Outside of the MidAmerica locker room in Municipal Auditorium, the electric atmosphere of game day had been evicted. Instead of cheering fans, shouting coaches and a dribbling basketball, the sounds were indistinct and unimposing. The silence was filled by whispered conversation and arena staff packing up equipment after the second Fab Four matchup of the evening – the game that knocked the Pioneers out of the NAIA Division I Men’s National Tournament.
The top-seeded Georgetown College Tigers (Ky.) played the villain in the March 21 Fab Four matchup that ended the third-seeded Pioneers’ season with a 90-83 loss. Both teams went blow-for-blow through the first half, exchanging the lead 11 times in the first 20 minutes. The Pioneers went to the locker room with a 48-43 lead.
Returning from halftime, Georgetown took command and went from a five-point deficit to a 14-point lead in just over ten minutes. After the game, MNU head coach Rocky Lamar pinpointed the Pioneers’ struggles at the start of the second half.
“We didn’t run, and all of a sudden [senior Georgetown guard Noah Cottrill], who is a very good basketball player – we just couldn’t find him and he kind of took over the game,” Lamar said. “And I didn’t feel like we did a very good job on the boards.”
Lamar also took issue with the team’s speed and pacing. “If we don’t run, we’re not very good.”
The Pioneers trailed for the final 17 minutes of the game and the score sat at 83-70 with just 3:20 remaining. Just one minute later, the Pioneers cut the deficit to six to the tune of booming “M-N-U!” chants from the crowd. A bucket from junior guard Jonas Page pulled the Pioneers within three points with 29 seconds remaining – the closest MNU had been to Georgetown since the game began to slip away early in the second half.
Ultimately, the comeback was slightly too little slightly too late for the Pioneers. The Tigers hit their free throws and MNU was unable to score again. The Pioneer bench went silent as players glanced from the floor to the scoreboard to the game and back to the floor as the final seconds ticked away.
The team began to trickle out of the locker room long after the final fans had left Municipal Auditorium. With few exceptions, players walked out with red eyes and pursed lips – sure signs of a season ending just two victories short of its goal. But when Lamar discussed the season as a whole, he juxtaposed the disappointment of a Fab Four loss with the adversity that the Pioneers overcame at the beginning of the year.
“9-6 is a good place to start,” Lamar said, referencing the team’s record through its first 15 games. “9-6 and we were not very good. I thought we played very individualistically in that time when we went 1-4 in a stretch, and from that point on, we bought in and became teammates. We really worried about making each other better and doing what we do best, which is run. And we did that very, very well and it worked.”
The loss marked the end of the MNU careers of seniors Jordan Whelan, Marshawn Arnold, Cale Brubaker, Chris Parker, Aleksandar Zivkovic and third-team NAIA All-American guard Nick Syrie. Syrie led the 2015-16 Pioneers in points, assists, steals and minutes – statistics that still fail to properly illustrate his importance to the team. He finished the game with 12 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. After the game, Syrie said the Pioneers’ fatal flaw came on the defensive end.
“We can score with anyone in the country, but if we can’t get stops, I mean, you see what happened tonight,” Syrie said. “We have to start fouling, then they make free throws, then we can’t get a bucket, then we’ve got to foul again. It all just boils down to getting stops.”
As the Pioneers’ postgame procession made its way out of Municipal, Syrie took an extra minute to reflect on the battle that became his final game as a Pioneer and what he will take away from his time in the program.
“Just to be a better man,” Syrie said. “That’s what we preach. Our main goal as a team, as a school is to get everyone to heaven. But from a basketball standpoint, I had a great career. Five years, I mean, the guys that I’m playing with, it’s been an honor, it’s been a blessing. I’m just honored that I was able to play the game so long with all my injuries, being able to come back, God blessed me with the opportunity to come back and play and then make it to the Final Four in my last year. It's just been a great experience."