SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The IPFW men's basketball players and coaches are an emotional bunch. That's what happens when you invest every ounce of your being – physically, mentally and emotionally – in trying to reach certain points and you... I'll use the words “fall short” as opposed to “fail.”
The Mastodons lost to North Dakota State both in the Summit League regular-season race for a championship and Tuesday in the conference tournament (60-57). Afterward, the young men were too distraught to initially speak on the matter publicly.
But the aforementioned results were a pair of losses, not failures. Let's be clear about that. Crystal clear. Because anyone who uses “fail” around this program hasn't a clue about the people involved and what has been achieved over the past few months.
This isn't one of those “the local team lost a big game, so I'll write some sympathetic words” column.
That isn't me.
I was raised by a single mother who was deserted by her husband with three small children and a mortgage tied around her neck, so sympathy was as nonexistent in my development as brutal honesty was in abundance. Sometimes that's a strength; other times it can get you fired.
For the Mastodons basketball program, the truth is that regardless of what happened Tuesday at Sioux Falls Arena, this program has been an astounding success on and off the court, and no Taylor Braun three-point play can undo that.
“This is a heck of a group, man,” IPFW coach Tony Jasick said after the game. “I wish that it was Christmas right now and I had another 20 games with them.”
The feeling is mutual in the ever-growing Mastodon fan base and throughout the program. The players love the coaches, the coaches love the players, the fans love them all and there is even affection for the managers.
“We have some great managers,” Jasick said without a hint of humor.
That intense emotional bond is what made this group so special and so successful.
The perception that this team won more games (24 and counting) than any other in Mastodons history simply because of talent would be erroneous. Yes, finishing higher (second place) in the Summit League regular season and tournament than any other team in school history couldn't have been achieved without ability. But IPFW has had talented athletes before and never come close to reaching this level of success. Don't just take my word for that, take John Peckinpaugh's.
Peckinpaugh spent four seasons playing for the Mastodons (2008 to 2012) and now serves as a graduate assistant with the program.
“We've got great kids that play together and play hard and play the right way,” Peckinpaugh said. “(When I returned to IPFW as a coach) Right away I knew that they had something special going. Everyone got along. We had some good teams when I played, but it really wasn't ever like this. The chemistry is just amazing.”
This is a group that an entire community, and with each passing victory, it turned out, an entire state, could root for. They not only “play the right way,” but they also live the right way.
When the NCAA released its latest Academic Progress Report, for the second time in program history the Mastodons rated a perfect score of 1,000.
The seemingly endless stream of new standards reached continued even after the defeat Tuesday.
After Tuesday's loss, it was announced that the team would play in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament later this month. This is only the second time an IPFW team has earned a postseason berth and the first at the NCAA Division I level.
So forgive me if I don't write how disappointing – from a macro standpoint – Tuesday's outcome was.
These guys grabbed the hearts and hopes of basketball fans throughout this state, as IPFW held Indiana's best NCAA Tournament opportunity until the final seconds of Tuesday's game. And through social media, “#IPFWmbb” flew from the fingertips nationally.
The past four days have been nothing short of the greatest infomercial in the history of the university.
“What (our players) have done for our university and our town,” Jasick said, “especially all of the stuff that has taken place because of these three (tournament) games, you can't buy it and you can't replace it. It's been a great run.”
That is undeniable truth.