SPORTS COMMENTARY

Colonials never had a fair shot

3/23/2014
BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The Robert Morris women’s basketball team did everything its schedule and its league asked.

The Colonials won the Northeast Conference regular-season and tournament titles. They won 21 games.

The NCAA tournament selection committee said, “Congratulations, great season. Now get lost.”

So Robert Morris got lost Saturday following the opening round of the Division I national championship tournament.

The Colonials fought hard. Their fans wore red and blue, jabbed their foam fingers into the air, and cheered like mad from start to finish. Their mascot, RoMo, an oversized creature who in another time and place might have made the call on “one if by land, two if by sea,” jumped around and danced hard.

It was all to no avail. In the blink of an eye the scoreboard said 18-4. And when it was over it said that Notre Dame was 51 points better. Irish 93, Colonials 42.

So, they got lost. Thanks for playing. Enjoy the offseason in Pittsburgh.

The NCAA women’s tournament may be a national championship. But it isn’t a fair fight, even on those rare occasions, like this one at Savage Arena, when opening-round games are played on true neutral sites.

For every No. 1 seed, you see, there is a No. 16 seed. And in the history of the women’s tournament a 16th seed has won exactly one time, which is one more time than it has ever happened in the men’s version.

Sal Buscaglia had a long day on Saturday, but he said he ‘wouldn’t replace one of my 12 players with any other player in America.’
Sal Buscaglia had a long day on Saturday, but he said he ‘wouldn’t replace one of my 12 players with any other player in America.’

In the women’s tournament, they spread the pain. In the 20 previous years that the NCAA has operated a 64-team bracket for women, the Nos. 14, 15, and 16 seeds have combined to compile a record of 1-239.

The Colonials couldn’t do anything to change that Saturday. They played with passion and without fear, but the Irish pounded the ball inside for 50 points in the paint and creamed the Colonials on the boards. Players came off the Notre Dame bench to score 42 points. There is a reason — or dozens of reasons — why the Irish are 33-0 and wear bling on their sneakers.

There is mid-major and there is really, really, really major.

Robert Morris’ Sal Buscaglia has been a head coach for 36 years at four different colleges and has won 676 games. And never, not once, not even in his dreams, has he suited up the kind of talent Muffet McGraw, the Notre Dame coach, did Saturday.

Buscaglia knew that when his team took to the court and he knew it when the Colonials headed back to the showers. The only thing that changed in those two hours is he fell even more in love with his ladies.

“I don’t care about the score of the game,” he said. “I wouldn’t replace one of my 12 players with any other player in America.”

He will have to replace a couple of them, whether he wants to or not, including senior standout Artemis Spanou who came off the court — battered and bruised by double-teams, even crowded by the occasional triple-team — with about one minute left into the arms of Coach Sal and everybody else on the bench, all of them long, almost heartbreaking hugs.

We could try to take you to Buscaglia’s postgame news conference, but the written word would not do it justice. We’ll just say he was fiery and passionate, his voice cracking at about every thought.

Had Spanou ever witnessed that emotion from her coach?

“He’s half Italian,” she said, apparently forgetting about the other half, which is also Italian. “So he’s emotional. I’m Greek, so I know a little about that.”

Buscaglia said Notre Dame “is an outstanding team … no question their goal is to win a national title. Notre Dame’s great. They’re elite. But just because we’re not Notre Dame, because we’re Robert Morris, doesn’t mean these ladies don’t do everything, EVERYthing Notre Dame’s players do.”

They just can’t do it as well, head to head.

Buscaglia felt his team could have competed “against a lot of the other seeds, the non-Notre Dame, non-Connecticut type teams.”

But that wasn’t the Colonials’ fate. Last Monday, when the NCAA selections flashed on the TV screen, it said No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 16 Robert Morris.

There can’t be one seed without the other, and it is never a fair fight.

So get lost.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.