Mike MacDonald isn’t making this up. Last weekend, the Daemen College men’s basketball team arrived in Evansville for the NCAA’s Division II Elite Eight. When MacDonald got to his hotel room around 2 a.m., he clicked on the television set.
“Hoosiers” was on.
What could be more fitting than a movie about a little school overcoming the odds to make a championship run? That’s how MacDonald felt when his team arrived in Indiana, like one of those teams representing all the little guys who never got there.
Granted, most basketball teams struggled during the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. No offseason to speak of. A limited practice regimen. Uncertainty about whether there would be a season at all. Games canceled and postponed, players in quarantine.
It seemed that the fates were especially tough on the Wildcats, who were hit by last-second postponements, the defection of nearly half the team, even a car accident en route to a game.
‘It’s been a wild ride, let’s put it that way,” said MacDonald, whose team plays No. 1 seed West Texas A&M in the 1-8 quarterfinal on Wednesday. “We’ve had a rough go. Our year has been crazy.”
The craziness began a year ago on March 12, when Daemen found out its season was over while eating lunch in Binghamton, halfway to a first-round NCAA tournament game in Connecticut. The women’s team was on Long Island, getting ready for its NCAA game, when sports shut down in the country because of the pandemic.
During the shutdown, MacDonald tried to keep in touch with his players as best he could. There were a lot of Zoom calls. When the team got back to school in September, the protocols limited workouts to one player at a time with one basketball. Then it was two guys at a time. Finally, they got to play five-on-five.
“We had one week where we had five-on-five,” MacDonald recalled. “At the end of that week, we had a positive test and had to go in quarantine for two weeks.”
So much for November. Like most colleges, Daemen shut down for Thanksgiving and sent students home for the semester. The college allowed the basketball team to return to campus for workouts. Nine of MacDonald’s players decided against it.
“They said, ‘It’s not worth it,’ ” MacDonald said. “I could see where they were coming from.”
Some of the guys who quit were marginal players. But several were regular members of his rotation, including potential starters. MacDonald said if those nine defectors had formed their own team, they wouldn’t have won their league, the East Coast Conference, but could have finished in the middle.
The remaining players worked out for two weeks, then went home for Christmas break. They came back after New Year’s to get ready for the long-awaited season opener, scheduled for Jan. 16 against Mercyhurst.
“Then on Jan. 15, we have a positive test and shut everything down,” MacDonald said. “So on the day before the first game, which they’ve been building up to, they’re told they have to go into quarantine.”
That meant they would have two days to get ready for the next “opener,” on Jan. 29. MacDonald thought of postponing, but the players would have revolted. They went up big, but their legs weren’t up to it and they lost to Gannon. They went to Gannon two day later and got blown out by 28 points.
“So we’re 0-2,” MacDonald said. “We figured, ‘We’re new.’ We had a lot of new guys, young guys. We started two freshmen. Ryan Salzburg, another starter, had played 100 minutes all of last year. So we knew we were in for a long haul.”
Andrew Sischo, the Wildcats’ all-American center, said if you’d told him at that point that Daemen would wind up in the final eight of the NCAA tourney, he would have thought you were nuts.
It got crazier. A week later, on the first Saturday in February, they were riding in three vans through a snowstorm to Rochester for a game at Roberts Wesleyan. MacDonald had just passed the Pembroke exit when he came upon stopped traffic for an accident on the I-90.
He saw one of his assistants picking up the bumper from one of the other vans. An 18-wheeler had jackknifed on the icy highway. One of the team vans had been hit in the collision.
“Thankfully, nobody got hurt,” MacDonald said. “We can laugh now, but it was crazy, and it was awful. We ended up postponing that game. Now you’re 0-2, you had a game canceled for Covid. You’ve had a game canceled because of an 18-wheeler, and you’re wondering ‘Is this season ever going to happen?’”
He soon found out how resilient a team he had. Two days after the accident, the Wildcats went back and won big at Roberts Wesleyan. A young and shallow but determined squad found its stride and won seven of eight as the postseason approached.
“When we lose, it’s because we don’t have a ton of depth,” MacDonald said. “But this group is resilient. This group is tough, and this group is extremely fun to be around.
