Hoo boy, the agony.
After over a decade of losing seasons in Division I, after one win three years ago, after getting the team to buy in after a legacy of almost nothing, after coming out of absolutely nowhere to win the league this year, after taking down Liberty twice to finally make the field in dramatic fashion.
After playing so well against Xavier for so long, they deserved an NCAA Tournament win.
It just wasn’t meant to be in the end.
“I am so proud of this group, who they’ve become, what they’re about, but more importantly, how they respond,” Owls head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said after the game.
Making their first appearance on the biggest stage, the Kennesaw State Owls made one heck of an impression. After falling behind by nine points early, the Owls roared back to a seven-point lead going into halftime, with help from Chris Youngblood and Terrell Burden, and brought the crowd and momentum with them. The crowd continued to back them as their lead grew to 13 early in the second half. Each time Xavier responded, the Owls hit shot after shot to respond. The lead stood at 61-48 when Terrell Burden scored at the 10-minute mark for Kennesaw State.
The crowd was rocking. “You don’t want to go to war with the owls” was echoing through the stadium and was audible on the broadcast. You could feel the upset coming.
Suddenly, it all went bad. Over the next several minutes, the Musketeers converted their chances and drew fouls, while Kennesaw State missed shots and turned the ball over. At the four-minute mark, Xavier found itself with a 63-61 lead after scoring 15 unanswered points over a six-minute span. The Owls came up empty on 10 straight possessions, and at one point missed 10 straight field goal attempts.
Asked if Xavier did something or if the Owls stopped doing something that caused the huge run, Abdur-Rahim said, “That’s just the game. Basketball is a game of runs … if anyone in the building thought [the 13-point lead] was going to be how the game stayed, you haven’t watched much basketball in March.”
Still, they didn’t quit. Desmond Robinson hit a jumper to put them up by a point at 65-64. After Xavier drilled a 3 on its next possession, Kasen Jennings hit a difficult contested layup in the paint to tie it.
Both teams missed opportunities on their next possessions. Musketeer star Souley Boum missed a wide open uncontested layup on their end. On the Owls’ next possession, Terrell Burden snaked around defenders and missed a more difficult but ultimately uncontested layup. On the other end, the Owls initially blocked a Xavier layup but were called for a questionable foul after Colby Jones’ offensive rebound.
The Owls had one last chance. Burden as he had been doing all game, got past his initial defender and had a look at the rim. But Jack Nunge was prepared, stepped over from his defender and rejected Burden’s layup off the glass at the last moment. It appeared that Jennings had the best chance at a rebound, but had it wrested free with some amount of arm contact from the defense. Xavier ultimately secured the ball, got fouled, made both free throws and held on when Kennesaw stepped out on their attempted heave.
Youngblood finished with 14 but fouled out and wasn’t on the floor at the end of the game. Burden also had 14, as nine different Owls scored, but it wasn’t quite enough to stop Souley Boum, Nunge, Jerome Hunter and the talented Musketeers.
Burden took it in stride at the end of the game.
“It was definitely designed that play … it was honestly a great play by [Nunge] to meet me at the rim, and although it didn’t end the way I’d like it to end, it’s more experience for me, and I’ll take it as an opportunity for next time,” he said.
This undoubtedly sucks for fans of the underdog, but such a performance – not just for the game, but for the season – needs to be put in perspective. Kennesaw was an absolute nothing program for years. Its population grew, it gained stature in other sports, but basketball had not yet had that transformation. In four short years, people are thinking about the Owls’ men’s basketball program completely differently.
Abdur-Rahim got them to buy in. People will think twice about writing them off in Conference USA. Abdur-Rahim is one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel now. Alex Peterson and Spencer Rodgers were being asked questions postgame about the amazing transformation of the program after they chose to transfer in a couple of years ago. People wouldn’t have thought this was possible four years ago.
Burden was on the team that just won a single game his freshman year. The first question directed his way was also about the way the program has changed in his four years, not about his last second layup that didn’t go.
“I learned so much about life … I was blessed to be in this position right here, to be with this group of guys throughout the years, I can’t ask for anything more,” he said.
There is a following where there was none before. If you watched the ASUN Championship game, you saw it in full force.
“Four years ago, there were maybe 350 people in the stands, and half of them were friends and family,” the Owls’ coach said. “For Owl Nation to show up and show out like they did today, just like I told my guys I don’t want them to hang their heads, I don’t want [Owl Nation] to hang their heads.”
So, salute to you Owls.
You’re making believers of everyone — from us bunkering down here at mid-major basketball blogs to casual fans tuning in just this weekend to the big time programs that saw you play. Coach Abdur-Rahim summed it up perfectly, as he sat down at the postgame presser, he had the biggest smile on his face.
“First thing I’m gonna say is this. How about them Kennesaw State Fighting Owls.”
How about ‘em indeed.