A shot up in the air, NCAA berth on the line, a life’s lasting accomplishment within reach … the ball never comes down.
Now you get to figure out how to live with that forever, not let it gnaw right through you. John Gallagher, Cardinal O’Hara and St. Joseph’s graduate, 10th season as Hartford’s head coach, gets to work on that. Not quite within a shot of March Madness but a game. Check the schedule, America East championship, Hartford at Vermont.
“This takes away memories," Gallagher said over the phone Friday. “There’s no memories anymore, good or bad.”
He meant from the entirety of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. The need to shut things down, they get it, Gallagher said, his players, coaches, “everybody gets it,” the severity of this coronavirus pandemic, the need for immediate social distancing.
It’s the rest of it they’ve got to figure out. Gallagher was heading to the office, he said, to “try to map out a future that is unmappable.” Meanwhile, thoughts start to gnaw.
“We didn’t lose, and we didn’t win," Gallagher said. “That’s the hardest part for me to put my head around.”
We’ll all never know what we didn’t see. Imagine if this had broken out in 2016, canceling that NCAA Tournament. Kris Jenkins never takes a jump shot inside a football stadium in Houston. Maybe there would have been nothing approaching that drama, but the Dayton Flyers, just for instance, would love to have found out.
We won’t get to see if Swarthmore could finish out a dream season, now stopped three games short of a national title game that was to be held in Atlanta between the Final Four semifinals and the Division I title game. Same for Division II. Imagine if Hall of Famer Herb Magee could have gotten Jefferson there, what a tale that would have been, maybe better than anything Division I could have conjured up.
We don’t get to see Joe Mihalich, pride of La Salle, get Hofstra back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001. At least Hofstra earned the bid, though. At least Penn graduate Andy Toole got to cut down another net with his Robert Morris squad.
At least Matt Langel got to find out … not this year, after Colgate was cut down in the Patriot League title game.
Imagine being Lamar Stevens, Roman Catholic High graduate, seven points shy of being Penn State’s all-time leading scorer, knowing you had at least one Big Ten tournament game and one NCAA game to get there. Beyond that, knowing you were finally going to experience an NCAA tournament game. “Heartbroken,’’ Stevens tweeted.
Patrick Chambers, a survivor like Gallagher, finally getting Penn State to the Big Dance. Canceled.
No possibility of South Carolina vs. Oregon, a dream matchup in the NCAA women’s tournament. Dawn Staley, pride of North Philly, seeing if she could win a second title. (Sure, she’ll take being No. 1 at the end of the regular season. Maybe even hang a banner. Not the same.)
Everybody gets it. Had to be done. We’ll just never know …
Joe Lunardi, inventor of this thing called bracketology, went ahead and put out a bracket of the field as he would have done it. Villanova, coached by Jay Wright, vs. Hofstra, which used to be coached by Jay Wright. That would work. Penn State facing the winner if the Nittany Lions got there. Yes, perfect.
Lunardi had Seton Hall and Myles Powell in Albany, too. And Indiana sneaking in to get to Albany, with Bruiser Flint as a Hoosiers assistant.
Dayton was a No. 1 seed. Who wouldn’t have been rooting for the Flyers? Another Philly guy, Samir Doughty, at the Final Four last year with Auburn, could have gone again.
The most unpredictable of sporting events seemed so wide open for craziness this season, before it ended with the most unfathomable story line of all.
“I was sitting in my kitchen," Gallagher said when he got a phone call from Penn coach Steve Donahue.
Donahue told him he wouldn’t be playing that conference final, even in an empty gym. Why not? Donahue told him about Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz testing positive for coronavirus, how the NBA was shutting down for some undetermined time.
“Just tell me," Gallagher said.
Put Gallagher down in that survivor’s club, give him a good seat up front.
“Amen, you don’t have to move me," Gallagher said. “I was almost fired twice. I now have a long-term contract. Three straight winning seasons. They’ve never had three straight winning seasons in the history of the school.”
Ancient history at the moment.
“A year happened in a day," Gallagher said. “Tuesday’s win at Stony Brook feels like a year ago.”
Gallagher always tells his guys what his old boss at Lafayette, Fran O’Hanlon, used to preach.
“The last game of your career … when you have that jersey on," O’Hanlon would say. “You have a spiritual experience when you take that jersey off and it’s not going back on. Make sure you understand that and really savor it.”
Instead, no closure. All over, the jersey doesn’t go on to come off.
“My players don’t get that spiritual experience," Gallagher said.