Sunday, March 04, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Keydets come close enough to hear title

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -Out of sight, a hundred yards away, flashbulbs popped, students jumped, players mugged.

A party raged out there somewhere.

Not everyone can be invited.

The chorus of Queen's "We Are the Champions" seeped through the open door to the interview room at Kimmel Arena as VMI coach Duggar Baucom and his two best players sat down in front of a small group of reporters.

What came out of their mouths over the next 15 minutes won't be printed, clipped and saved for posterity like maybe it will for the other guys.

The pictures snapped of their glum faces won't be blown up, framed and hanging in some office some 30 years from now.

But merely that they were here, so close to the madness, is remarkable.

"First off, congratulations to Asheville," Baucom began. "They played wonderfully."

Yes, congratulations to UNC Asheville. We should start there. The Bulldogs were better when it mattered, pulling away in the second half to beat VMI 80-64 in Saturday's Big South tournament final.

They had five people score in double figures. They had more rebounds, assists and steals than VMI. They deserved to win the game and secure the first NCAA tournament bid of 2012.

But the fact that VMI was even playing in this televised game - much less tied in it with less than 16 minutes to go - is a whale of a story, too. Three times in six years, the Keydets have made the finals. Three times in six years, they've been 100 yards away from the celebration.

They haven't been the ones throwing it yet, but at least they know what it sounds like.

"The program is on the come-up, man," VMI senior Keith Gabriel said. "I feel like since I've been here, we've been gradually getting better."

It started even earlier than that, when VMI hired Baucom away from Division II Tusculum in 2005. The Keydets were in the Big South finals just two years later, showing off a run-and-gun style that drew attention from national media and recruits.

Now VMI is a constant threat with a loyal following. The Keydets have posted a winning record in three of the past four seasons. They were the seventh seed in this tournament, but they still led the conference in home attendance and brought a raucous group of 700-plus to Asheville on Saturday.

"That's just VMI Nation showing their support," Baucom said. "They're hungry for a winner. One of these days, I'm going to deliver it to 'em."

Do you doubt him? Careful about that. Baucom has a long memory. He still remembers an article written about him when he was hired at VMI.

The writer "didn't say 'professional suicide,' but he said something pretty close to that, that no coach has ever come in here and won," Baucom said. "I told him we would win."

Seeing is believing. Consider: The Keydets have won at least 14 games five times in Baucom's seven seasons. Since the program started playing 20-plus games regularly in the 1949-50 season, VMI had accomplished that only six times before his arrival.

The well-chronicled challenges of succeeding at a military institute make each win more impressive.

"I know that they do some off-the-wall stuff that's mandatory," UNCA guard J.P. Grimm said. "I don't know their full schedule, but I'm pretty sure that it's hectic. â? We have mandatory breakfast Monday through Friday. That might be a little cadet-like."

So was this march through this tournament. A narrow win in the play-in game against Radford, followed by two blowout victories against higher seeds added more chapters to the "don't count these guys out" story, even if the title eluded them.

Out in the hallway a few minutes after the interviews ended, Baucom stood even closer to the ongoing party. Around his neck he wore a lavender tie that he had to purchase in town this week; he hadn't brought enough clothes to accommodate this extended run.

Players from UNCA walked past him with something else around their necks -- remnants of the basketball nets they had cut down.

Baucom glanced down at the floor.

"We've been close three times," he said quietly. "If we can do this just one more time â? "

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