No words can ease Redbirds' pain
ST. LOUIS -- In literature and film, there is always articulate locker-room oratory. The coach always finds the right words -- soothing or soaring, depending on the outcome -- at the right time.
In the losing locker rooms of March, it doesn't often work out that way. Sometimes the pain of defeat can render a man mute.
Tim Jankovich knows. He walked into the devastation of the Illinois State locker room here Sunday afternoon and had nothing.
"I was searching for profound," Jankovich said after his Redbirds were beaten 60-57 by Northern Iowa in overtime of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament final. "I didn't say anything for quite some time because I was searching for profound.
"Come to find out, there was no profound today."
The thrill of March victory isn't the only thing that makes college basketball special -- so does the agony of March defeat.
Sunday, Illinois State knew agony.
There was a pain in the Redbirds' guts that they'll probably feel into their dotage -- Jankovich himself said he's not completely over the tournament losses from his playing days more than 25 years ago. There was the burning knowledge that an ill-timed cramp or an unkind bounce was all that separated Illinois State from the euphoric celebration reserved for teams going to the NCAA tournament.
On a day when a mohawked guard named Osiris Eldridge put on one of the great shooting displays in Valley tournament history, it wasn't enough. When Eldridge limped to the bench with a cramp in his left foot and calf, Illinois State led by four in overtime. Though he returned less than a minute later, his scoring spree was done -- and, ultimately, so were the Redbirds. They couldn't hold off the gritty Panthers.
Out of the final 10 minutes and 19 seconds of a game played with desperate intensity, Illinois State trailed for only 16 seconds. But it was the final 16 seconds of overtime -- and once those were done, the Panthers were embracing and the Redbirds players were walking off without shaking hands.
That's poor sportsmanship. It's also a reflection of how difficult it was to swallow a third loss to Northern Iowa this year by a total of nine points -- especially with an NCAA bid on the line.
The Redbirds, who entered the day ranked 45th in the RPI, can hold out hope for an at-large bid. But their postgame despair revealed how slim that hope is.
"If you haven't been through it, I don't even know how to describe the pain," Jankovich continued, calmly hemorrhaging emotion on the postgame interview podium. "You have to live it -- to live through the journey that all of us go on the whole year: when it starts, the amount of work, the anguish, the amount of stress, the heartache, the amount of disappointment ... to get this close to what means everything to these guys and then to lose, really, by a shot. It's that close.
If you haven't been through it, I don't even know how to describe the pain.” -- Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich
"The entire journey fell short, so I don't have anything that profound to tell them. All I did was tell them how proud I was, which I am. I mean, what are we, 24-9? How could I not be proud of that? But there's no way to take the sting away. There's no way."
The sting could be seen in the red-rimmed eyes of Cindy Jankovich, the coach's wife, sitting two rows behind the bench. And it could be heard in the voices of the players, who were blown out of the Valley title game last year but found this loss much more painful.
"It was just one call, one shot, one oomph, or whatever, from the tournament championship," said senior guard Emmanuel Holloway, who likely will finish his college career without an appearance in the Big Dance. "That's what hurts."
Unlike Holloway, Eldridge will get another shot at it next season. In the meantime, he has the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award as a consolation prize -- just the second player from the losing team to win that in the 24-year history of the Valley tournament.
What Eldridge did Sunday -- scoring 21 points in a span of 18½ minutes, most of them on absurdly difficult jumpers -- was the stuff of March legend. If only his team had won.
Eldridge was the reason this was a ballgame. After being shut out at halftime for the third time this year against UNI, he exploded. With his team down 10 early in the second half, a breakaway dunk got "O" going, and then it was "Oh My."
Eldridge made five second-half 3s -- made them falling out of bounds, fading away, floating left, from suburban St. Charles. He burned every Panther who tried to check him.
"He's going to play in the NBA, without question," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "Those shots, I mean, I didn't quite know what to do. You think box-and-one, you think deny him, commit one guy to him, no help -- everything runs through your mind. What I settled on ended up a 30-foot fadeaway over Adam Koch, so what else are we doing to do? You're hoping he isn't going to make nine in a row."
In point of fact, he made 7 of 8 perimeter shots in one stretch, taking Illinois State to a 46-44 lead and setting the stage for the dramatic endgame sequence.
The junior from Chicago had the ball in his hands at the end of both regulation and overtime but couldn't play the hero. He shot a fadeaway air ball to end regulation, then had a hurried 3 bounce off the rim to end the game in OT.
His last basket was the first score of overtime. After cramping at the 3:15 mark of OT, he was done scoring.
"He was unbelievable," Jankovich said. "He took the whole game to a level I haven't seen him ever do. It was a tremendous performance of will and heart and fight and toughness and it was really fun to watch. That was a heck of a performance by a guy that just decided he was going to will his team to a championship, and he darn near got that done."
Instead, Osiris Eldridge and his teammates will probably endure another Selection Sunday of NCAA rejection. And no coach's words can ease that pain.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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