Robert Morris celebrated its second straight trip to the NCAA tournament on Wednesday. (AP)
HAMDEN, Conn. -- With 4:04 left in the Northeast Conference Tournament final, and his team leading Quinnipiac 44-43, Robert Morris forward Dallas Green made a plea to assistant coach Jimmy Martelli, who was sitting next to him on the bench. "Get me back in," Green said. "I'm going to win this thing again."
If you're unclear as to why Green was saying "again," queue up the YouTube of last season's NEC title game. Watch him hit the short jumper with 2.5 seconds left that breaks a 46-46 tie against Mount St. Mary's, and sends the Colonials dancing. Martelli was skeptical about a sequel; that highlight gave Green a clutch reputation, but the 6-foot-8 senior also entered Wednesday with the lowest scoring average of any Robert Morris starter, at 6.5 points per game.
"I was like, 'C'mon. You hit a shot last year, but relax,'" Martelli said. "But he told me, 'Coach, this isn't going to be my last game.'"
Head coach Mike Rice granted Green's wish by subbing him back in with 1:41 left, and the game tied 48-48. Green soon made good on his word.
In Green's heroic moment as a junior, the ball found him. Colonials guard Jeremy Chappell, the '08-09 NEC Player of the Year, fumbled it away on the final possession, and it went right into Green's hands. He simply rose and fired. The ball found him again as senior -- only this time, he made his big play on defense. The rules of Robert Morris's man-to-man D stipulate that players switch on screens set by everyone but the opposing center, and with the Bobcats down two (at 50-48) in the final 10 seconds, Green's mark, power forward Jonathan Cruz, set a stagger screen for Quinnipiac's leading scorer, James Feldeine. Green switched, and as Feldeine rose to shoot, Green rose with him, getting a hand on the ball. That block -- along with the two free throws Green calmly knocked down three seconds later, after Quinnipiac was forced to foul -- sealed a 52-50 win, and Robert Morris's second straight trip to the NCAAs.
As his mother, Regina, made her way to the floor at TD Bank Sports Center to rejoice with a small contingent of visiting Robert Morris fans, she was anything but calm. Her hands were shaking as she held her cell phone. "I'm so excited, I can't even answer any of these messages," she said of the texts piling up from relatives who'd seen the game on ESPN2. She was trying to dial Green's father, Tony, who was in Indianapolis. When he finally spoke to his son, he said what had happened was "deja vu."
Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore (left) hugs senior James Feldeine, who had a potential game-winning shot blocked. (AP)
Perhaps. But this postgame celebration wasn't nearly as festive as 2009's; that one had happened in the Colonials' home gym, and their students had rushed the court. Here in Hamden, the Robert Morris players posed for pictures on the mostly empty court as a stunned, dejected crowd looked on. Quinnipiac players sat slumped and crying on their bench. Wednesday was supposed to be the Bobcats' night; they had entered the NEC tournament as the No. 1 seed, and in their lone meeting with the Colonials this season, on Feb. 20 in Pittsburgh, won 87-79.
While Robert Morris has been to the NCAAs six times -- and was a No. 15 seed last season, losing to Michigan State in the first round -- Quinnipiac has never been to the NCAA tournament. This was supposed to be the coronation of an impressive rebuilding project by head coach Tom Moore, the former UConn assistant who took over in 2007, and it was difficult for him, in the aftermath, to see the game as just another step in turning the Q into a small-conference power. Moore hadn't wanted to wait 'til next year, and he seemed stunned at how the last few minutes had played out. "To be honest," he said, "I felt like we were going to win the game all night."
There were moments -- like when Bobcats forward Justin Rutty hit two free throws to tie the game at 48-48 with 1:41 left, or when they forced Robert Morris freshman Karon Abraham into a turnover with 20 seconds left, trailing by two -- where it truly did feel like the momentum was in Quinnipiac's favor. Had Feldeine, a senior who had 17 points in the game, got his final shot off clean, he might have been the tourney MVP, and we certainly would've witnessed a court-storming. But it was Abraham, a gutsy freshman, who took home the MVP honors, for scoring 16 in his first collegiate title game of any kind, and like Green, locking down on defense.
At midnight on the night before the game, Martelli had slipped a note under Abraham's hotel room door that said, "James Johnson: 28." It was in reference to the 28 points Bobcats guard James Johnson had scored against the Colonials on Feb. 20. Abraham found the note on Wednesday morning, and said to Martelli at breakfast, "Don't worry, coach, I've got it." At the end of the night, while sitting at the press conference dais waiting for questions from reporters, Abraham scanned a copy of the title game's stat sheet, got Martelli's attention, and pointed to the number he'd been looking for. The number was five. Johnson had scored just five points. Rice, Robert Morris's third-year coach, was sitting next to Abraham, and soon made a comment about the importance of D. "I think in 13 out of 15 one-bid leagues [last season], the team that finished 1st or 2nd in field-goal percentage defense goes to the NCAA tournament," he said. "If you don't defend in these one-bid leagues, you don't have a chance."