So as Detroit rolls into town tonight for a key Horizon League contest, it brings to mind the title-game matchup between the Titans and Panthers in 2005. Thus, today’s entry in looking back at the last decade will focus on the four league title games UWM played in.
I don’t figure I need to go in-depth recapping each of the games, though I do have links to the recaps below.
That Detroit game holds a lot of meaning, of course, because without a win there the Panthers’ magical Sweet 16 run would have never happened. For that matter, one could argue Bruce Pearl may not have gone to Tennessee that season if the Panthers only went to the NIT (though that argument may or may not be true). Of the three title games UWM won, it was the only one that was close down the stretch. In fact, it was a struggle throughout, and I think for most of us evoked memories of the loss to UIC in the title game a year earlier.
And, really, that is what I remember more than anything else about it – the pressure. I don’t recall if the pressure was tangible in the week leading up to the semifinals, and I thought the Panthers played very loose against Loyola in the semifinals. But, when you combine the loss the previous season with a team that actually beat UWM at the Cell that season, it nearly turned the situation into an unpleasant one.
I was actually standing with Deidre Merritt in the corner behind the Detroit bench as the game wound down – no way I could sit still during that game. And, while the details are a bit sketchy, I think we both jumped as high as we possibly could when Brandon Cotton missed that last shot. It was excitement and relief all wrapped into one, and who would have predicted just how great the next two weeks would be?
Should I get the bad one out of the way next? That loss to UIC in 2004 really didn’t come as much of a surprise, I suppose. The Panthers really struggled over the final month of the season, and even the semifinal win over Detroit in Indianapolis was a taffy-pull. But, with the Panthers coming back home and all of the talk of the rivalry between UWM and UIC, maybe the stars were aligning.
Instead, my lasting memory of that night is that UWM never really had it. Sure, the Panthers still could have pulled it out and Ed McCants actually had a really good look at the long game-tying three.
I’ll also remember that we rolled the dice as a staff on the fact the Panthers would even host the tournament final. If you will recall, the league format was in transition and Butler was the host so long as it was in the tourney. UWM beat Detroit in what was the first semi in Indy, while UIC eventually knocked off sixth-seeded Butler in the second semi. But, regardless of how either of those games had turned out, we had already purchased a Sunday newspaper ad promoting the title game in Milwaukee. So, we almost had our own “Dewey Beats Truman” moment, but I think it’s a risk we would take again tomorrow. And, in so many ways, it paid off, as to draw over 10,000 fans when there was basically three days – rather than 10 days or even weeks as was the case in other years - to sell tickets was really something.
Speaking of almost not hosting, that would also be true of the 2006 title game. Remember, after UWM had run out to a big lead in the league standings, the Panthers went into the final week needing to win AND have Butler lose. Detroit played a key role in both, as the Panthers beat the Titans during the week before UDM knocked off Butler that weekend. That gave the Panthers the outright league title and hosting rights.
What is most striking about that year, though, is just how dominant UWM was in its two tournament games. In all three previous league tournaments that saw the Panthers play in the final, they were challenged at least once. But not this year.
Just three weeks earlier, there was panic, as Adrian Tigert got hurt and Milwaukee lost back-to-back games. But, AT was healthy (healthy enough to be tournament MVP!) and the Panthers rolled.
There was some relief again, certainly, as the pressure was high all season for UWM to live up to the lofty expectations. But, in the end, the Panthers were just a lot better than everyone else. And, include the first round of the NCAA Tournament in that discussion, too, because it was no upset that UWM knocked off Oklahoma.
But I saved the best for last, because I just don’t think anything can match the exultation of getting to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Trust me when I say this – in 2003, no one had any idea what we were getting into. Not in hosting the tournament … not in playing in that title game against Butler in front of the largest crowd you thought you would ever see cheer the Panthers on at home … not in jumping out to that big early lead and, quite honestly, celebrating during most of the second half … and not in the days to follow that led up to the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, the tournament was flawless, if I may say so myself. But the people of Milwaukee deserve most of that credit, because the Horizon League never imagined the turnout it would have for that first tournament in Milwaukee. The media attention, the intensity of the fans, the true “March Madness” atmosphere … it really put the Horizon League Tournament on the map.
And, could you have written a better script as far as how the game went? Nerves had to be high among everyone … was this too good to be true … could UWM really make the NCAA Tournament? Then, the Panthers scored the first 14 points and it was never a ballgame. Simply perfection on all fronts, and something everyone associated with it will never forget.