Monday, March 21, 2016

Clock strikes midnight for Monmouth, but the best is still yet to come

King Rice admitted he would soon realize significance of Monmouth's season, but took responsibility for loss that ended it, an 87-71 setback to George Washington in second round of NIT. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ -- King Rice's postgame press conference Monday night was merely a microcosm of Monmouth's season, which concluded at the Multipurpose Activity Center in an 87-71 loss to George Washington in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.

"I feel awful after the game," Rice said as the Hawks (28-8) were denied an opportunity to extend their season by one more game, which would have presented them a chance to compete at Madison Square Garden had they won. "But we need to hold our heads up high. A lot of firsts happened for these young men up here, and at some point, I'll be able to look back and think it was a pretty cool deal. Tonight, I felt bad for my kids because we just didn't have as much juice as we needed to get over the hump."

As it turned out, Monmouth did not match up well with a bigger, stronger, more physical George Washington side, which used a 1-3-1 zone defense with 6-foot-8 wing Yuta Watanabe at the top of it. Watanabe was the driving force in rendering Justin Robinson, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's Player of the Year, into an uncharacteristic 2-for-16 night that yielded just six points on the junior guard's ledger.

"Seeing a longer defender isn't any different," Robinson matter-of-factly intimated. "I just wasn't hitting shots tonight."

And so it was that kind of night for Monmouth, but one game does not take from what still goes down in the annals as one of the best seasons in program history, championship or no championship.

"My little guy, Julian, he's upset because we aren't getting a trophy," Rice said, referencing how the loss affected his son. "I'll explain it to him some other time that we got a whole bunch of trophies this year."

Let's be honest, if you would have told any Monmouth fan going into the season that the Hawks would win 28 games, five of which coming against opponents from the "power five" high-major conferences, win 17 games in MAAC play, a regular season championship, a near-miss in an instant classic of a conference title game, and reach the second round of a postseason tournament, any Monmouth fan would sign up for that.

Fortunately for Monmouth, the best is yet to come. The Hawks only lose Deon Jones, who received a well-deserved standing ovation in the final minutes after Rice substituted him for the final time, culminating a career that began in the Northeast Conference; when Monmouth was an afterthought on everybody's radar, and ended with a senior showing the determination to fight back from a broken hand to not only help his team win a championship, but reach the postseason and keep a miraculous campaign alive, next season. Everyone else from this year's group is back, which led Rice to conclude his presser with the same combination of fire and defiance that may have rubbed some the wrong way, yet served as one of the best possible representations for the current state of Monmouth basketball.

"We're going to win," Rice confidently assured. "Just understand that. I'm going to watch tape, I'm going to get better, I'm going to be more mature, all these things, and we're going to win."

With this season now in the books, the foundation has at least been set. Now we will see what a promising future can do for an encore.

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