There is no denying that college sports are full of heartbreak. Blown leads, comebacks that fall just short, losing to teams you should beat and not quite pulling off an upset — very seldom does college basketball provide a loss that is easy to swallow.
Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams had two home games in four consecutive days. Jan. 10-13 could have proved to be a springboard for the two Elon University teams early on in Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) play.
Coming into Thursday, Jan. 10, men’s basketball was 1-3 in the conference. A win against James Madison University at home on Dec. 30 to get the team in the win column was a good sign for the Phoenix. But the team couldn’t reflect on what it had accomplished as basement-dwelling Elon had a big test in front of them: the Northeastern University Huskies, the team picked to win the league, who came to Schar Center 1-2.
In the first half of that game, it looked as though it was going to be another long night for the Phoenix. Down 16 points with just under 18 minutes to play in the game, it seemed all but over. But the Phoenix slowly but surely gained ground on the Huskies. A 13-0 run got Elon right back in the game and gave them an extra boost to try and get across the finish line.
The Phoenix even took its first lead of the game with under three minutes to play on a layup by senior guard Sheldon Eberhardt. The energy in Schar Center was palpable. The brand-new building felt like it had life.
But any good playwright will say there is no great fall without a buildup.
As the clock wound down to the final minute, Elon wrestled the lead away from the Huskies. Senior forward Tyler Seibring stepped up and buried both of his free throws to give Elon a two-point lead with just over a minute to play.
Northeastern, on its next possession, had the ball stolen by Eberhardt. It seemed like the Huskies sealed the deal. That was all Elon needed to get a huge win and hopefully spark the season moving forward with a big win.
Instead of fouling sophomore guard Nathan Priddy, who brought the ball up to the front court and proceeded to dribble out the clock, Huskies junior guard Donnell Gresham decided to take the game in his hands.
It was as if it happened in slow motion. As Priddy turned his back to the basket no more than five feet from head coach Matt Matheny, who was standing on the sidelines, Gresham started his move from the corner. Darting up right past the Elon bench, Gresham perfectly timed his steal and finished on the other end, tying the game.
Everyone but Priddy saw the move. It’s not his fault; it was a mistake, and things happen. But that’s sports. It’s impossible and unfair to pin an entire game on one play or one player. But it is fair to say this play was heartbreaking.
Seibring called the sequence “once in a career.” But the last thing the team needed was to be on the wrong side of that type of play.
Elon would go on to lose that game in overtime, but the team couldn’t dwell on that much, as it had to welcome in league-leader Hofstra University 48 hours later.
The mantra for the team has been “better now than March,” as Priddy said following the loss to Northeastern — that making mistakes now is better and less costly than during the conference tournament. But the team needs more than silver linings pulled out of mistakes to build on; the team needs wins.
Saturday night came, and with that, a brand new challenge. The Hofstra Pride came into Schar Center scorching hot. The Pride were undefeated in CAA competition, coming off a triple-overtime game against the College of William and Mary two nights earlier.
Elon quickly fell behind — this time 7-0 in less than two minutes. The difference this time, compared to the game against Northeastern, is the team righted the ship quickly and even took an eight-point lead into halftime.
Elon finally relinquished the lead it held for nearly 15 straight minutes at the halfway mark of the second half. Elon stayed close, within two scores for the last four and a half minutes of the game. With just two seconds left in the game, Elon again found itself in a position to win. Seibring was open at the top of the key. He got the shot off with plenty of time: up it went, bouncing once off the front of the rim and falling to the left of the basket.
Falling in a devastating way once again, Elon was two bounces of the ball from being 3-3 in the CAA. Instead, it stumbled to 1-5.
What truly put the cherry on top this weekend was the women’s game on Sunday.
The women found themselves in a reverse role as the men in their Sunday matinee matchup with the University of North Carolina Wilmington; they were the ones that led the majority of the game, not the ones giving chase. The team lost the 16-point lead it had on a buzzer-beater to end the third quarter.
As time ticked down, Elon needed an answer down four points. Junior guard Lexi Mercer heaved up a prayer on an inbounds play and connected, giving a jolt to the Phoenix faithful. UNCW answered with a layup, and Elon needed a three to extend the game into overtime. Mercer was able to get a shot off but was unsuccessful, and the women became another victim of a painful ending at Schar Center.
While this loss was not a good one — not that there is such thing as a “good” loss — the women’s team has had some moderate success this year already. Undoubtedly, this one hurts, but it will not sink a season.
For the men’s team, this weekend hurts more. Not only did it suffer twice, but these were the kinds of losses that would normally take the wind out of a team. But Elon’s team is still remaining positive.
“I think the tide will turn soon. I’m proud of our efforts,” Seibring said.
Belief comes from the top. Seibring and Matheny are responsible for setting the tone for this team. “We are so close, we don’t realize how close we are,” Matheny said. “You want to get that victory in the win column to help you believe, but at some point, you’ve got to believe because of how hard you’re working.”
The leaders on this team know they need to stay positive and continue to work hard to try and get ready for March and the CAA tournament.