Greyhounds hang together, turn blues into an ode to joy

January 30, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

IN THE END, with the 31-game Division I losing streak over, the Loyola men's basketball team did its best and fitting impression of an NCAA Final Four champion. And a mob of college kids rushed onto the court at Reitz Arena to join the players in unabashed celebration.

In the dead of winter, the light of a new day had dawned.

"For me, I'm officially out of hell," said Loyola coach Scott Hicks.

His young team, which has played too many games this injury-marred season with seven or eight players, is now 1-18. And just like that, one win finally to their relieved credit, there was freshman Jamaal Dixon saying what you'd want any college athlete to say.

"It's a big weight off our backs, and Saturday, we hope to make the new streak two. We can go into the MAAC tournament. Anything can happen there," Dixon said.

One win and faith has been restored to such a degree, the kid was actually thinking, "Maybe, just maybe, we go farther than anyone thinks in the conference tournament, get that automatic bid. ... You never know."

Well, the coach knows. Loyola knew its best chance for ending the losing streak was last night against Marist, what with conference leaders Manhattan and St. Peter's next on the schedule. No wins there, but the point is, the biggest reason for playing this team sport had been achieved. Loyola hung together. It did not fray or fold under the weight of so many losses.

"I'm very proud of our team. Especially when you lose a big number of games over a very long period of time, there's a lot of negativity that can creep into your program," Hicks said.

"Our record's not very good, but I'll tell you what: We've got a lot of great kids. They learned a lot of life lessons this year. Every day we start, we think we have a chance to win. I think that's youth. But I give my kids a lot of credit. They hung together. The streak got magnified this week. A lot of negative press. They handled it with a lot of class."

Hicks received a slew of calls and e-mails from fellow coaches and parents of Loyola students. There was unwavering support for a good coach hampered by too many injuries and too many close games that a depleted Loyola could not nail down.

"Obviously, they've had a tough time of it," said Marist coach Dave Magarity. "Scott Hicks has handled it with a lot of class and dignity. He's a good coach, a good friend. We didn't want to come in here and be the ones they beat, but it was a horrible shooting night."

This is not usually the kind of scene you read about from the ranks of college basketball. A small Division I school that plays in one of the lesser conferences of Division I basketball, Loyola would not have gotten much coverage for last night's game against Marist if not for the near-epic losing streak, one that was dangerously close to tying the 33-game record held by Grambling State.

That's the sad reality of sports and the media and most of our ideas about what's a story.

Of course, that's assuming you looked at the now-finished plight of the Greyhounds and assumed it was a story about losing, about losers. Nothing could be farther from the truth, although it's so much easier to break the world down into such neat categories and here they were, the streaking Greyhounds, heading to infamy on a made-for-ESPN platter.

Of course, there's always the converse of the problem. You could peek a little deeper into the swarming mob at center court last night and see the opposite of everything that seems so big and bad and wrong with Division I sports, particularly these so-called money makers like basketball.

This is the same arena that has brought us disgraced coaches, recruiting scandals, grade fixing. This is the same category that brought us St. Bonaventure, another small Catholic college that last year imploded in a scandal after its players refused to finish the regular season since they had been banned from postseason competition for NCAA violations.

But then there was last night. Eighteen consecutive losses this season. Tack that onto all the ones from last season, too, and then start to wonder at what point a team full of freshmen and sophomores who had yet to taste any success would start to pack it in.

Not this team.

"This team is like a big family. We've got great chemistry. We never put our heads down," said sophomore guard Charlie Bell.

Don't get him wrong. The streak had to end. Before the game, he implored his teammates to jump on his back. He was determined to lead them, and that he did. Bell reeled off a game-high 25 points. He was, in a purely athletic sense - which has its moments and merits - brave.

"I thank my teammates. We believe in each other. When this was all over the news, we stuck together," Bell said.

It took a long time for the mob to stop cheering and jumping around the arena. TV cameras, friends and family were waiting for the Loyola team, too. Hicks hugged his wife and said he could now relax. After the win, he was headed out with some of his assistants and some of the Loyola community members for a bite to eat.

"And just smile. It's been hard to do that lately," he said.

His lessons were good ones. How college basketball is very similar to life. How you have to be unselfish and have to sacrifice and have to be there for the good of the team. The win was all-pervasive.

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