The Not So Sweet Sixteen

While the digital numbers on the New Orleans Superdome scoreboard transformed from seven to six during the NCAA championship game in 1987, no member of the crowd thought to watch the countdown. They knew it would be a close game and their attention was all where it mattered. As many NCAA tournament games promise, the court scene was driven by both sweat and pure intensity. In those last five seconds, millions of eyes followed the game ball as it swooshed through the hoop. “The shot”, as it was later dubbed, clenched the championship game for the Hoosiers, and for the Syracuse Orange, Keith Smart became the most despised player of all time. It was the shot that cemented the Hoosier’s second national title of the decade and completed the row of five banners now hung proudly across Assembly Hall.  But fans had no Assembly Hall banners to turnto in hopes of a comeback during Syracuse and Indiana’s last meeting. By 11 pm on Thursday March 28th at the Verizon Center of D.C. the mood was all but hopeful for another Hoosier championship title.

My bank account is now $210 short, and while her season pass lessened the financial cost of a Sweet Sixteen ticket, my friend Alex’s beat up Jeep now feels the weight of the 1200-mile voyage through the Pennsylvania hills. But for long time Indiana Hoosier fans, the distance and the money are sacrifices that go without question. That’s the spirit of the town, and the nature of both a townie and an IU student. The Indiana Hoosiers, finally merging from their 25-year hiatus, are back on the radars of Americans everywhere. Cody Zeller’s name rings at least a bell to any ESPN follower. So for those within his campus vicinity, the feeling of pride is like none-other—he, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Yogi Ferrell, and Will Sheehey have become the idols that have redeemed the school from its lull.

So that was the reason for traveling 1200 miles or spending twice my bi-weekly pay. And on the night of, feelings of disappointment and shock could still not shake the priceless opportunity of seeing my favorite team from the 20th row of the Verizon Center court-level floor.

The Marquette v. Miami game played earlier in the evening proved to be a lackluster game as far as competition; Marquette did not exactly sail by, but Miami fans began plotting their escape earlier than the final two minute mark, ready to part from the sea of orange ‘Cuse fans and shed the layers they were so unused to wearing under the Florida sun.

After trading in balcony tickets for first floor tickets, thanks to a solemn Miami couple, I was prepared for a game nothing like that of the previous, unless of course, Syracuse forfeit from the fight early.

After Zeller won the tip off, we were settled in for the game, prepared for the battle that could be a game of to and fro but would surely conclude with a three from Watford or a dunk from Oladipo that would send us on our way to the Elite Eight. But Oladipo had butterfingers; the ball was slipping beneath his grip, finding itself in a huddle of players, with an orange jersey always retrieving it in the end. And no player was making shots. Not one with a white jersey that is. The tall Syracuse line up seemed even taller in the light of the magnitude of the game. At 6’1” 184 pounds, Hulls matched on Syracuse’s Brandon Triche, 6’4” 210 pounds, just didn’t quite work out. By half time, Syracuse was up 34-22, and it was obvious that the Hoosiers played a broken first half under pressure.

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But the beginning of the second half caused uproars in the cream and crimson crowds. Hoosiers were coming back, winning rebounds, and putting up the ball as much as possible. They were aggressive, ready to get back in the game they had been working for all season. And then Syracuse picked up on what was going on; the Orange began to play just as well as they had in the first half, with a strong defense that the nerve-shaken IU players just couldn’t get passed.

And although the game unwound during the second half just like it had the first, not one particular player was to blame. While some may say Yogi Ferrell played the worst he ever has, the freshman starter had never experienced the high intensity of a Sweet Sixteen game, one where not only were the competitors tough but the stakes were high—tournament advancement was on the line.  Despite his final season lacking a scene nearly as memorable as his buzzer three against Kentucky in the 2011-2012 season, Christian Watford carried his weight in the last game of his career. He did almost as much as possible to offset the mistakes of other players, but of course, one player was not enough. Will Sheehey played as much time as any starter, as he often does. When Syracuse defense grew tiresome the second half, fans watched as Sheehey stood open on the outside, but his teammates never found him.  It was a mess, and during the last ten minutes of the game, both teams struggled to hold the ball. At best, it was a frenzy of keep-away and nothing more, mostly turnovers and few points, besides a fair share of fouls.

The once re-invigorated Indiana fans refuted back to their dismayed ways as it became clear that IU was not closing the score’s margin by more than nine for more than 30 seconds.  As optimistic as I am as a basketball enthusiast and Hoosier fan, I knew that the final minutes of the game would hold no surprise victory for Indiana. We were done. My fellow Bloomington native Jordan Hulls was done. As was Christian Watford, and very likely, Zeller and Oladipo from any NCAA roster. Then I heard a Syracuse fan repeating, “WOW we beat the best team in the nation. We beat Indiana. Best team in the nation!” Whether or not I believed his statement at the time, after watching the struggle, the Hoosiers had made their impact. The Hoosiers were an NCAA favorite because of the way they commanded the court; they entertained, worked hard, and responded to the cheers of their fans. They were no longer lovable because of their comeback status; after being predicted number one pre-season, they were very much recognized as a force to be reckoned with, but they never basked in the glory undeservingly. All season they worked for the applause. On Thursday March 28th, Syracuse deserved the Sweet Sixteen win, as would have Indiana had they played like the number one team they were ranked as.

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