- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2000

MADNESS CENTRAL, N.Y.

They played the game at breakneck speed, clutching their hearts, hoping against hope that the night would be theirs.

This was their moment on ESPN, their moment to be somebody in March, their moment to stand apart from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

They are tiny schools, Iona and Siena, accustomed to playing in the shadow of the Big East Conference and being regarded as afterthoughts on the national level.

But this is the one night of the season when the MAAC comes out of the shadows, when a berth in the 64-team NCAA tournament is at stake, when Bill Raftery is there to lend his stamp of authenticity. There are no second chances for the loser, no at-large bid to be had, no posturing or politicking by the coaches intended for the selection committee.

It is this one game, this one moment, this one time to be counted.

This is how it goes for the schools from the small conferences across the nation. They play to secure their conference's automatic berth to the NCAA field. If they lose, they go to the NIT or they go home.

The two coaches prowled the sidelines at Pepsi Arena: Jeff Ruland of Iona on one end of the court, Paul Hewitt of Siena on the other. The players were drenched in sweat and emotion, appealing to one another to stay calm and not let the dream slip away.

There are a zillion plays and calls in a game, and in a game as significant as this one, each one draws the life out of a coach, toying with his head, his future, his countenance.

Ruland could feel his world coming apart after his star player, Tariq Kirksay, crashed to the floor and stayed there midway through the first half.

Ruland glared at one of the officials as he checked on Kirksay's well-being. His glare is as piercing as it was in his playing days with the Bullets, especially when it is directed at an official who has missed a call.

Sometimes, when you're a coach, the season comes down to this: You're on the road, and your star player is in the locker room, and you don't know whether he is done for the night or the season, and your team is suddenly questioning itself, questioning whether it belongs, and you just say, "Come on, guys. Give me 20 more minutes."

You clap. You nod your head. You let everyone know that it's going to be all right, even as your stomach is doing somersaults.

Anything can happen in 40 minutes. That's what March tells all the participants.

"It doesn't have to be pretty at this time of the year," Hewitt said. "You just have to survive."

Hewitt originally was interested in becoming a lawyer until his old high school coach in Westbury, N.Y., sought his help 15 years ago. Now look at him, up on his feet the whole game, pacing up and down the sidelines in front of his team's bench, barking at the officials. He could have been a lawyer, even a lawyer who rhymes, and instead, he is just another animated suit whose pulse rate quickens as the game marches to its gut-wrenching end.

All his body English couldn't make the shots fall through the cylinder. All his words of caution couldn't alter the game's direction. With the opposition's star player out of the game, his team experienced a letdown. The opposition, meanwhile, started playing with a sense of desperation, taking control of the game, believing in itself.

Iona's small cheering section, mostly students up from New Rochelle, N.Y., started believing as well. With the final seconds ticking down, Iona's supporters saw the hurt in the faces of the Siena players and started chanting, "N-I-T, N-I-T."

Five … four … three … seven-tenths of a second left. Ruland was up on his feet, still coaching, motioning to this player to enter the game, motioning to another.

And then it was over.

The MAAC was Ruland's.

It was time for Iona's players to celebrate, to go up into stands and hug their supporters and squeeze as much pleasure as they could out of this moment.

"We're just going to savor this moment and not think about the NCAA tournament for a few days," Ruland said.

Savor it. Revel in it. And embrace it with all their might.

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