Since Lefty Driesell first came to JMU as the men's basketball coach, an NCAA tournament berth has not only been hoped for but expected.
And for the first time in his six seasons in Harrisonburg — thanks to a miracle comeback and a little magic from Kent Culuko — Lefty and the boys are headed to the Big Dance.
Pessimism was born after a tragic first-round loss to Navy in the 1990- 91 Colonial Athletic Association tournament. It grew into despair the next season when Old Dominion catapulted past the Dukes into the NCAA tournament with an upset win.
And despair matured into disgust last year when hapless East Carolina nipped a more talented JMU team and snatched what seemed to be a sure ticket to the Big Dance.
But one shot, by one player, in one game, in a span of 1.1 seconds all hope has been restored and the Dukes now have a first-round NCAA matchup with Florida.
There's nothing more anguishing than seeing ODU hold the trophy high or watching an ESPN special report on "Team 64 — the other team from Carolina."
But there is nothing more gratifying than watching Lefty cut down the nets and JMU fans swarming the court
Driesell has faced criticism, and the players during the past several years have taken some heat as well, but one difference sets them apart right now.
These Dukes are going to the tournament. That's The Tournament, not some consolation prize for people that have good teams but who didn't meet the expectations of the NCAA selection committee.
How the Dukes made their way into the 64-team field this season — as opposed to the last several, when they seemed to have more talent — is marked by a sense of maturity and fire that each one of the players have brought to the floor. The key: a winning attitude.
Outside of the monumental 22-foot three-pointer by Culuko to win the game, several factors that had developed during the course of the season all came together at the right time.
First, senior captain and first team AU-CAA selection Clayton Ritter exhibited his worth to this team — on and off the floor. Ritter, who three seasons ago had been nothing more than timid on a basketball court, inspired the Dukes during a time out midway through the second half.
"I just told them that I didn't want to leave anything on the floor," he said, "and I didn't want to be in the locker room saying, 'I could have given more."'
And it was Ritter's offensive rebound with less than five seconds left that gave Culuko the opportunity to be a hero. ODU's Petey Sessoms had grabbed the rebound off Darren McLinton's miss, but Ritter aggressively seized the ball, throwing Sessoms to the floor without the ball. It doesn't even matter now that his ensuing shot was blocked by Odell Hodge.
Second, it was the play of guards McLinton and Dennis Leonard in the second half that ignited the rally. But more than Leonard's three steals and McLinton's career-high 21 points, it was their leadership that provided the difference.
If you want to win a regular season title and have a point guard lead your team in scoring, you start Bryan Edwards. But if you. want to win a close game that calls for leadership and passing a gut check, you call on De-Rock or McLinton.
Third, Culuko will be forever remembered by most JMU fans for his three-pointer, but he should also be remembered for a quote from the beginning of the season that turned out to be prophetic.
Culuko said prior to the start of the seasons that he didn't care if he scored two points or 20 in the championship game, just so long as the Dukes won and got to the NCAAs.
And before he let go of the shot that endeared him to everyone at JMU, Culuko had made only one shot and actually finished with only eight points on subpar 2-for-7 shooting in the biggest game of his college career. But he wouldn't trade the championship for a better night from the floor.
Finally, even Lefty, who has faced questions and doubt from every angle, can bask in the glow of his first tournament appearance since he took Maryland in 1986.
The Dukes were down a seemingly insurmountable 19 points to an ODU team that looked to be headed for its second NCAA tournament in its three seasons in the CAA. But after a spirited comeback, Driesell's son and associate head coach Chuck stole a page from the movie "Hoosiers," and called for The Picket Fence play, which freed Culuko for the game- winner.
The rest has been replayed on ESPN several times, and every JMU fan can relive the play in their head for as long as they want. But unlike the past, the replay will always result in the Dukes dancing their way to Long Island.
All because this JMU team refused to give up, stepped up when it needed to, and one shot fell their way.