Saturday, January 2, 2010

MBB: Decade of the 2000's - Heartbreakers

When Kevin Conway and I talked about making these lists - if you even want to call them lists - of the best Panther basketball moments of the 2000's, we were all over the map. We could truly make a top-10 list and count down from 10 to 1, but aren't the top couple of moments for each team pretty obvious (i.e. NCAA Tournaments)?

So we set more down the path of putting together a list of 10 things, topics, even players and moments to look back on the decade. We also talked about tying it in - at least sometimes - to the game(s) going on at the present time for the Panthers. As Conway noted in his first entry Saturday morning, he started by writing about Traci Edwards because some of her notable accomplishments came against Youngstown State, whom the women beat Saturday.

For this first entry, I was going to write about all of the great battles between UWM and Butler in the last decade. There was a little bit about that in my game notes for Saturday's contest. But I've decided to hold that until we play Butler the second time around, because Thursday's loss at Valpo got me to thinking about another subject from the decade ... the most heartbreaking losses. So, I took a little extra time to recollect along those lines.

Now, I don't mean to go negative on the first list. But, let's face it, you can't have heartbreak unless it means something to begin with, and this list certainly reminds me how many really, really important games the Panthers played in over the last 10 years. You can't win them all, sometimes you get absolutely steamrolled (another list for another time, maybe?), but many other times you are right there and it just slips away.

So, how about the most heartbreaking losses of the decade ..?

A few are obvious ...

Heading into Hinkle Fieldhouse, as we did Saturday, you can't help but be reminded of Avery Sheets burying a three at the horn to give the 2003 Horizon League regular season title to the Bulldogs instead of the Panthers. Justin Lettenberger had hit two free throws to put Milwaukee ahead before BU rushed down the floor and won the game. At that moment - OK, for a lot of long moments after that - it felt like the dream season of 2002-03 had been crushed. But, only 10 days later, UWM rolled past Butler at the Cell to win the league tournament (remember, UWM had hosting rights even after finishing second as the tourney format was in transition). Did that make up for not also winning the regular season title? I'd say probably not, but it sure made it easier to take.

Read my original account of the game here.

Just a week earlier, there was another heartbreak. Do you remember the name Stetson Hairston? His tip-in gave Southern Illinois a two-point win over UWM in the first-ever BracketBusters. It was the first-ever national TV appearance for the Panthers, and it was an amazing game in front of a full house in Carbondale. UWM was down 16, took the lead late, but was done in by a tip in.

The account of that game is here.

That season included another game that would fight for the top spot on the all-heartbreaker list ... the 70-69 loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers overcame a slow start, led late, and then missed a layup at the horn that would have won the game. From where I was sitting alongside Chuck Lang behind the Panther bench at the RCA Dome, you could see those final seconds develop in a "this is too good to be true, we're gonna win!" kinda way. And then the ball rolled off.

The AP story from that game is here. I guess was too heartbroken to write my own story!

Those all come from the same 2002-03 season, I guess a sign the Panthers could have won a few more games than the 24 they did that year. But how about from some other seasons?

Remember the return of Bo Ryan to the Klotsche Center in December of 2001? UWM had the ball in a tie game, but Devin Harris made a steal and layin to win it for the Badgers.

In that same year, the Panthers blew a big late lead and lost, 73-71, at UIC on a 35-footer by Martell Bailey. As you just might recall (of course you recall), there was quite a feud between BP and Jimmy Collins, and that was one of Jimmy's highlights in the battle. My bigger memory is of then-official Sam Lickliter getting absolutely flattened by a UIC male cheerleader that rushed on the court when the game-winner went in. I note I did not mention that in my original recap.

Go back one year before at UIC, and the Panthers and Flames played in the longest league game ever - a 4 OT contest that UIC won, 112-106.

A few other "honorable mention" additions to the list ... how about the 72-71 loss at Valpo in December of 2004? That Panther team was unbeaten going in, and Valpo was winless. UWM bounced back to go to the Sweet 16 - something that seemed miles away that night. And I was being kind when I called the referee's judgement "controversial" at the end of that game. I even remember which of the three referees listed in the box score made the call, though I'll leave that aside today in the spirit of forgiveness. But maybe I could come up with a "worst calls ever" list at some point, too.

Certainly the league tournament title-game loss to UIC in 2004 was a tough one to take, but there was also the quarterfinal loss at Wright State in 2001. It turned out to be Bo Ryan's final game at UWM. And, there's a great freshman-year picture of Ronnie Jones in the recap.

Finally, one more honorable mention takes us back to Hinkle Fieldhouse for the February 2006 loss to the Bulldogs. It also takes me to another game that could land on the "worst calls ever" list, now that I think about it. Check out the measured quote from Rob in the recap. I get angry just thinking about it again now!

Anyway, UWM looked like it was ready to put another league title on ice, but BU's last-second heroics struck again to force OT. Butler went on to win in OT and nearly stole the league title from UWM. Alas, Butler suffered its own heartbreak a month later, losing at the buzzer to Detroit and falling from the top seed to the second seed in the league tournament. The Panthers went on to win the league tourney title and then beat Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament, turning heartbreak into happiness.