Reflecting on a memorable Mustang season

Dallas sports fans might be familiar with late-game goaltending controversies. In a game on April 1, 2014, Warriors center Jermaine O’Neal blocked Mavericks guard Monta Ellis’ floater with 16 second left in overtime and the score tied at 120. Two passes later, Steph Curry hit a game-winner with a tenth of a second left.

An irate Mark Cuban jumped up and argued with the referees that O’Neal should have been called for goaltending because Ellis’ shot was on its way down. Well, the next day, the NBA reviewed the play and said goaltending should have been called. The loss temporarily knocked the Mavs out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.

But the game-deciding goaltending call that will live in Dallas sports infamy happened in the opening round of the NCAA tournament to Dallas’ new basketball power.

With 13 seconds left and SMU up 59-57, Yanick Moreira goaltended Bryce Alford’s three-point attempt. It gave UCLA a 60-59 lead. SMU had one last possession, but Nic Moore’s two jump shots didn’t fall. That was it. The Bruins pulled the upset.

The SMU players couldn’t believe it. Markus Kennedy threw a mouthpiece in disgust as a sad look took over him. Sterling Brown walked off with the court with his jersey covering everything up to his eyes. Moreira was the last one off the court, trudging with a sad look on his face. Many of the fans in the SMU section behind the bench stood in awe for a few minutes after the final buzzer.

To say the least, the call set off a firestorm on Twitter, on television and among college basketball fans. He hit the rim first. He didn’t hit the rim first. The ball would not have touched the rim. The ball would have touched the rim. Your opinion probably differs from that of the person next to you in class or in front of you in the Starbucks line. It’s one of those calls that will probably never be fully resolved, at least among fans.

But everyone should be able to agree on a couple things: Moreira is not to blame for the loss. And that call isn’t why SMU lost the game. Sure, he’s had issues with goaltending this season. And he probably shouldn’t have been in the vicinity of Alford’s off-balance, low-percentage shot.

Anyway, that’s beside the point. Let’s back up and consider the situation. The game may have come down to the “last play,” like so many other NCAA tournament games do. But then again, did it really? I don’t think so. Because that play isn’t the true reason SMU lost.

The Mustangs led by seven points with 1:26 left after a Ryan Manuel dunk. Those were the last points they would score. In the last 30 seconds, Sterling Brown committed a foul that let UCLA score with the clock stopped, and Cannen Cunningham’s off-target pass to Ryan Manuel ended up in UCLA center Thomas Welsh’s hands. To top it off, SMU shot 36 percent from the floor, had one field goal in the first 10 minutes of the second half and made 12 of 20 free throw attempts.

The odds of winning an NCAA tournament game with those numbers and those mistakes aren’t very high. I hate to play the “what if” game, but without those mistakes, the game doesn’t come down to a goaltending call. I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“We just did some things that good teams don’t do down the stretch, and they did some great things,” SMU head coach Larry Brown said.

However, in a somber post-game press conference, Moreira expressed his displeasure with himself, hugged Brown and walked out of the press conference room for the final time as a Mustang.

“It’s all my fault. I should have let the ball hit the rim,” Moreira said, fighting tears. “I take the blame on myself. I shouldn’t have made that mistake. As a senior, you can’t make those mistakes at the end of the game.”

Media members are supposed to be neutral. But that was the toughest moment I’ve ever had to cover. I couldn’t help but feel sad, both as a media member and an SMU student. A senior who’d given his all to his team has his career end with that play. It’s hard to not feel for him, especially when he didn’t have to say that, because it’s not his fault. This game hurts you, maybe more than any other, as a player and fan. It’s the tough reality. There are countless examples of it every March. March Madness giveth, March Madness taketh away.

But for every hurtful moment basketball brings, there is also a happy one. Maybe not in this game, but over the course of the season, there are plenty. You were probably riding high just five days ago when SMU earned its first conference title in 27 years. Remember that blowout of UConn when College GameDay came? And that blowout win over Houston when Nic Moore tied a school record with eight made three-pointers? That’s just naming a few, and many more should be on the way. Moreira will see to that.

“I see we have a lot of potential,” Moreira said. “I’m going to be there the whole summer, I’m going to work with them and going to make sure they get a chance to go again.”

Heartbreaking ending aside, it’s been a special season, especially for those Mustang maniacs who have waited a long time for a season like this. SMU accomplished things that haven’t been accomplished in a long time and proved it is here to stay. This loss will sting, but just as you should look beyond the goaltending call, look beyond today and you’ll remember that it’s still great to be a Mustang.

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