Coaches often make a point for their players to focus on one thing and one thing only – the next matchup. ‘Keep your heads up and on straight,’ they say, or ‘don’t let that loss get to your head.’ During the grinding season, that may be a nonissue. After all, Wofford finished the normal year with several consecutive weeks of Thursday and Saturday contests. With such a slate at hand, there really is no room for sentimentality.
When a loss sends you home from the NCAA tournament and effectively puts an abrupt end to your season – no matter how good it seemed to be going or how many pieces were falling into place – it’s certainly different. Different for the fans, different for the coaches, the players – you know it means a world of dissimilarity for seniors, who ultimately just donned their uniforms for the final time.
If anyone would be tortured by an ending, it would certainly be them, right? Not necessarily. A team’s responsibilities are shared, and when failure occurs, the entire squad takes on the blame – no different, in fact, from success. How often have you seen a single player celebrate alone with a championship trophy? When has a coach ever discredited his team’s performance for the sake of his coaching abilities?
I've never seen it anywhere, and it certainly doesn’t happen at Wofford.
Many collegiate teams across the country have a slogan or mantra that grows to be associated closely with players, coaches, and even fans. Just glancing around the Southern Conference landscape, a few come to mind. Whether or not each squad ingrain that message in their collective mindset -- after all, it's what they aim to be -- is another question.
Obviously, they succeeded, because any team would need all three of those virtues to brave a season as arduous as the 2014-15 campaign. With its unorthodox start -- an opener against the Pac-12's Stanford that meant a large time difference, and an early-morning home game against Iona -- it looked to be a sign of what was to come: a season unlike any other.
It was that Iona contest, which opened up Wofford's nearly-immaculate slate at the BenJo, that served as a clear indicator as for the direction this program was headed in. For in 2013, the Terriers were bested by a margin of twenty-one points against the Gaels in Rochester, N.Y. Wofford's impressive showing against the MAAC foe this season just helped paint the picture of how much these players had matured and grown as a program.
As individuals, the proof was abundant. Take sophomore point guard Eric Garcia for example. As a freshman, he dished out an impactful 2014 league tournament performance, and followed it up by becoming a consummate leader of this team. The story may be overused now, but he did, in fact, fracture his jaw against West Virginia, and he did, in fact, come back and play through the pain a little over a week later against Duke.
While it may not be the same as playing through an injury, how many times have these players overcome a nagging personal slump, or -- better yet -- rebounded from a heart-wrenching loss as a team. One can only imagine the atmosphere inside the team bus as the Terriers made their way home after a three-point setback at The Citadel. Or how the home locker room at the BenJo must have felt after Chattanooga served Wofford a crushing loss.
The attitude, though, was admirable. Never once did we see two straight lapses in play, let alone one caused by an initial shortcoming. All season long, it was obvious that this group was focused on nothing more than the task at hand. What does it mean, though, when that task spells the end of your run?
Not that it should have been, however. For a squad that held their own and flexed their defensive muscle adequately enough to keep the game in close quarters throughout the entire matchup -- no more than five points separated the Terriers and Razorbacks -- the setback came as sudden and bitterly harrowing.
To many observers, though, much of what unfolded in the game's first half was the real surprise. From the beginning, the Terriers set their own tempo and were able to gain at least some control of the game's overall pace. When the halftime buzzer sounded, the Terriers had a one-point advantage and tensions began to tighten into a death grip at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The Razorbacks, with their work cut out for them, emerged from the locker room with fierce determination -- made obvious in players such as Michael Qualls, who led all scorers with twenty points. "We played with a little more passion, a little more urgency," Arkansas skipper Mike Anderson stated in a postgame press conference. "Our defense was making it tough on Wofford. Hats off to those guys."
Still, Wofford couldn't quite be shaken. One thing that was keeping them in the game was a strong rebounding performance; the Terriers crashed the offensive boards, with veteran possession-recycler C.J. Neumann leading the way, along with Justin Gordon and Spencer Collins. For every stride the Terriers completed, though, the Razorbacks were right there -- and in the end, the Terriers just "ran out of time," as Anderson put it.
Running out of time can be devastating. That shouldn't take away from what occurred in that time, though, and for a split second, those little old Wofford Terriers from Spartanburg, S.C., were on top of the world.