The home-team energy behind Emerson's men's basketball on Saturday was palpable. More than 300 people packed the Piano Row gymnasium to capacity and a baseline full of fans cheered their team on in the Great Northeast Atlantic Conference finals, equipped with free yellow pompoms and "Lion's Den, Emerson Pride" T-shirts, handed out by Athletic Director Kristin Parnell.
But all the hooting, hollering and standing ovations were not enough to carry Emerson to a championship title. The top-dog Lions lost 86-72 to the second-ranked Lasell College Lasers of Newton, Mass., an upset that silenced the enthusiastic crowd and left the Emerson men hanging their heads. After the team retreated to the locker room, the Lasers pulled out a chair and cut down one of the nets, one strand and one player at a time. It was a painful jab to the dispersing fans, but generally a common practice for college basketball finals.
Entering the game, the Lions boasted a program-best record of 24-3 (15-3 in the GNAC), while Lasell stood at 19-8 (14-4 GNAC). The only time the teams met this season, in January, Emerson won 83-79.
"I'm extremely disappointed," said senior captain and starting guard Will Dawkins. "My whole goal since I got here was to get to the NCAA [Tournament]. I'm feeling that I let my team and my school down."
Dawkins, along with four other seniors, saw this game as their third and final chance to win the GNAC championship. In 2005 and 2006, the men lost in the finals.
This year's 14-point loss was not as close as the last two championship attempts, in which Emerson lost by nine in both games, but was far from a blowout. At halftime, Emerson was down by 10 points, 42-32.
Emerson came back to take the lead, 49-47, with just under 13 minutes remaining. Thirty seconds later, Lasell's 6-foot-9-inch starting forward Jose Guitian, the game's All-Tournament MVP, made a three-point shot, and the lead stuck with the Lasers.
With 26 points, Guitian, a junior, tied Emerson sophomore point guard Jeremy Shannon for the game's highest point total.
With four minutes left in the game, Dawkins, the all-time leading scorer in GNAC tournament history, made a layup to bring his point total in the game to four, earning him third place on Emerson's career scoring list.
"As soon as I heard that announcement, I was like, 'That's a personal award for when you're old and have kids and can say, 'Hey, look at what I did,'" the broadcast journalism major said.
He said his focus at that point was on the game and "getting the job done."
Emerson grabbed 20 defensive rebounds, compared with Lasell's 33, but was up 10-4 in offensive rebounds. But the game was about size and speed, and Lasell's three 6-foot-5-inch-plus starters made defending difficult for Emerson, with 6-foot-4-inch Bryan Rouse as its tallest player.
"We were real undersized compared to this team," said Rouse, a marketing communication major, who was paired against Lasell's Guitian. "They were clutch. Every time we made a shot, they made a run."
After the game, the players retreated to the locker room for nearly 30 minutes, then slowly emerged, not sure what to make of the unfavorable outcome.
"Honestly, I don't know what would've worked. It's hard to say," said Shannon, a marketing communication major. "Last year, we lost to Suffolk, and we used that this year to get us to the championship. And we'll use this next year."
Freshman guard/forward Jon Showers said the moment was sentimental because the team had been trying to win for the seniors and graduating captains, Dawkins, Ben Chase and Joe Boylan.
"Everybody's a Monday morning quarterback," said Showers, a print journalism major. "But [Lasell] played well today."
Team manager-turned-player Rhys Thieriot, a senior guard, said the emotional scene after the game epitomized his experience at Emerson.
"I went in there, and I just burst into tears," the media studies major said. "Because that locker room was filled with 30 guys that love one another to death. For a team that just lost the championship game, it was probably the best locker room experience."
The team did qualify, however, for the East Coast Athletic Conference tournament, where it was awarded the top seed. The Lions faced off against the University of New England on Wednesday night, but lost by a score of 104-99 in overtime, bringing their season to an end.
In his postgame speech to his team after the Lasell game, Head Coach Hank Smith tried to be upbeat while looking toward the rest of the season, players said.
"I'm so happy that I was coaching this team," Smith said. "Sure, you like to win but that doesn't change the quality of coaching."