- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2000

CLEVELAND - The Ball State basketball team could not make Miami of Ohio go away last night at Gund Arena.

The Ball State players looked up at the clock with two minutes left, and there was Miami of Ohio, one point down, still in the game, hoping to steal the Mid-American Conference final.

Ball State's Duane Clemens drove the three-second lane but wound up with an off-balance shot that bounced off the iron. Then Jason Stewart missed a 3-pointer for Miami.

Two possessions. Nothing. One minute down. One to go. One-point game.

This time the ball ended up in the hands of Ball State's Theron Smith. He split the defense with one dribble, kissed the ball off the glass and that was the beginning of the end for Miami.

The free throw attempts soon followed, and Patrick Jackson heaved the ball high into the air to begin Ball State's celebration at midcourt.

Later Ball State coach Ray McCallum said, "It's the best feeling in the world. This is probably the biggest coaching win in my career."

Clemens, the senior who missed the late shot, thought he might never reach the NCAA tournament.

"It was my last chance to get there," he said. "This is unbelievable."

The Miami RedHawks were not supposed to be here, playing for a spot in the NCAA tournament's 64-team field. By now, they were supposed to be back on campus in Oxford, Ohio, reminiscing about their run last March, bemoaning the void left by Wally Szczerbiak's departure.

Yet as surprising as their late-season run was, this one hurt.

"This is the most disappointed I've been in my coaching life," Miami coach Charlie Coles said.

Disappointment is the other side of it.

"These guys have fought through a lot of hard defeats this season," Coles said.

They fought through a season that held no promise.

The RedHawks were 11-14 going into their final regular-season game. They had no depth. They had no star power. They had no hope.

But here they were on this March night in a half-empty arena, beneath the banner of Nate Thurmond, one of the MAC's all-time greats, looking to put together one more improbable game, looking to put the specter of Szczerbiak behind them.

"To play the way they have in the past eight days is a great statement about their team," McCallum said.

That is what he tries to tell all his opponents.

McCallum and the Cardinals came into the game with 21 victories and a zillion reasons to be concerned. This being the MAC and not the Big Ten, they could not depend on an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Coles figured ESPN's Digger Phelps was off by two teams when he said the MAC would place only one team in the NCAA tournament.

"I'm thinking at least three teams," Coles said. "There are too many good teams in the league."

A good team is different from a high-profile team. Good teams sweat on Sunday evening. High-profile teams sit pretty. Incidentally, Ball State defeated Purdue during the regular season.

The MAC is the way college basketball used to be. The MAC is informal, fun and unpretentious.

You don't attend a MAC school to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. You don't attend a MAC school to take a couple of courses like Breathing 101 and Advances in Rest Rooms 202 and then leave after the pro scouts have seen what you can do.

You don't end up at a MAC school if you're a 6-foot-10 power forward named Chris Webber. You end up at a MAC school, specifically Central Michigan, if you're a 6-2 guard named David Webber or a 6-6 forward named Jason Webber. The three brothers share a passion, but not the same pituitary gland.

Maybe, if you're David Letterman, you end up at Ball State to become a late-night talk show host.

The MAC put on a good show after it hit town. They played seven games, and there hardly was a basket's difference between the winners and losers.

The MAC final was no different. Ball State held off Miami, but it could have gone the other way, and nearly did.

So Ball State goes forward and Miami goes home.

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