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Drexel and Elon kept their Cinderella hopes afloat Saturday by winning in the first round of the CAA Tournament to advance to quarterfinals this afternoon against top-seeded Hofstra and second-seeded William & Mary, respectively.
But the most indelible images and words of the late afternoon and evening belonged to the defeated — and, in particular, the head coaches, UNC Wilmington’s Rob Burke and James Madison’s Louis Rowe.
With ninth-seeded UNCW down by what turned out to be the final score (66-55) and 7.1 seconds left, Burke called timeout. There was no play he could draw up to make up the deficit, but the coaching lifer who traveled the increasingly uncommon path from a coaching at a junior college to becoming the head man at a Division I program, even on an interim basis, was not going to pass on an opportunity to try and improve, even incrementally at the end of the final game of the season.
The Seahawks exited the timeout and Ty Gadsden lofted a three-pointer that bounced off the front of the rim. The ball glanced off the fingers of Drexel’s Matey Juric and the Seahawks' Jaylen Sims and bounced to Gadsden, who stepped back behind the arc and hoisted another shot, which bounced off the back of the rim as time expired.
Burke remained still for a second, still staring at the basket, before whirling and walking down the sideline to greet Drexel head coach Zack Spiker with a handshake. The audition was over for Burke, who took over when C.B. McGrath was fired Jan. 13, and now it was time to head into an uncertain future.
There’s no doubting UNC Wilmington fared far better once Burke took over. The Seahawks lost their final 11 games under McGrath, including the first five of the league season.
With a jacket-less Burke patrolling the sideline with the unrestrained energy and mannerisms of Chris Farley doing his best Matt Foley, the Seahawks went 5-8 with a sweep of Charleston and wins over contenders William & Mary and Northeastern, while vaulting from ninth in the CAA in KenPom.com's conference-only defensive efficiency rankings (108.9) to fifth (104.2).
“Six weeks ago, we were just in a bad position,” Burke said. “I challenged them to play harder. I challenged them conditioning wise. I challenged them to be more disciplined. I challenged them to be more together as a group. And they have given me everything they have in the tank. I told them, go be who you have become. And they have become a tough, hard-nosed group.”
But will it be enough to keep the job? UNC Wilmington is a destination mid-major job, one with a proven track record of luring fast-rising up-and-comers as well as established head coaches. Athletic director Jimmy Bass will have no shortage of applicants. Can the lifer with the atypical-for-2020 background stand out from the rest of the field, even given his on-the-job experience?
If not, Burke, who is a North Carolina native with family in the Wilmington area, will thank Bass for the opportunity and take pride in the six weeks he spent as the head coach and the case he made for others like him who toiled in obscurity without ever getting a shot at the spotlight.
“I’m just very thankful because there’s a lot of guys out here who are a lot better than I am that don’t have jobs right now,” Burke said. “This is a dirty, dirty business in men’s basketball, from the standpoint of guys get let go, guys don’t get jobs, guys get older, coaches hire younger coaches. There’s a lot of really, really good Division II coaches, Division III coaches, junior college coaches.
“I’m just thankful to get this opportunity, because a lot of guys that I know, my colleagues from Region 10 (at Spartanburg Methodist College, where he was the head coach from 2004 through 2010), where I coached as a head coach, they won’t get this opportunity. And they’re good friends of mine, and I knew I had to represent them, along with other coaches that don’t get this opportunity. So if it’s only six weeks, I can look in the mirror and know I’ve done the best I could with the group that I had and I got them to believe in themselves again.”
For most of Saturday’s second game, it looked as if Rowe and James Madison would be able to stave off their own foray into college basketball purgatory. The 10th-seeded Dukes scored the first 12 points against seventh-seeded Elon and didn’t trail for the first 39 minutes and 57 seconds.
But then Phoenix senior Marcus Sheffield drained a tie-breaking step-back jumper with three seconds left, and Matt Lewis’ 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced off the side of the backboard as Elon escaped with a 63-61 win.
Lewis rolled his shirt halfway up his chest as he walked towards the James Madison bench. He stopped before getting to the sideline, bending over with his hands on his knees.
After the handshake line was complete, Rowe hugged Lewis and held him tight as he spoke into his ear. The head coach then walked off the court with sophomore Deshon Parker, each man’s arm draped around the other’s waist.
A few minutes later, Lewis and Parker accompanied Rowe to the podium for what will almost surely be Rowe’s final public act as his alma mater’s head coach.
James Madison was picked to finish fourth in the preseason but went 2-16 in CAA play. Athletic director Jeff Bourne, who oversaw the construction of a new on-campus arena scheduled to open next year, released a statement to local media on Jan. 31 in which he expressed his disappointment with the performance of the men’s basketball team and said “…it’s not where we thought we would be at the start of the season.”
On Saturday night, Rowe acknowledged the awkwardness of his position in a press conference that was even more raw and poignant than Burke’s a couple hours earlier.
“I think that we all know the reality of that,” Rowe said. “And I honestly feel like, you know, there was a feeling a long time ago.”
It was clear the mutual fondness between Rowe and his players will last far longer than their time together at James Madison. Both Parker and Lewis spoke through tears about their feelings for Rowe, who exchanged “I love yous” with the duo and rubbed their shoulders as they struggled to find the words.
“I recruited every last one of those kids in the locker room,” Rowe said. “I don’t ever want these dudes to hurt. And I think they know — I hope that they know — as long as I have breath in me, they call me, I’ve got them.”
Rowe dropped a couple “Shawshank Redemption” references, reminding them of Andy Dufresne crawling out of his prison cell via a sewage pipe and emerging a free man who headed to a beach in Mexico, before providing advice that sounded like the final words he might speak to them as their head coach.
“You have a season like this, and this is what the head coach faces,” Rowe said before turning to his right and looking at Parker and Lewis. “But I tell you dudes, this ain’t got nothing to do with you. It’s got nothing to do with you all. What it is, I’m telling you, come out clean on the other side. Say to yourself ‘I’m not feeling this way next year.’ Because there’s talent in the locker room. And you have to to through some thing sometimes, you understand what I’m saying?”
“That’s just life,” Rowe said. “Sometimes. You’ve just got to go through something.”
“This was the next step. This is what you all had to go through. This is what we had to go through. Face it. Own it. Heads up and go back and say we ain’t feeling this way next year.”