Except it’s a movie. And movies aren’t real.
Ballgames, the only true “Reality TV” you’ll ever see, are about as real as joy and pain can get. If you’re not crying, or at least feeling like you want to, you probably didn’t try hard enough.
If you do it right, and still you fail, there’s crying in baseball. In basketball, too. When the result isn’t what you’d worked for, there’s crying in anything that you’ve put your heart into fully.
If you’re a Dunkin’ Dogs fan, Tech’s 62-58 loss to Old Dominion Thursday in the Conference USA Tournament quarterfinals was a loss worth crying over, and for a couple of reasons. It ended a trying season for the 17-16 Bulldogs, a tournament 10th seed trying to and almost — almost — knock off seed No. 2. On this same court moments before, No. 9 Southern Miss had sent No.1-seed Middle Tennessee back to Murfreesboro with a 71-68 upset.
You never know. “We get beat 12-6 on points off turnovers and we get just two more points in the paint than they do?” said ODU coach Jeff Jones, a prolific guard on the great University of Virginia basketball teams of the early ’80s. “I can’t tell you the last time that’s happened. And going into the game, you’d think it wouldn’t have. You’ve got to give Tech all kinds of credit.”
That’s because ODU had beaten Tech, 82-69, in Ruston in February —and it wasn’t that close; the Monarchs’ lead was 25 at one point.
And it’s because a lot of the time, ODU is running juniors and seniors up and down the court and Tech has one guy out there in an academic position to take a 400 level course. At one point against the Monarchs — and this is a familiar picture to Tech fans — the Bulldogs had a junior, a sophomore, and three freshmen on the court, most of them shorter than the upperclassmen Monarchs. And this in the C-USA Tournament. Not a scrimmage.
Another reason you wouldn’t expect it is because the Monarchs are 25-6. That’s pretty strong.
But even though the season is over for Tech, the final game is one worth celebrating, too. The nucleus for Tech? Impressive. They had the chance to play this season, that’s for sure. Some freshmen and sophomores took a big, big step in the right direction in the league tournament: play hard for 40 minutes, and who knows?
The Bulldogs played Thursday as if they already knew that. And believed it.
“We never could make enough plays,” Jones said, “to separate from Tech. They continued to fight.”
They did. The Bulldogs are leading by nine 10 minutes in and playing as hard as they can and you’re thinking that of course they can’t keep this up — except they do. They’re not going to hold a 9-point lead for the next 30 minutes because ODU is better and because basketball is a game of runs, but Tech must have decided then that they weren’t going to lose because of a lack of effort: the score was tied six times and the lead changed 10 times.
It was a battle.
“Nothing,” said Tech’s 6-8 sophomore postman Oliver Powell, “was easy all night.”
The Monarchs went to a 1-3-1 zone to get another defender near the basket because Derric Jean, who finished with a team-high 14 points, and DaQuan Bracey, who had eight, kept beating them off the dribble and attacking the lane. It helped a little. But Jean still led the Bulldogs in scoring with 14, four assists and no turnovers, and Bracey had six assists against only one turnover.
It helped the Monarchs’ cause that they canned 16 of 18 free throws, or 89 percent. The team average is 70 percent. Tech was 2-of-5 from the line.
The bottom line is the Bulldogs, eight-and-a-half-points underdogs, wouldn’t disappear. The game was tied at 58-58 under two minutes when Boykins, Tech’s all-time leader in three-point shots made, got a steal in heavy traffic underneath the basket, passed it, hustled down and missed a three — on a good look for him—from the left wing. The Monarchs converted on the other end, made a stop, made a couple of free throws…and won.
“If the ball bounces a couple of different ways…” Tech’s third-year head coach Eric Konkol said.
True. The Bulldogs did all they could. The rest was up to basketball.
What they need now is a tall, stout player who can play. Every team wants those. But every team wants what Tech has now, too, and that is all the complement players. The combination will make a difference in the promising future for everybody.
Except for Boykins. There is no next season for him. Or for 7-footer Joniah White who, in his fourth year as Boykins is, had to retire from the game last month due to a medical heart issue. After the game, he wore a hoodie that covered most of a sad, frustrated face.
“I’ll be eternally grateful to them both,” said Konkol during his red-eyed press conference. “I came here and they had just finished their freshmen seasons. They stuck with me. They’ve been great representatives not only of our team, but of our community and of our university. I’ll never forget those guys.”
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