As a red-eyed Andy Toole fought back getting choked-up during last night's post-game press conference, his last words to the media were, "They deserved better." Toole made it very clear that the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers were the better team and deserved to win the game. His response was prompted by the final question from the media, "Given the roster situation, how challenging has this season been?"
Those that cover the Robert Morris Colonials on a regular basis had stopped asking Toole questions about the roster a month ago. Perhaps the question caught Toole off guard, perhaps it was the first time he gave himself even a second to reflect on the season.
Regardless, for a brief moment the quick-witted and whip-smart Toole wasn't recalling details of the 88-71 defeat with pinpoint precision as if he had an eidetic memory for the game. Instead, he was thinking about the eight players - the 'crazy eight' for those of us who know - that he described as 'crushed' sitting just two floors below him.
For all the exuberance and jubilation that the Mount players and head coach Jamion Christian displayed, and rightfully so, there was another side to that. That side was a devastated Anthony Myers-Pate who couldn't lift his head from his hands. For a senior that had won 89 games in his career, but no NCAA Tournament appearances, it was as if he walked in and out of the press conference with a 1,000 pound weight on his back.
There was the side of a soft-spoken Lucky Jones, who is normally the first to grab the microphone. Gone was his infectious smile, instead replaced with a down-trodden expression - he had little to say. Then there was senior Karvel Anderson, who has overcome more in his 22 years than most of us will in a lifetime. While he kept his usual stoic demeanor; he had a vacant expression, as if he was replaying the whole game in his mind and what he might have done differently.
Lastly, there was Toole, a man who I've come to respect on a multitude of levels. The best basketball conversation I've had in my 29 years was over a pizza and a drink just a few months ago after a game with Toole. In the five months of covering the Colonials, the most I'd gotten out of Toole was a smirk. On Tuesday night, I saw more emotion from him in 7 minutes and 8 seconds than I had in the 48+ hours I've been around the team.
There came a point in the press conference when the solemness became too much, and you simply wanted to allow them to leave. The importance of writing a story came second to being a person in that moment - at least for me. Many of the game recaps that followed were headlined with words like: crushed, destroyed, and dominated. While those words certainly captured what happened on the court, they went hand in hand with the mood of the players off of it.
It's unfortunate that Robert Morris, and the NEC in general, doesn't get a lot of mainstream coverage. The lasting impression the public will have of this RMU team is that they came up just short of the NCAA Tournament, and it happened in an unceremonious way. As I think back over the last five months, my first year covering the Colonials and the conference, I believe the 'crazy eight' deserve better.
Freshman point guard Kavon Stewart deserves better because he plays every possession like it's his last and sacrifices his body for the team. He's matured as a player and a person throughout the season. Stewart is perhaps the fastest player end-to-end with the ball in his hands in the NEC, and is a consistent jump shot away from being downright scary.
Junior guard Charles Oliver deserves better because he's asked to enter games and get hot in a second - something he did on more than a few occasions. Like a field goal kicker in football, Oliver is judged on just a handful of shots, but demonstrates the mental toughness to take those shots and live with the results.
Sophomore forward Aaron Tate deserves better because every coach wants an Aaron Tate on their team. I never saw him complain once in practice or when he lost his starting spot. He plays five inches taller than he is, and provided one of the most memorable post-game press conferences of the season.
Sophomore forward Stephan Hawkins deserves better because he fought through criticism the entire season, and shut a lot of people up - including myself. I'll remember him for gutting-out 31 minutes against the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers to clinch the regular-season title, and for shooting free throws last night after everyone else had left the gym except a few media members and the cleaning crew.
Junior guard David Appolon deserves better because of his development as a player once thrust into the starting lineup. He has a nose for the ball on the glass, makes timely baskets around the rim, and intercepts his fair share of passes. Dave shakes my hand every time I see him, and makes sure to thank me for covering the team. He even went out of his way to come back into the building last night to do it one last time.
Jones deserves better because of the passion in which he plays the game. No one runs down the court with as wide a smile after a made bucket, or swings his arms up trying to stir the crowd. He was my first player interview ever, and ranks in my top-5 of best player names: Majestic Mapp, Blake Stepp, Nate Funk, and Speedy Claxton are the others.
Myers-Pate deserves better because he's the embodiment of what RMU’s program is all about. He's far from the most vocal guy on the court, but is the first guy to help a player finish their sprints in practice. He's the first guy who Toole calls on to explain where someone should be on the floor. He's a leader not by words, but by actions.
Anderson deserves better because it's hard to envision a more deserving person than Karvel. Adversity seems to be a welcome mat for Anderson, no matter where he goes. Anyone that knows Karvel will tell you he wipes his feet on that mat daily. He's a better person than he is a player, one of the best shooters I've ever seen in person, but I'll remember his thoughtfulness and humbleness more than anything else.
I don't get paid to cover Robert Morris, as a blogger this is a passion, not an occupation. I think basketball is the greatest game on earth, not just because of the X's and O's, but because you can see the fire, the intensity, the hunger in every face, especially in this conference.
There isn't an at-large bid awaiting any of the seven teams that didn't win the NEC Tournament, and the NBA isn't awaiting most of these players either. There wasn't a camera crew that videoed a beaming Greg Herenda (FDU) as he talked about his three seniors' academic accomplishments off the court more than their exploits on it. There wasn't much made of Rob Krimmel (SFU) fighting back his emotions as he recounted how his sixth-seeded Red Flash came just a few feet away from making the conference championship game.
I continued to cover NEC basketball, particularly RMU, because it mattered (not the outcome) to every single person who I interacted with. From Senior Associate Commissioner Ron Ratner and Director of Communications Ralph Ventre, to various writers in the mainstream media such as Craig Meyer, Lauren Kirschman, and Andrew Chiappazzi, to bloggers such as myself: John Templon, Ryan Peters, Nelson Castillo, Chris Cappella, and Lee Kunkel.
I'll continue to cover this conference because every player and every coach gave it 110% every time they stepped onto the court. I am sure that MSM will represent the NEC well in the NCAA Tournament, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a rooting interesting.
But, when I think about this Colonials team, the one that fell just one game short of the 'big dance', I won't think about Tuesday night. I'll think about how they competed to get better at every practice. I'll think about all the adversity they overcame and all the comebacks. I'll think about watching the NBA All-Star Game with them and that their biggest concern was where to order pizza from.
This team was never going to be defined by 88-71; they're the 'crazy eight' and they deserve better than that.