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Date Posted: 13:42:24 12/20/05 Tue
Author: J.J.
Subject: This Time, Attention Is On The Struggle

Jeff Jacobs
December 20 2005
The games were lost. The day was not.

The day was remarkable.

On the surface, they were two ordinary college basketball games. Division I games, but not Top 25 encounters, not the kind that ordinarily find their way onto ESPN's "SportsCenter." But they did find their way there and they did because, believe it or not, even in 2005 sports are not always about the W's and the L's.

Sometimes it's about the struggle.

Sometimes it's as simple as competing the way you wish teams always would compete. Sometimes it's as simple as a team finally getting to go home again.

One game was in New Britain.

The other was in New Orleans.

One made little history.

The other made significant history.

Central Connecticut played in both games Sunday, lost both, and once the Blue Devils and their coaches allow those defeats to settle into the dustbin of their memories, they will relish this day. Twenty-four hours was still a little too soon.

The Central men lost 107-106 at home to unbeaten La Salle in quadruple overtime on a desperation heave and a referee's whistle. It wasn't a good game. It was a great game. It also was the longest in La Salle's history, one that includes Tom Gola and a 1954 national championship. As best as the available records could show, it was the longest in Central history, too. The teams pushed each other to exhaustion.

"I just watched the tape of the game and I think the result hurt more today than the actual game day," coach Howie Dickenman said Monday. "But the appreciation for the effort and energy was even greater than I realized.

"I had never been involved in anything like this."

The Central women lost 72-60 at Tulane and their part in this story has nothing to do with an ending. It has everything to do with a beginning, a rebirth of a great town. This was the first sporting event - pro or college - held in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck in late August.

Tulane closed for the fall semester. Budget cuts and layoffs have struck deep at the school. Half the varsity sports have been eliminated. The other half have been scattered to campuses around Louisiana and Texas. The women's basketball team attended and played at Texas Tech before returning to New Orleans Thursday. The athletes will make do until school reopens Jan. 17.

More than 800 fans took advantage of the admission price - free - at Fogelman Arena Sunday, but, surely, the moment for Tulane had to be priceless.

"Obviously, we went there to win," Central coach Yvette Harris said. "But you couldn't help but feel their excitement to be home. The way the fans cheered for the kids and the coaches, it had to be an awesome homecoming."

Before her team left for the Big Easy Saturday, Harris said she hoped her players would learn something about life from this trip. She hoped they would realize how blessed they are.

"I think it was a little shocking to them to see some of the devastation," Harris said. "We passed through some areas pretty severely hit. They still don't have working street lights. You can see big trees uprooted and all the trash from the homes.

"I was in New Orleans during the summer recruiting and it was such a bustling, upbeat place. Now it's a shell of its former self. That's the part stunning to me. I hope and pray they get the city back together."

Originally booked for the Ambassador, the team was moved to the Marriott Convention Center. Nearby were the huge ships, still housing firefighters, policemen and city workers. The team rushed to finish practice at 7:30 Saturday night so they could find a place open to eat.

"There aren't the workers or the population to keep things open yet," Harris said. "Our bus driver was saying a city of a half-million is only 60,000 to 80,000, that more than 100,000 homes were destroyed."

Because of the reduced flight schedule out of New Orleans, the team couldn't leave Sunday night. On Monday, their flight to St. Louis was delayed and redirected to Chicago. At 6 p.m., Harris and her team were sitting in O'Hare hoping to be home at 9.

The men weren't traveling Monday, but they didn't practice either.

"I'm not so sure what we'd do anyway," Dickenman said. "We'd have guys crawling around on their knees. I told them to get some fresh air. We'll start up again [today].

"After the game, I told them from the bottom of my heart I was as proud of them as I could be. We had three or four guys somewhat distraught emotionally. I felt badly for them. I told each of them to go look in the mirror and they'd see someone who had given everything he had."

There were too many vital possessions to count and some remained a blur. Dickenman remembers four of his players diving for the ball on one play. He remembers point guard Justin Chiera, exhausted, pushing on for 59 of 60 minutes. He remembers La Salle's Steven Smith, an NBA first-round prospect, taking over the game with a career-high 41 points. He remembers his Blue Devils refusing to wilt. La Salle didn't wilt either.

The sad part was somebody had to fall, and it came in a particularly cruel way. With Central ahead 106-102, Smith hit a three with 8.6 seconds left. Central's Javier Mojica missed two free throws with 5.2 seconds left. Without a timeout, Darnell Harris raced down court and threw up a desperation three. No good. Central began to celebrate.

Not so fast.

Referee Mike Marino called a foul on Mojica.

Officials conferred with CN8 television. The main shot, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, didn't have the clock superimposed. A hand-held camera at midcourt showed Harris was clearly outside the arc, the ball had left his hands and there was one-tenth of a second remaining. Replays seemed to show minor contact.

"I have some questions about how much effect it had on the shot - a 25- to 30-footer in desperation - and should the outcome be determined on that particular call?" Dickenman said. "I did speak with the head of the NEC officials [Edgar Cartotto] and am sending him the tape. I'm not complaining. I want his opinion."

Harris missed the first free throw.

He made the second.

He won the game with the third.

"Wow," Dickenman said. "It was painful."

In New Orleans, Yvette Harris clicked on the television.

"I see Howie standing there with President Miller sitting behind him," she said. "I'm like, `Wow. How crazy is this? A small school like Central to have both their teams on `SportsCenter?'"

Sometimes the struggle is recognized, Yvette.

Sometimes perspective is there.

All is not lost.

E-mail: jjacobs@courant.com
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant

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