The under dogs were the feel good story of the tournament. Prior to the game, the state governor had called to tell them how proud he was of them. Social networking sites like Facebook and twitter were deluged with stories about them. Everywhere you turned, someone was talking about the unlikely team that was turning heads at the tourney.
Even coming to the arena to play their Elite 8 match-up was tough because fans had blocked the entrance just to catch a glimpse at America’s new favorite darling.
The media who had once loved taking shots at Keenan didn’t want to be the last ones on the wave. They propelled his story to new heights. The story of the boy who had it all, lost it all and then rose again in the most surprising fashion.
Experience had taught Keenan how to navigate choppy waters. The same way folks were praising him could easily turn the opposite the next day. All he could do was be himself and play his game. Hopefully his teammates wouldn’t fall victim to their new found fame. That was only fleeting, the championship on the other hand could never be taken from them.
Sadly, they never got a chance to play for the championship. Neither did they make it to the final four. Their Cinderella story was cut short ironically before midnight of that very day.
No one who watched that game could question their effort. They laid it on the line, but sometimes the chips just don’t fall the way you want them to. Some say the toil of the previous game took its toll on the team. Others say they had simply run their course; in this day and time, the chances of a small school team competing with the more talented big schools was a Herculean task.
As great as Keenan had been in the tourney, he was finally going up against teams with multiple NBA level talent. He not only had to excel but he also had to raise the play of his teammates which as the team would find out, not even he could sustain that type of play.
It all started to unravel with 5 minutes left in the first quarter. The opposing team had missed a shot and Keenan was going for a rebound, unfortunately for him, so was the power forward from the other team. They collided and in that moment, Keenan felt a sharp pain on his right hand. He looked down only to see his index figure bent in an awkward way. The pain was unbearable, quickly excusing himself from the game during the next dead ball situation. He was escorted to the locker room by a personal trainer to see what could be done. Many in the arena, especially the pundits thought he would not be coming back. It was a tough break, coming at a very crucial point for the team. Up until that point, both teams had played competitively; Keenan’s team was only trailing by 2, but after he stepped out of the game due to his broken finger, things spiraled out of control.
With no one to create offense, the team struggled to put up points. The opposing team had no such problem, their players were up to the task and they capitalized on it. By half time, they had increased the lead to 12 points. Keenan was a ball of nerves sitting in that locker room, he was dying to get back in the game but the personal trainer tried to convince him to sit it out. After much arguing, they agreed he could go back in the second half if his fingers were taped up. He’d still feel pain, but it was all they could do presently to get him out there.
He knew what the naysayers would say if he didn’t return. It would only solidify the injury prone tag they had tried to pin on him. No way was he going to give them the satisfaction. More importantly he wasn’t going to let his story end like this. He’d gone through way too much to let a broken finger sideline him.
As the team trooped back into the locker room at half time, looking dejected, he walked to the front of the room and addressed them.
“Guys I’ma keep this short…my finger might be broken but my will isn’t. We are only down 12, we still got this. Sup with all the long faces? Y’all act like this is over. Let’s go out there and win this.”
His resolve seemed to have done the trick. The kids started to believe in themselves again, knowing their best player was going to be on court again.
Keenan kept to his word, scoring five quick points to start the second half, cutting down the deficit to 7 points. His energy was infectious, quickly spreading to other members of the team. They guarded like their lives were on the line, made sure every shot was challenged, frustrated the heck out of their opponents and looked like a completely different outfit from the one that ended the half. They played so well that they not only erased the deficit but took the lead with four minutes to go. The Cinderella team was at it again, playing beyond their potential, keeping up with a team that was way more talented than they were.
Alas sometimes talent beats effort and no matter how hard the less talented team plays, there are certain hurdles that can’t be overcome. The opposing team also had another gear in them and with the game dwindling down, sensing their chances decreasing with each second passing, they turned things up a notch. Blocked shots, steals, rebounds…you name it, they had it. It was almost as if every break in the last three minutes automatically went the opposing teams’ way.
Keenan tried to rally his teammates to stay the course. Yelling at them to match the intensity of their opponents, but it was not good enough. The tide had turned and it was firmly on the other side. Despite being down 7 with less than a minute to go, Keenan refused to give up. Hitting a quick three and immediately fouling on the in-bounds play. It was now a numbers game…desperately hoping the basketball gods would send some blessings their way. Sadly it was not the case and despite his efforts, the opposing team maintained its lead to the end.
The finality of the loss finally sunk in as the buzzer signaling the end of the game went off. Keenan sunk to the ground, head buried in his hands. It was an inexplicable feeling that gripped him. He had invested so much in this run…and now it was all gone. There would be no next seasons since he was a senior. This was it and he had failed. He could feel his coach right next to him, speaking softly, trying to console him, but those words were not registering with him. He was trapped in his own grief.