“I tell my guys all the time I have the utmost respect for them, because it’s not easy doing what they have to do. Having to get tested three times a week and all that stuff, it’s not easy. It’s not easy having a Q-tip stuffed up your nose.”
The rewards comes when you begin to sniff the playoffs. Daemen lost to its fierce rival, St. Thomas Aquinas (STAC), in the East Coast title game for the second year in a row. But they got an at-large NCAA berth and knocked off Bloomfield to earn another shot at Aquinas for the East region championship in Albany.
Daemen had beaten STAC over the years — including once this season — but never when it truly mattered. MacDonald wondered if his young, thin team was ready for a game that would put them in the final eight of the national D-II tournament for the first time in Daemen’s six-year NCAA history.
They went down early, 8-0, and MacDonald fretted some more. But Andrew Mason, his unflappable 6-2 freshman forward, hit a couple of three-pointers. Sischo, playing in his hometown, was dominant as always in the post with 25 points and 13 rebounds.
Senior Kyle Harris, the Park School graduate who hadn’t been a starter early in the season, scored 21 points, his most in a month. Daemen won, 71-70.
“Kyle took a test the day of the East Regional championship game,” MacDonald said. “He came down late for pre-game after taking an accounting test. Who the hell does that? Then he went out and made six threes. Maybe it was the karma police.”
Speaking of karma, Daemen stayed in the same Albany hotel where Canisius had stayed 25 years earlier when they won the MAAC title to gain their only NCAA berth in the last 64 years. MacDonald was an assistant to John Beilein on that team.
That was the year when a senior named Mickey Frazier promised he would sit on top of the rim if the Griffs won the title. MacDonald texted Frazier the night before Daemen’s title game against Aquinas. Same arena, same hotel, he told him. Lot of memories.
Frazier, who was never at a loss for words, wrote an inspirational letter and sent it to MacDonald, who read it to his team.
“It talked about living in the moment, enjoying it, because you’re never going to have anything like this,” MacDonald said. He told them the Frazier story, how he’d struggled at times in his career, how he sat gleefully on top of that basket with the net around his neck.
Sean Fasoyiro, the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer, went online and found the photo of Frazier sitting on the rim. He sent it around to the team on a group chat. After Daemen won the region title and cut the nets, freshman Tyler Hind climbed up on the rim and sat there with the net around his neck.
Sischo, the two-time all American, was crying tears of joy. He had set all sort of records at Daemen, but this was what he wanted most, getting his school to a regional title.
“Oh, absolutely,” Sischo said. “Being able to do that in my hometown, against my rival. There’s been nobody that’s had battles like STAC with us since I’ve been here. It was awesome to finally conquer that beast at playoff time.
“I could break every record and have every reward in the country,” he said. “But the only thing that ever mattered to me was finally getting this championship for our great athletic department.”
Sischo said it was even sweeter to win in the same year as the women’s team, which also reached the Elite Eight under Jen Banker and has its first game Tuesday against Lubbock Christian, which won the 2019 national championship and has won 32 straight games.
He said MacDonald never wavered during all the adversity of the past year. “No, never,” he said. “That’s his job. He’s told to coach who we have.”
It’s reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s character in “Hoosiers”, coach Norman Dale, telling the students at Hickory High to support “who we are, not who we are not.”
MacDonald is playing the underdog role to the hilt. West Texas A&M won 98 games over three years from 2017-20, more than any other NCAA team. Gonzaga was second. He said they have two guards (Joel Murray and Qua Grant) who could start for a lot of mid-major Division I programs.
West Texas has an enrollment of 7,355 and is spread over 135 suburban acres. Daemen has 1,700 undergraduates and its campus is on 35 acres on Main Street in Amherst.
“We’re a small school that has been Division II for only six years,” MacDonald said. “So we’re definitely a new kid on the block. It’s like Hoosiers.”
Of course, this has been a wild year for upsets in the Division I tournament. There were more upsets by 13th to 15th seeds than in any year in history. The rims in Indiana are 10 feet from the floor, same as in the movie. Now little Daemen gets a chance to measure itself against the very best in Division II.
“Loyola was an 8. Illinois was a 1,” MacDonald said. “Our game is a 1-8. Look at the schools. Abilene Christian, Oral Roberts, schools people haven’t heard of. Hopefully, we can put Daemen into that.”