Thursday, March 12, 2009

Seventeen Years...

17 years ago, 
1. Bill Clinton was beginning his White House Presidency.
2. George Bush ralphed all over the Japanese Prime Minister.
3.The Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI.
4. The Pirates had a winning season, winning their third straight NL East title only to fall to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. 
5. The Penguins swept the Black Hawks in 4 games to win the Stanley Cup.
6. 4 cops indicted on police brutality charges against Rodney King.
7. Hurricane Andrew hits South Florida.
8.  Your's truly stared The Relentless Pursuit of Higher Education.
9. The Roman Catholic Church reinstates Galileo after 359 years.
10. Arthur Ashe named Sport's Illustrated's Man of the Year.

Add to that list: The Robert Morris Colonials won their 5th NEC men's basketball championship and appeared in the NCAA tournament. 

Since then, the Colonials have been to the championship game once in 2000 only to fall to Central Connecticut State.  

The Robert Morris Colonials labor in obscurity.  A small university of 5,000 in the West Hills of Pittsburgh made up mostly of commuter students.  RMU plays in the Northeast Conference, a lightly regarded assemblage of 11 private and public institutions in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland, and Pennsylvania known more for their academics than their athletics.   It's one of many conferences in the NCAA that is called a"one and done" league.  Unlike the power conferences like the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, and so on that send three, four, and five teams to March Madness, conferences like the Northeast only send one team, the tournament champion.  In most cases, they end up a 16 seed, or 
if they had a truly great season, maybe even a 14 or 15 seed.  Cannon fodder for the North Carolinas, Dukes, and UConns.  

But even though the champion of the Northeast Conference is all but guaranteed to be on the losing end of a blow-out, it's still a cause for celebration to the players who make up that championship team.  Because for them,  the journey to the NCAA tournament is the important thing.  To make it through the meatgrinder of the conference schedule and the post-season conference tournament is the overriding goal for these one and done schools.  I'm not saying that they don't care about what they do in their one and most likely, only chance to participate in the Big Dance.  It's just that there are no lofty expectations placed on them.  There is no pressure.  They can play loosey-goosey knowing that the hardest part of their journey is over and this is just icing on the cake.  The reward for all that sweat, and blood and pain of practices and games.  

At the big time schools, getting to the NCAA's is pretty much granted. They play in large historic gyms in front of 12 to 20,000 screaming fans who may wait for years before they can get season tickets.  Those squads are under constant pressure from their fans, media, boosters, alums and others to get as far in the tourney as possible, and anything less than the Final Four is considered a failure.  Teams like Robert Morris play in front of 1,000-2,000 people tops, are lucky to get a mention in the local fishwrap in most seasons, and are just happy to punch their ticket to the Dance and want to soak up as much of the atmosphere as they can while they're there. 

In 2007-2008, the Colonials, had what was considered to be the best season in RMU history.  Led by first year coach Mike Rice, the Colonials stormed through the NEC going 16-2 in the conference, and highlighted by a 57-55 win over Boston College of the ACC on the road.  They were guaranteed home court all the way through the NEC tournament as long as they kept winning.  The Mount St. Mary Mountaineers, a small Catholic school out of Emmitsburg, Maryland,  kept RMU from realizing their dreams of going to the Dance with an 83-65 drubbing of Robert Morris on the Sewall Center floor.  The Mount as they are called, has become the major rival of the Colonials in men's basketball the last few years.  These teams do not like each other.  Every time the Colonials and the Mountaineers hookup, it is a tough, defensive affair that tends to get chippy.  

 The Colonials ended up going to the NIT and playing Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, where they kept it close and lost by 7 points.   But the NIT isn't called the "No one's Interested Tournament" for nothing.  It's a small consolation.  It's better than nothing, but not much. 

2008-2009 brought a new season and a rededication to insuring that what happened last season wouldn't happen again.  Once again the Colonials ran through the conference with only a small bobble in the end going 15-3 and gaining the home court for the NEC tournament.  After a tough win against St. Francis (NY) and a blowout of Quinnipiac, Robert Morris once again looked across the bracket to see that the path between them and the Dance was, you guessed it, the Mountaineers of Mount St. Mary's.  The perfect storm.  One vs Two for the bragging rights, the hardware and most of all, the ticket to the Madness.  

It was an ugly game. Neither team shot very well.  it was 19-19 at the half.  Both teams played nasty, cloying defense and the lead never got beyond 5 points for either side.  But RMU got on an 11-4 run during the last five minutes of the game, and with 2.5 seconds left,  Dallas Green picked up a ball that Jeremy Chappelle fumbled and scored the winning basket.  His only two points of the game ended up being the two most important points of the 2008-09 season.

The drought is over, and the Colonials are going dancing.  

Here is one of the Post-Gazette stories.

Gene Collier, sports columnist of the PG shares his thoughts here.

The Trib's coverage of the game is here

Finally, here is the coverage of the Beaver County Times

Good Job, Colonials. Now go and have some fun!!!

photo credits: John Heller, Pgh Post-Gazette

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