Enjoy The Journey ...
By Paul Meyer
March 9, 2011
Moon Township, Pa. - Gary Wallace is winding down a Robert Morris University career jam-packed full of ups.
"It's been a great situation,'' the senior said early this week. "It's been a unique ride.''
In his four seasons, Wallace has played in more games than any other Colonial ever - 133.
He's been involved in 91 wins - again more than any Colonial ever.
His teams have won 58 regular-season Northeast Conference games. Once again, that's the highest total for any Colonial ever.
His teams won or shared the NEC regular-season championship in his first three seasons and finished third this season.
He played in a National Invitation Tournament game as a freshman, then played in NCAA Tournament games in each of his next two seasons.
And Wednesday night he'll play in his third consecutive NEC championship game. If he and the Colonials win at Long Island, he'll be part of an unprecedented third consecutive NEC championship team.
Just ponder that for a moment.
All of this certainly is something Wallace could not have dreamed of when he began his career at RMU.
"I don't think anybody could have dreamed this,'' Wallace said. "It's something I'll never forget.''
Wallace also won't forget his senior spring break, which he'll have spent most of in New York City.
Well, Brooklyn, N.Y., anyway.
"Spring break, New York City, the NEC championship game,'' RMU coach Andrew Toole said. "I think they're going to make a reality series about it.''
In these times, maybe somebody will.
Thing is, the Colonials' presence in New York during their spring break has an air of unreality about it.
Ponder this for a moment.
This is a team that lost five seniors from last season's 23-12 club that came this close to beating Villanova in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Wallace is the only senior. Junior college transfer Lawrence Bridges is the only junior. The rest of the team is comprised of freshmen and sophomores.
It lost leading scorer Karon Abraham for four games in late November and early December because the sophomore was suspended for violating team rules.
It lost Bridges for four games at about the same time because he sustained a concussion at Cleveland State Nov. 29.
It lost Abraham again five minutes into the game at Monmouth Feb. 19 when he tore his Achilles tendon. He won't return until next season.
Heck, even Wallace missed almost all of two games in early January because of a broken finger.
And on Feb. 8, just a month ago, Robert Morris found itself foundering at 10-12 overall and just 6-6 in the NEC.
Back then, these Colonials seemed like anything but a team that would wind up playing for the NEC championship.
"But if you looked at our games, you could see we were just a little bit away from being a championship team,'' Toole said.
Toole's team then found that "little bit'' it needed.
It tweaked its offense and began making the extra passes that led to higher percentage shots. Over its past 10 games, for example, RMU has shot 47.9 percent from the floor. It's shot 46.1 percent from beyond the arc.
A team that scored 60 points or less in 10 of its first 22 games hasn't scored fewer than 62 in any of its past eight games.
This team also tightened its defense. It's allowed fewer than 70 points in six of its past eight games.
It's not a coincidence, then, that the Colonials (18-13) will take an eight-game winning streak into the NEC championship game at Long Island.
"We had so many doubters this year,'' Wallace said, "but we've found ways to grind out games.''
Toole, the youngest coach in Division I, doesn't seem at all surprised that this team has reached the championship game in his first season as RMU's head coach.
"It's just kind of where our expectations (as a program) are now,'' he said. "We're meeting the expectation. Anything other than this would be a disappointment.''
And Toole takes no self-satisfaction in having had this team achieve this in his first season following Mike Rice's highly successful three-season run as the Colonial coach.
"It's not about me,'' Toole said. "It's about our guys. I just want these guys to play in the NEC championship game."
And they will, despite some seemingly unfavorable statistics they produced in their 64-62 win at Quinnipiac Sunday in a semifinal game.
The Colonials were outrebounded, 41-25. And they made only 8-of-17 free throw attempts.
However, they committed a season-low five turnovers. And they held an 18-6 advantage in points-off-turnovers.
And there was just other stuff that somehow produced that victory.
"The credit goes to our team for continuing to play together, stay together and find shots offensively, get enough stops defensively and get enough rebounds in order to come out two points better,'' Toole said.
So there you have it.
It was kind of the same recipe the Colonials used back on Dec. 2 when they won at Long Island, 70-69, in their NEC opener. They had no Abraham. Wallace broke his finger less than a minute into the game. They withstood a last-second Long Island flurry and won by a point.
They also were blitzed by LIU at the Charles L. Sewall Center, 83-67, Jan. 20. In that game, Blackbird backup guard Michael Culpo came off the bench and drained 5-of-6 from international waters. He finished with a game-high 19 points.
Culpo also was a key contributor in Long Island's 69-67 win against visiting Central Connecticut State in Sunday's other semifinal game. He came off the bench and scored 10 points.
However, another bench player probably was a more significant factor in that LIU victory.
Freshman Jason Brickman, left alone by the Blue Devil defense, hit 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and scored a season-high 16 points.
"He's been fantastic all year,'' LIU coach Jim Ferry said of Brickman. "He calms everybody down. People play off him. His poise got us through the (CCSU) game. He made big play after big play after big play. He sees the game the way the game's supposed to be seen. And the kid's an exceptional shooter.''
Brickman set an NEC record for most assists in a season by a freshman with 164. He's a huge reason the Blackbirds have four players who average in double figures and another two - C.J. Garner (9.1 points per game) and Culpo (8.0) -- who are close to doing that.
"We have a lot of great scorers,'' Brickman said. "I just want to distribute the ball.''
Brickman, an 87.5 percent free throw shooter, Sunday made two free throws with 17 seconds remaining that gave Long Island a 68-65 lead.
The Blackbirds still had to withstand a three-point attempt by CCSU's Robby Ptacek that missed with eight seconds left before securing their 12th consecutive victory.
"We were very challenged,'' Ferry said. "We used up a lot of energy and a lot of emotion to win this basketball game. But I told the kids in the locker room after the game that Wednesday night's game is going to be even harder. This game helped us get ready for that.''
For their part, the Colonials' experiences over the past three or four seasons have helped them get ready for this.
"It's what we sell guys on when we're recruiting them - playing in NEC championship games,'' Toole said. "And these guys (Sunday) all believed they could win.''
TOURNEY TIDBITS: The two NEC Tournament semifinal games Sunday that were decided by a total of four points were the closest semifinal games since 1992 when the two games were decided by a total of three points. That season, Robert Morris beat St. Francis (N.Y.), 70-68, and Marist edged Long Island, 92-91, in three overtimes. The Colonials then beat Marist, 85-81, in the NEC championship game … Seven seasons earlier, the semifinals also were decided by three points. Fairleigh Dickinson beat Long Island, 73-71, and Loyola (Md.) beat Marist, 56-55. FDU won the championship game over Loyola, 63-59 … RMU is 13-4 since losing at Wagner Jan. 6 … Long Island's semifinal win against CCSU was its first this season when it scored under 70 points in a game. The Blackbirds are 1-3 when scoring under 70 points in a game … Robert Morris is the only team to win a game on the road in this NEC Tournament … Throw out his "nothing'' game against Wagner in the regular-season finale Feb. 26 when he played with a sinus infection and Colonial center Lijah Thompson has averaged 14 points per game over his past nine games. In those nine games, he's also shot 60 percent (42-of-70) from the field … Long Island's 26 wins are the most for its program since it was 28-3 in 1936-37 … Over the past three seasons, the Blackbirds are 35-8 at home, including 26-5 against NEC foes.