LOUISVILLE, Ky.â€”In a town nestled alongside the Ohio River, the journey came to an end for CSU menâ€™s basketball.
The season had its lows and its fair share of highs, but the ending was anything but fairytale.
The Rams, for the second time in as many weeks, fumbled away their second half lead falling to Murray State 58-41 on Thursday afternoon, the fewest points for CSU on the season. The loss leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of coaches and players despite and otherwise exceptional season for a program bereft of success.
â€œAm I frustrated and ticked off? Hell, who wouldnâ€™t be,â€ CSU coach Tim Miles said of his teamâ€™s second half performance. â€œYou stand out there for an hour. Thatâ€™s no fun.
â€œBut these guys, this group, Iâ€™d take anywhere, any time against anybody.â€
And he did.
This season opened with questions surrounding how CSU would replace the production of leading scorer Andy Ogide and fellow senior Travis Franklin. The lack of height and depth inside meant the Rams would have to play small ball, relying on their strong core of guards.
CSU was stilled picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West and a second NIT appearance seemed likely.
â€œA lot of people were looking at us like this was going to be a down year,â€ junior Wes Eikmeier said. â€œWe proved that we were going to be a good team.â€
Miles challenged his team with a tough non-conference schedule with games against Northern Iowa, CU-Boulder and national powerhouse Duke. The Rams limped through the first nine games with a 5-4 record, highlighted by close wins over CU and Manhattan.
But CSU responded, exploding in late December and early January with eight straight wins improving its record to 13-4. The soft mid-season schedule gave the Rams much needed momentum going into conference play, earning a high RPI and strength of schedule.
MW games proved to be the most difficult, as expected, where every good win seemed to get matched by a disappointing loss. However, the one constant was Moby Arena.
For the first time since 1960-61, CSU finished conference play undefeated at home, and lost just one game the entire season at Moby. Big wins at home over three ranked opponents (San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV) helped propel the Rams to fourth place in the MW and NCAA Tournament contenders with a 19-10 record.
â€œHell it (the season) was great,â€ Miles said. â€œYou canâ€™t get more out of a group of guysâ€¦they won 20 games, got to the NCAA, finished top four in the fifth best conference in the country.
â€œFor the first time ever in school history, they beat three ranked teams. As a coach, I just canâ€™t be prouder of a group of guys.â€
Sometimes pain is the catalyst for change.
â€œWe had a good season; itâ€™s always unfortunate to end it this way,â€ guard Dorian Green said. â€œThe guys coming back have to use this loss as motivation for next year.â€
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the 2011-12 season was establishing an atmosphere of winning. With just two seniors leaving the team, plus the addition of a seven-footer and a talented slasher, the Rams look poised to return stronger than ever.
â€œThe special teams pop through (disappointing losses),â€ Miles said. â€œThis is our first time through this at CSU. I just think that you need to go through this. You need to feel the shame and to bounce back and do it again.
â€œTheyâ€™ll live to see a brighter day.â€
Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at email@example.com.