John Gallagher walked off the court, arms raised, fists clenched, looking more like he’d won an election than lost a basketball game by 24 points. He pointed to the hundreds of fans dressed in UHart red, bunched, maybe a little too close together, in the stands and his players followed.
So this is what Gallagher means by “the neighborhood.”
“I was surprised that there was so many people,” said Austin Williams, who spotted his parents in the crowd and can, for the rest of his life, say he scored 19 points in an NCAA Tournament game. “I looked out, it looked like the Red Sea.”
There wasn’t a UMBC miracle in the stars for the UHart men’s basketball team, but there didn’t have to be. Their loss to Baylor was pretty much typical fare for a No.1 vs. No.16 first-round game, but it was the experience that no one involved will ever forget.
“It was transformative,” Gallagher said. “I really believe this week was a four-year culmination and I don’t think the program is going to look back. I think we’re going to continue to win, we’re going to continue to recruit at a high level, and now I think we’re going to get a huge turnout with fans. We have a huge opportunity with branding, with ‘the neighborhood.’ It’s real.”
Only one person got to be John Gallagher this week. If he seemed like the luckiest, happiest, most life-loving person on the planet, well, maybe he was.
Seriously, Coach Gal was everywhere, was he not?. Morning news shows, a diary in The Courant, drive-time sports radio, every podcast in every basement from Tolland to Timbuktu. You half expected to see him wading ashore in an old Gilligan’s Island rerun, talk a little hoops, give The Skipper a pep talk and cadge a couple of million from the Howells for a new building.
He savored every second of his 15 minutes of national fame, and if you like college basketball in March, you did, too. This is why the tournament, with its field of 68 and automatic bids, became what it has.
During the week that began with the Hawks’ victory over UMass Lowell for the America East title last Saturday and ended Friday with the 79-55 loss to Baylor at Lucas Oil Stadium in the first round of the South Regional, we were told some of the stories that go untold when mid-majors are in the shadow of a program like UConn, which makes its tournament start Saturday night.
We learned the moving story of Traci Carter, who lost his little brother in a shooting in Philadelphia last summer and played to honor Semaj. We learned about alumni who were there when the school made what seemed like a Quixotic leap to Division I under the late Jack Phelan in 1984 and still care very deeply. And also those who hadn’t been exposed to it before got large doses of Gallagher’s endless optimism, so welcome in these troubled times.
“You can feel it,” Gallagher said, “you can feel it. A huge contingent of firefighters in Hartford reached out to me the last couple of days. CEOs, senators, the governor, the mayor, Luke Bronin. It’s transformative. You can’t put a price tag on this for our program or our university.”
Five years ago, Baylor was stunned in the first round by an extraordinary Yale team. The Bears were not to be fooled with here, not for too long, anyway. Hartford’s D.J. Mitchell landed awkwardly after a shot and injured his ankle 16 seconds into the game, putting the Hawks at even greater disadvantage. They took a 10-6 lead on Williams’ 3-pointer and the hundreds in the Red Sea erupted. Even in a cavernous NFL Stadium they made themselves felt, “louder than Baylor’s,” Gallagher said.
Baylor finished the half with a 13-1 run, to open a 16-point lead. Still, Gallagher danced and pranced and gesticulated on the sidelines, as if it were a one-point game. Still Mitchell had a smile on his face as he rode a golf cart out for the second half, and stomped the floor with his crutch when one of his teammates scored.
The Bears were all over the Hawks’ best player, Carter, making him work hard for 11 points, turning him over seven times, getting him in foul trouble. When Gallagher took him out for the last time, he and Carter had a good, long hug.
“I just said, ‘I love you man, this is so much fun, coaching you, I love you,’” Gallagher said, “and he just said, ‘Can you believe it?’”
When the final seconds of Oral Roberts’ win over Ohio State was shown on the big board, the Hartford fans erupted again. There was the first-round miracle this year. Maybe it will be Hartford’s one March day.
Oh, and there will be another day, because, when you enjoy a moment this much, why not come back for more? How ‘bout it? Same time, next year?
“I’m going to remember being there with my brothers, having that love and being out there,” Williams said. “It means everything to me. It’s a dream come true, I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a kid and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Just like Coach said, ‘We got a taste. We’re blood thirsty now.’ We’re just trying to get it again. We’ve got to run it back next season, for sure.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org