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Heartbroken in Brooklyn: The night St. Francis almost ended one of college hoops' saddest streaks

The St. Francis (Brooklyn) Terriers have never been to the NCAA Tournament, one of five original teams never to have done so. Tuesday, those tiny dogs got so, so close.

BROOKLYN -- He's venting, but he's venting quietly enough that you can tell he's made this late-night subway ride thousands of times, and appreciates when someone vents quietly instead of venting loudly.

"I swear on my MOTHERFUCKING LIFE," he says, the "motherfucking" about as loud as a normal word in a normal conversation. "If I take that shot, I make it. BONG."

I sat down on the 4 train, only to realize I had just watched the man across from me play basketball. He's still wearing his game shoes, along with bright blue St. Francis Terriers sweats and a hoodie. And I hadn't just watched him play: I watched him lose.

Specifically, he lost what everybody agrees is the biggest game his school has ever played: the Northeast Conference title game, a chance for the team's first ever NCAA Tournament appearance after 76 years of futility if he won.

Instead, he lost. And he lost in front of what everybody agrees is the most raucous crowd his school has ever played for: Over 1,000 fans, crammed so tightly into a sweaty gym that an FDNY commissioner would've fainted.

Demand was so high for the game and so many people absolutely needed to get in (students, opposing band/fans, ESPN crews, media, school VIP's) that tickets actually weren't on sale to the general public. St. Francis students stood in a makeshift section cordoned off by ropes behind one basket. He lost in front of them.

And he lost in brutal fashion: The Terriers fought back from a late deficit, then saw a teammate crumple while shooting game-tying free throws, then saw a desperation heave come within inches of connecting, pop 15 feet straight up in the air, and fall harmlessly to the floor.

Robert Morris lifted a trophy and cut down the nets while their traveling contingent went nuts and everybody else reconciled with their recently smashed dreams.

Yet, he still vents quietly enough that I can't make out most of his words from about five feet away.

I mean to tell him he played a nice game, but he spends a lot of time kissing his girlfriend, and after patiently listening to a conductor's announcement about service changes, he leaves the train and vanishes into the New York night.

★★★

This is perhaps the saddest line of banners in college basketball.

Three NIT banners, none representing an appearance that's happened since the Kennedy administration. A banner for the 1970 "M.E.C.C.A. Conference" championship. I ask people what this means. Nobody knows. Google comes up empty.

★★★

If you're a fan of a Division I team that isn't St. Francis (Brooklyn), none of this makes sense. Why the tiny gym? Why is a player taking a late-night subway ride home? WHY NO NCAA TOURNAMENTS?

These questions are all answered by each other, and a change in any one would probably lead to a change in the others as well. They're also all answered by one other main character: New York.

The city is so massive, it dwarfs a 3,000-student college. Most haven't heard of St. Francis or its basketball team and even if you had, there are so many other entertainment options besides the Terriers.

The city is so packed, St. Francis exists in its entirety on half a city block in Brooklyn Heights. Classrooms, student lounges, food options, academic centers, and, yes, a Division I gymnasium all packed into a few connected buildings.

The city is so expensive, big buildings for students don't make sense. There is an SFC dorm, but the vast majority of students are commuters. Nine of the 13 players on the Terriers' roster hail from one of the five boroughs, and I imagine the other eight also took the subway home.

I imagine it's hard to foster school spirit without a campus people live on, but the buzz for the NEC final is palpable. I stand in the gym's lobby -- really, it's just the school's lobby, some people are clearly not here for the game, but rather for class or a study session -- and talk to some guys in the TKE chapter, fraternity guys who don't have a fraternity house. Two are wearing facepaint. One tells me he went to classes Tuesday, went back home to Staten Island, then came back for the game.

"We're trying to go where no terrier has gone before," one says.

Technically, this isn't true -- Wofford's Terriers just qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six years Monday, and Boston University's made it most recently in 2011. But we get what he's saying.

Another student, Keith, is swigging what looks like and smells to be spiked Gatorade. He tells me how the 250-ticket allotment for students sold out in just a few hours.

"It's gotten progressively bigger and bigger," he says. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The school claims the gym in the Pope Athletic Complex holds 1,200. That would make it the 348th-largest home arena of the 351 in college basketball. It's clearly well past capacity, but the official attendance given for the night is 1,013. Of everything about this place that is intensely New York, the most New York thing is a real estate listing that vastly inflates its size.

It's intensely loud, as if the sound waves realize they have no place to go and decided to wreak havoc on what limited real estate they had. The person in charge of the playlist wants you to know "No Sleep Til Brooklyn," "Brooklyn Go Hard," "Welcome to New York City" and "Where Brooklyn At" all get spins.

The game itself is wildly physical. St. Francis is one of the nation's worst shooting teams and one of its best offensive rebounding teams. Robert Morris responds by playing a 2-3 zone that lets the Terriers shoot as much as they'd like, but makes any activity within the arc a war.

Despite this, St. Francis does exactly what they always do, scrapping for boards with each possession leading to big bodies crashing against big bodies. The Terriers manage 23 offensive boards on 37 missed shots.

While SFC misses and rebounds and occasionally shots, Robert Morris gets legitimately hot, drilling 50 percent of their threes on the night. After trailing to start the second half, a few big runs have them up 10.

St. Francis never quits. They battle back to within three, and on a frantic possession with under 10 seconds left, Tyreek Jewell is fouled shooting a three. To save his team's tourney hopes, the 62 percent shooter has to make three in a row.

He hits none.

★★★

"It's pretty tough when you come so close and don't get there," said St. Francis coach Glenn Braica. "But it's really tough to do."

He's not lying. Not every team in a 10-team league can win its regular season title or make the league championship. Ask Robert Morris coach Andy Toole, who had done one or the other each of the past four years without winning the title.

"A lot of my friends were calling me Marv Levy," Toole jokes. (His players do not get the joke.)

Those sad banners will have a friend next year. As league champions, the Terriers get an automatic bid to the NIT. It's the team's first postseason appearance in 52 years. That's worth a banner! But it's not the banner the people who packed this tiny arena to the breaking point were hoping for.

As everybody quietly files out, I can't help but wonder how long it will be before it gets that packed again.