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Tough NCAA tourney loss for Oilers doesn’t take away from great season

By BRIAN LESTER

SPRINGFIELD, MO. —- Losing can cut like a knife. It can rip your heart out, crush your dreams and dish out pain that no words of consolation can ever really heal.

Late Saturday night, in the post-game press conference for the University of Findlay men’s basketball team, the hurt was visible in the wake of an 88-83 overtime loss to Lake Superior State here in the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional at the O’Reilly Center in Springfield.

It was visible in the eyes of head coach Charlie Ernst, who has done a remarkable job at UF in his first three seasons as the head coach. It was visible in the eyes of senior star Greg Kahlig, who will forever be remembered as one of the greatest players in program history. And it was visible in the eyes of junior forward Jake Heagen, who took his game to another level this season and will be counted on to help lead the way next year.

Losing always hurts more when you know a victory was well within reach. The Oilers were poised to win this game, to take the first step toward making a run at a national championship. If a few more free throws had gone down, if a few more shots had fallen and if a miracle 3-point shot by Tony Harris hadn’t swished through to force OT against the Oilers, we would have been talking about a different outcome today.

As it was, the Oilers lost and the curtain was lowered on a 24-6 season.

Ernst regrets not making the decision to foul Harris before he launched up a 3-point shot out of desperation. But it’s easy to look at what could have been done or should have been done after the moment has happened.

“Obviously, this loss hurts about as bad as any loss can hurt,” Ernst said. “We should have fouled, obviously, and not given them a chance to tie it. As the head coach, I take responsibility for that. It’s a hard one for me to swallow because our players played hard enough and played well enough to win this game. They deserve better.”

Yes, the Oilers did deserve a better fate than the one handed to them Saturday night. They deserved to experience the thrill of winning a tournament game and having an opportunity to continue their quest to win the Midwest Regional for the first time since 2009 and have a shot at winning a national title.

But sometimes, you aren’t dealt the right hand in a game of cards, the pieces don’t always fall into place and dreams don’t always come true.

“It’s a tough one to swallow. Obviously, it’s not the result we wanted,” Heagen said. “We played really hard, but sometimes things don’t go your way. That is life. It’s gone our way a lot this season, but it didn’t tonight.”

Life sucks sometimes, but despite the bad days, there are good days as well. The Oilers had their share of good days.

They won 20 or more games for the 13th consecutive season, won a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference South Divisiion championship, became the first team in history to win three consecutive GLIAC tournamnt titles and they were one of 64 D-II teams in America still playing basketball this week.

Some programs can’t even talk about one 20-win season, can’t talk about division titles, tournament titles or playing in the NCAA tournament.

And while those accomplishments are hard to enjoy in the wake of a difficult NCAA tournament loss, the Oilers have a lot to be proud of as a team and as a program.

“We had a great year, a tremendous year,” Ernst said. “We won the South Division, we won the GLIAC tournament, and we won some tough games on the road late in the year. Our guys answered the bell every time.”

Especially the seniors. Kahlig, Mark Frilling and Sean Samsel gave everything they had as players, pouring their hearts and souls into leading the way for the Oilers. They were class acts, on and off the court, and they set a great example for the younger players.

“All of these seniors are good in the classroom and on the court,” Ernst said. “They are low maintenance and just want to win. They are the reason are program has continued to be successful. I’m going to miss them. They showed your younger guys how you lead and how you pick up your game when the season is on the line.”

“And the season is on the line when you go to places in mid-February where you are tired, but you are playing a game that you have to win,” Ernst continued. “That is when the seniors have to step up and play big. And ours did. That is true leadership. I give them a lot of credit.”

I give the Oilers a lot of credit for what they did this season. And I thank them for the memories they have provided and for always making my job easy to do. The Oilers have a lot to build on for next season and they will once again be one of the top teams in the GLIAC and in the country.

For now, though, the loss is tough to take. It’s tough to absorb and Heagen spoke for all of the returning players when he talked about his feelings on the seniors who taught him so much as a basketball player.

“I love these guys. They are like family in every sense of the word,” Heagen said. “I’m going to miss the seniors because we did so much together, but we have to move forward. It’s just tough.”

Tough doesn’t begin to describe the loss on Saturday night in the NCAA tournament, but even with a loss, it doesn’t take away from what the Oilers did accomplish this season.

Follow me on Twitter: @BLester1993