With only two minutes remaining on the game clock, UMBC and New Hampshire were tied at 54. For New Hampshire, it would be a huge upset on the road, a couple of hours in the making. For the Retrievers, with a conference title possibly just two minutes away, we were watching school history, several years in the making.
For me, though, tired and dazed, with that eau de locker room smell emanating from my pores, it had been a long day of basketball - eight hours in the making, in fact.
The stars had lined up perfectly yesterday, and in Baltimore, we had five area schools hosting games. I filled the tank up with gas, scribbled out an itinerary and was ready to OD on some mid-major hoops. It was to be a day without TV timeouts, but as I would find later, still very much a race against the clock. My goal was simple: five basketball games, one day.
When I walked into Reitz Arena, shortly before 1 p.m., the two teams were going through warm-ups. Loyola was about to host the UC Davis Aggies, who traveled more than 2,700 miles to be here. Gracious hosts that they are, the Loyola students spent two hours barking out bits of California culture gleaned from television - rants about skateboarding and surfing, Saved by the Bell, 90210, Ashton Kutcher and The O.C.
It was difficult to find suspense in this first game. Even when UC Davis built an 11-point lead, I had a hard time believing the Aggies might pull it out. My grim prognosis had little to do with the fact that they dressed only eight players. I ruled them out by scanning the media guide and studying the Aggies' majors - philosophy, textiles and clothing, viticulture and enology, managerial economics? No, this wasn't Memphis.
Loyola held on to win, 67-64, and the biggest challenge of my day hit me in the face when I returned to my car. Three of the five games tipped off at the same time, which meant that for the next two hours, I would have to race all over town.
I flipped on the car radio and learned that the Maryland men's basketball team trailed Miami late in the first half. That game was way down in Coral Gables, Fla.; my internal GPS told me it was probably too far to squeeze into the day's schedule. Instead, my next stop was the Hampton-Coppin State game.
As I cut through the city, I found myself driving from Anne Tyler's Baltimore to David Simon's. I traded $7 for a ticket and unloaded an electronics store from my pockets before passing through a metal detector. Inside the gym, the crowd was as lively as anything I would see all day.
I had time to stay for only about seven minutes of action, just enough time to see Coppin State grab a slight lead (which it held on to, winning 72-55).
Back in the car, the Terps game was already in the post-game show. Maryland lost, and its NCAA tournament hopes seem dimmer with each passing game. I changed the station to check on my next stop - a team that has to feel better about its postseason hopes. Morgan State, undefeated at home and first in its conference, was hosting Howard across town. I arrived in time to catch the final couple of minutes of the first half.
When the buzzer sounded, two dozen kids stormed the court for halftime. They make up a jump-rope team from Howard County - the Kangaroo Kids - and they wielded their ropes as a young Jedi would a light saber. Even Morgan State's Bear mascot got in the act, dropping a double Dutch education on everyone before the second half began.
Howard brought a 5-21 record into the game and was ranked No. 333 in the Rating Percentage Index, so when Jamar Smith threw down a two-handed dunk, giving the Bears a 21-point lead, I felt it was safe to duck out. (The Bears survived a late scare and held on to win, 64-59.)
With three games in the books, my own game clock was still ticking. I didn't realize how quickly until I found the High Point-Towson game on the radio dial. Apparently, Towson was the only game of the day to start on time, and with a string of red lights, my five-game plan was in serious jeopardy.
Surely, this was how Jack Bauer would tackle a day of hoops, I thought as I raced from my car and poked my head into the Towson Center, nearly out of breath. I felt guilty putting a check mark next to Towson on my itinerary because only 3.7 seconds remained on the clock when I arrived. But it turned into 3.7 seconds of the best basketball I would see all day.
The two teams were in a timeout. The scoreboard indicated that Towson trailed by one, and the Tigers had possession. On the inbounds pass, a whistle quickly blew. High Point committed a suspect foul, and Towson's C.C. Williams was headed to the line to shoot two free throws, needing both for the win. Two thousand people in one room had never been so quiet.
Williams made both, giving the Tigers a 73-72 victory. I pulled a U-turn, walking out of Towson Center without even taking off my jacket. There was no time. My next stop was clear across town, where New Hampshire-UMBC would soon tip off.
The Retrievers entered the game in a position they had never been in before: A win would lock up the regular-season America East title and give them the top seed in the conference tournament. While much of the country would spend the night focused on No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 2 Tennessee, there wasn't a bigger game in Maryland than UMBC-New Hampshire, and the stands were filled to the brim. (The announced crowd of 3,712 was, in fact, the largest in school history.)
With just 1:37 on the clock and the score tied at 54, UMBC made a three-pointer that gave the Retrievers the lead. New Hampshire tied it in the final minute, though, and my fifth and final game of the day refused to end.
In overtime, point guard Jay Greene hit two more threes, giving the Retrievers an insurmountable lead. UMBC won the game, 71-68, and also the America East title. As exciting as the post-game celebration was, I was looking for the exit. It had been a long day.
The final tally: 55 miles, 10 teams, eight hours, five games. Baltimore's schools won all five, and I saw an entire zoo of mascots - Bison, Tigers, Bears, Retrievers, Greyhounds, Panthers, Wildcats and Eagles - not to mention the Pirates and Aggies.
I felt pretty good about myself, and I checked the ESPN.com scoreboard before heading back to my car. Five games feels like a lot to pack into a single day, but there were 148 played around the country yesterday.
For me, the rest would have to wait for another weekend. I was ready for the showers.