It finally happened.
After a quarter century journey chronicling the league’s bumps and bruises in the NCAA Tournament – and one excruciating near miss – FDU men’s basketball broke through in the most improbable manner possible and nabbed that elusive Round of 64 win for the Northeast Conference (NEC).
And then there were tears. Happy tears.
This one was for every NEC coach, student-athlete and administrator who had the same goal, but wasn’t able to realize it.
This one was for every current and former NEC staffer, who poured their energy into promoting NEC hoops year after year.
This one was for the underdog in all of us.
Back in 2005, Kyle Whelliston of the late, great Mid-Majority blog wrote a terrific article entitled, “How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The NEC.”
The piece started with this line:
“The Northeast Conference doesn’t try to be something that it’s not, and that’s refreshing. Their mission statement strives for “athletic achievement, academic integrity and development, community outreach, and a renewed emphasis on sportsmanship,” and there’s nothing in there about sending two teams to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.”
Now, while a 2-Bid NEC might set the world on fire, the league’s aspirations are not solely analytics based. They’re more nuanced than that.
Here’s eight words that sum them up.
Let’s be the best NEC we can be.
Our drive, our passion comes from that one sentence.
Kyle figured this out 18 years ago, and it hit home that an outsider captured the essence of what the conference truly stood for and where it hoped to go.
More on that later.
But while we’re at it, allow me a quick diversion to cut-and-paste this funky passage from the article.
“The NEC is cool, in that straight-from-the-streets underground fashion label kinda way. I bought a sexy black canvas drawstring baggie with the league’s sky-blue logo on it at the conference tourney last March (best four bucks I ever spent).”
Hey, if you want to call the NEC urban chic or suburban stylish or rural rebels, we’ll take it!
The NEC is not the Big Ten, nor will it ever be.
That’s fine by us.
But that doesn’t mean for 40 minutes, on a neutral court, with locals turning into FDU stans, that the NEC can’t go toe-to-toe with the best out there…and win.
FDU went into yesterday’s first round matchup against top-seeded Purdue and it’s 7’4” beast in the middle Zach Edey with a clear mindset.
• Accentuate our strengths
• Negate our weaknesses
• Make Purdue play the type of game it didn’t want to play
All the credit goes to Tobin Anderson and co. for believing, executing and making plays when it mattered most. (We see you Sean Moore!)
As the thrill of victory set in, the win made me reminisce about many of our NCAA reps during my time with the conference.
I remember sitting in Minneapolis watching the crowd turn on an Iowa State team loaded with future NBA players as an elite Howie Dickenman-led CCSU squad pushed them to the very end back in 2000.
I remember NEC Hall of Famer Jermaine Hall trying valiantly in 2003 to overcome a rough-and-tumble Pitt team that was simply the wrong matchup for the talented Seahawks.
I remember FDU being down by just one at the half in 2005 to a No. 1 rated Illinois team that featured Deron Williams and Dee Brown. In that game, legendary announcer Dick Enberg let out a slew of his signature “Oh My!” calls as the Knights took it to the Illini.
I remember the crowd in Philly abandoning hometown Villanova as Monmouth staged a strong second half comeback in 2006.
I remember the incredible 2008 Mount St. Mary’s team choosing to go up-tempo with No. 1 North Carolina and their four future NBA stars.
I remember in 2011 the first of the run-and-gun LIU squads dropping 89 points against UNC in a track meet if there ever was one.
And then there was 2010.
The one that got away.
That March saw Mike Rice and Robert Morris draw Villanova in a 2-15 matchup that was very much to the Colonials’ liking.
The RMU combo of tough-as-nails Velton Jones and the mercurial Karon Abraham had been balling all season, and Abraham, in particular rose to the occasion on that day in Providence.
Abraham built an entire highlight reel in 33 minutes of play as the Colonials took an eight-point lead into the final media timeout.
But it was not meant to be.
Villanova star Scottie Reynolds began hurling his body into RMU defenders in an attempt to draw fouls and tilt the game in their favor – I’m still salty about this – as he went to the line 16 times on the afternoon and eight times in the final four minutes alone.
The Wildcats sent the game to OT and it wasn’t decided until Mezie Nwigwe’s last second three-pointer was off the mark and Villanova escaped with a 73-70 victory.
The RMU-Villanova finish was screaming at me throughout the FDU game last night.
“The margin of error is razor thin.”
“Please don’t let this be decided on a late call.”
“They need to make plays.”
And make plays they did.
When Moore hit his top-of-the-key triple with just over a minute to play to give the Knights a five-point lead, the game was suddenly there for the taking.
Moore’s block on the other end denied the Boilermakers, inching FDU closer to history.
Then Demetre Roberts hit two free throws with eight seconds on the clock.
Is this really happening?
Yes! They did it!
FDU became just the second 16 seed to slay a top seed, and to say they slayed a giant would be an understatement.
It was a Knight for FDU, a Knight for the NEC and courtesy of Gene Hackman, “a Knight for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”
What made it even more memorable was hearing from those who have been a part of the NEC community over the years, from league admins to former conference staffers to TV talent to vendors to longtime friends.
The texts were endless.
These are the people who know how special the NEC truly is and why it means so much to the conference to finally have this moment in the spotlight.
People like @MrsNECHoopsRon, who has put up with a quarter century of ups and downs.
My son, a senior in SEC country who says very little, but excitedly FaceTimed me once the game went final, couldn’t have been prouder to be a part of the NEC last night.
He literally grew up at NEC games over the years and to share in that moment with him, a decade after the heyday of his Jason Brickman and Shane Gibson fandom, was a moment that will never be forgotten.
This conference has its own plans and aspirations, and would like nothing more than to rise up the proverbial KenPom ladder and seed line to not only put the league in a position to win NCAA games on a regular basis, but to also give our own Ryan Peters some more ammunition in his NEC Overtime! Blog articles!
But progress isn’t always a linear process and external forces can add to the challenges in a sport that is the highest priority in nearly every conference.
It’s true that life as an underdog can be grueling.
But when you get hit, you get up and keep moving forward.
That’s what the NEC does best.
After FDU’s historic win, that fighting attitude brought me back to those eight words.
Let’s be the best NEC we can be.
We do our best to provide NEC student-athletes with the best possible experience.
We surround them with people who care for their well-being and are invested in their success both on and off the court.
We trust the process.
Last night, there was a payoff, and I’m truly grateful that so many in and around the league are sharing in the glow of FDU’s win.
Kyle Whelliston wrapped his Mid-Majority article 18 years ago with the following.
“Somewhere in this league, there’s a book waiting to be written. It might even be better than the cavalcade of player and coach profiles that made up The Last Amateurs.
The games will be played no matter what, it’s true. But without a poet laureate to immortalize the NEC, its story will fade further into silence as the years go by, just like so many other deserving ones.”
That can’t happen, and if someone writes a book, it has to be me, right?
There are so many stories to tell.
So many special student-athletes to chronicle.
So many underdog tales to unearth.
Well, when I write that book, it will all start with last night.
A Knight to Remember.
Definitely leading with Last Knight.