By Greg Stevenson
Six years after pulling off one of the most memorable and lasting upsets ever in the Big Dance, the Bison men’s basketball team took the court last Thursday in this year’s NCAA Tournament against a highly-favored, major conference foe with an All-American candidate. This year’s appearance was not so successful, with the Bison losing to the third-seeded Connecticut Huskies 81-52.
The Huskies had just completed a historic run of five victories in five days to win the Big East conference tournament. All year the Huskies’ offensive leader was Kemba Walker, All-American candidate and the fourth-leading scorer in the nation.
“Getting a chance to go toe-to-toe with arguably the hottest team in college basketball was going to be a great challenge,” G.W. Boon ’11 said. “But we welcomed the opportunity to play UConn.”
Early on, the undersized and slower Bison hung with a dominant UConn team. A three-pointer by Darryl Shazier ’11 gave the Orange and Blue a 5-3 advantage just a minute and a half into the game.
Despite an 8-0 Connecticut run after Shazier’s basket, the Bison kept the Huskies lead within six for the next eight minutes.
But after trailing by just seven after a three-pointer by Bryson Johnson ’13 at the eight-minute mark, the Orange and Blue went cold offensively, registering just one field goal for the remainder of the half. In that stretch, Walker contributed to all 12 points scored by the Huskies with four points and three assists.
In the second half, the Bison found no answer for the Huskies on either end.
An early 20-2 run by Connecticut put the game well out of reach for the Orange and Blue, who were still looking for a way to stop the Huskies’ potent offense. Only in the final minutes of the half did the Bison look like the team that had won 23 of 25 contests before its match-up with UConn. The Bison went on a 17-6 run to end the game.
“Going in, we were confident because we were successful all year playing our game and making adjustments for our opponents,” Johnson said. “Obviously it didn’t work out the way we planned, but UConn is a great team, and they showed it on Thursday night.”
After his magical performance in the Big East Tournament, Kemba Walker continued his amazing postseason run against the Bison. His 18-point, 12-assist, eight-rebound game left him just two rebounds shy of the eighth triple-double in NCAA Tournament history.
Connecticut exploited the size mismatch down low throughout the game. The Huskies outscored the Bison 30-12 in the paint and, led by Alex Oriakhi’s 12, out-rebounded the Bison 42-21. Mike Muscala ’13, who averaged over seven boards per game, grabbed just four against the Huskies.
“Playing in the NCAA Tournament was a life changing experience and something I will never forget,” Muscala said. “At the same time though, it made me even hungrier to get better, get us back there next year and win games. I know we can do it.”
That hunger will be the driving force behind the men’s basketball program getting stronger in the off-season to make 2011-2012 even better than this year. Next year’s squad has a lot to live up to, trying to repeat as Patriot League regular season and conference champions.
But for right now the Bison will enjoy the run that they had and cherish the memories they made for themselves and their fans.
“Every young basketball player watches March Madness growing up, wishing that one day they would get a chance to play on the big stage,” Boon said. “Finally, in my senior year, I got to fulfill my childhood dream.”