When the men’s basketball team lost to Washington University on Sunday, Feb. 3, the Yellowjackets knew they had to win the rest of their games to have a chance of making the NCAA Division III Tournament.

UR fulfilled its end of the bargain with a 51-44 victory over Carnegie Mellon University last Saturday. The selection committee rewarded the Yellowjackets on Sunday with a bid ? and a first-round bye.

“I thought there was a possibility that it could go the way it did,” head coach Mike Neer said. “Anytime you have a selection, there are going to be unhappy people left out. Because they had to take five independent teams, it really made for some tough at-large choices.”

UR (21-4) beat out several other 20-win teams, including Franklin and Marshall College (22-5), Capital University (23-5) and Hanover College (21-4). Meanwhile, Cazenovia College (16-10) earned a bid as an independent team.

“I’m sure one of the things they’ll be asking the NCAA Div. III championships committee to review is whether five independents is an appropriate number.”

The selection process had some added drama, as tough choices delayed the announcement of the field of 48 by an hour.

“Everyone was pretty nervous because we knew we were on the bubble,” sophomore forward Andy Larkin said. “It was just a nerve-wracking experience when they pushed it back an hour.”

Sophomore center Brian Jones listed off what he felt when the field was finally announced, “excitement, enjoyment, relief. Just a whole bunch of emotions ? very happy.”

Relief was a pretty unanimous feeling among the Yellowjackets.

“To have such a good year and still be nervous about making the tournament, it’s a relief to finally be in,” freshman forward Seth Hauben said.

UR will face the winner of Thursday night’s game between Cazenovia and Williams College at the Louis Alexander Palestra at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The opportunity to play at home should not be overlooked. UR is 12-1 at home this season, and the one loss was by two points to the No. 2 team in the nation, Washington University, at the buzzer.

“Having a home game in any round is huge for us,” junior guard Jeff Joss said. “Especially with the fan support we have here. I feel bad for the teams that have to come in and play us on a weekend night.”

Tickets to the game, which is the first NCAA Tournament game at the Palestra in 10 years, are $4 for adults and $3 for students, senior citizens and children.

“Hopefully, we can get a large turnout,” Larkin said. “The Palestra this year has been a place where teams kind of fear coming in.”

UR’s last appearance in the NCAA Tournament was in 1999. The Yellowjackets have gotten a bid to the tournament seven times under Neer’s guidance, including three years in a row in the early ’90s. UR won a national championship in 1990 and was the runner-up in 1992.

“It is thrilling to be in the hunt for an NCAA title after all the work that everybody put into preparing for and competing this season,” junior guard Tim Sweeney said. “We need to really focus in on Saturday’s game only and let the cards fall as they may.”

The Yellowjackets almost lost the opportunity to play for another national championship before the bids were even announced. UR trailed Carnegie Mellon by 10 points with 10 minutes left before going on a 21-3 run.

“I never once thought that we might lose,” Joss said. “We’ve been doing this all year ? getting ourselves into a hole early in the game and having to scratch and claw til the last minute in order to get the win.”

The win over Carnegie Mellon was also the 400th career victory for Neer. The players and coaches had a cake decorated with a big 400 on it for Neer after the game. Assistant coach Adrian Smalls was in charge of the cake.

“It must have crossed his mind while we were struggling in the third quarter that we were just going to have this cake in the freezer until the next opportunity,” Neer said. “Fortunately, Carnegie didn’t close us out.”

UR did get some bad news over the weekend. Senior forward Kyle Leach broke his foot in the first half of the game against Carnegie Mellon and will miss the tournament. Leach played 100 games in his four-year college career and averaged seven points per contest.

“There really isn’t any disappointment for me,” Leach said. “Our team set a goal to get a bid to the tournament and we achieved that.”

“Our second goal is now at hand ? winning a championship. It was exciting to make it here as a freshman and I have worked hard to get back here. I am gonna enjoy this moment regardless of if I can play or not.”

High expectations

Leach’s injury did not dampen UR’s expectations for the tournament, however. The consensus among the Yellowjackets was that they could go deep into the bracket.

“Our best basketball is still in front of us,” Larkin said. “This is a team with a whole lot of potential and we’re going to be tough to beat.”

The Yellowjackets may have lost that game to Washington at the buzzer, but at the same time they won the confidence that they could compete with the best teams in the country.

“We have all the necessary pieces to win big games. We’ve proven that on a number of occasions this year,” Joss said. “As long as the team plays in character and doesn’t try to do anything out of the ordinary, there’s no telling how far we can go.”

This year’s tournament appearance could be the beginning of a run similar to the one the Yellowjackets made from 1990-1992. Leach is the only senior on the team and, while he provided important veteran leadership, his on-court contributions were not irreplaceable.

“It’s crossed my mind that we have a strong nucleus that could have a lot of success the next couple years,” Neer said. “I’m not going to try to quantify that because funny things can happen.”

“It’s harder to make it to the NCAA tournament now than it was 12 years ago. I told the players we could be better next year and not have as good a chance to get in.”

The field for the NCAA Tournament was 60 teams in the early ’90s, but has since been cut to the current size of 48. UR will wait until the offseason before looking toward next season, however.

“Lots can happen over one summer, for better and for worse,” Joss said. “Right now, I’m coming into this game with the understanding that this may be my last chance to play in an NCAA Tournament.”

Jacobs can be reached at bjacobs@campustimes.org.

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