There’s something we see in every sport, but never so achingly often as each year in the NCAA tournament. To lose stinks, sure. To lose a close game stinks worse.
But nothing stinks more than to lose after giving up a decent-sized lead.
To get blown out is no fragrant affair, either, but the emotions are usually muted then. Getting beat soundly tells you something worse about your team than losing 69-68, as Michigan State did to Iowa State on Saturday. Getting your tail kicked leaves you with less to feel proud about than falling 78-74, as Vanderbilt did to Maryland. But …
It was that taste of victory, that sense that it was impending, that really made these games hard to take for the Spartans and Commodores. Blowouts are the things that should stink the worst for the loser, but they almost never do.
There’s a pretty obvious physiological reason, of course. The adrenaline rush of a tight game comes to a crescendo when the buzzer sounds. You release all that forward momentum of adrenaline through celebrating or lamenting, screaming with joy or burying your head in your jersey.
Vanderbilt in the first half was up by as much as 18 points against the top-seeded Terrapins. Vandy wasn’t exactly a team of giants to begin with this season. But then the Commodores lost their primary post player, Hanna Tuomi, with a stress fracture a month ago. They became the Mini-Dores, a team with leapers and scrappers who said, “We can SO do this.”
And they almost did … except for one big thing: Marissa Coleman wouldn’t let them. She had 42 points and 15 rebounds, a game so amazing that it was hard to do it justice writing about it.
Coleman somehow seemed sure Maryland would win even when things looked most dire – did we mention the Terps were down by 9 with 4:46 left? _ and she made play after play down the stretch. People will question if Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb left Jennifer Risper on the bench too long in the first and second halves because of foul trouble. They will wonder if there was a better way to try to keep Coleman from taking the shot that won the game.
Ultimately, though, Coleman looked so certain that you wondered if she could see things nobody else could. I thought that and then, in one of those weird coincidence things, I saw my friend Joe Posnanski wrote a recent post on his blog about “knowing” things before they actually happen.
To read this makes you think of Coleman. Somehow, she knew Maryland was going to win, and she was going to make it happen.
As for Michigan State, the Spartans saw a seven-point lead disappear in just over a minute at the end of the game. That’s the worst kind of loss to have – the “out-of-thin-air” loss. The “wasn’t this game over with us winning?” loss.
So while they did a lot right, what Vandy and Michigan State have to suffer the cruelest kind of loss: the “missed it by that much” defeat.
The miss that’s as heavy as a millstone.