Emporia State captured the Division II women's basketball national championship tonight, 65-53. Less than 48 hours ago, Emporia trailed Gannon by what seemed an insurmountable 18 points with 8 1/2 minutes to play in the Final Four before rallying to win in OT. Makes you even more convinced that GU could (and should) be holding the championship trophy over their heads right now, celebrating a perfect 39-0 season, huh?
So the Lady Knights must feel even worse right now about their season's dreams being dashed. Actually that's not the case from what I've been told. The Gannon team actually feels fortunate they headed home prior to tonight's championship. Here's the story I've been told behind that claim. I don't have all the details confirmed, but I think the gist of the story is really what counts:
Carrie Nolan's grandfather, Jerry Lojak, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer about a year ago. Ordinary grandfathers see their athlete grandkids at home games and maybe travel across town once in a while. Carrie's grandfather was extraordinary. Not only did he watch every one of her sporting events -- home, road, near, far -- but more importantly he served as an influential father figure.
Cancer had begun to seize more control of him recently, and though his heart was willing, his body was not able enough for him to attend the Atlantic Regional tournament at Gannon. Can you imagine? You follow your beloved granddaughter's career from crack-of-dawn mini-league on Saturday mornings to East Nowhere, Michigan for AAU tournaments yet you can't make the 12-mile trip from Pleasant Ridge Manor in Girard to watch the biggest games of her career.
As we all know, the Lady Knights won regionals, earning the Elite 8 bid where they rallied past Tusculum, 70-66, in the national quarterfinals Tuesday. Nolan hit one of the game's biggest shots, a backbreaking, no hesitation three-pointer with 1:49 to go to give GU a 5-point lead. After their stunning loss late Wednesday night, Gannon headed back to Erie from St. Joseph, Missouri, scheduled to return to campus mid-afternoon on Thursday. Carrie's plan was to drive immediately to Pleasant Ridge to see her grandfather.
But on the bus ride back, Carrie got word that her grandfather's condition was worsening; she might not see him if she made the trip to Gannon and then drove to Girard. So Lady Knight coach Cleve Wright directed the bus driver to take the Route 98 Fairview exit instead of I-79 and drive directly to Pleasant Ridge so a tearful Carrie could say her final goodbyes.
As the somber team headed down Route 98, the bus slowed. Then it broke down. Frantic phone calls were made trying to get Carrie a ride to the nursing home which was now just a couple miles away. A family friend raced to the disabled bus to rescue Carrie. But she wasn't going alone. Some teammates insisted they accompany her to the nursing home.
When Carrie finally arrived at Pleasant Ridge, her grandfather was fading fast but still conscious. They got to talk. I imagine basketball was mentioned once or twice. About a half hour after Carrie's arrival, final goodbyes were exchanged, and her grandfather passed away.
Had the Lady Knights won their Final Four game, had they held onto that 18-point lead, Carrie wouldn't have been at her grandfather's side when he passed away. I'm told that afterward Carrie and some Gannon teammates reflected on the situation. Between the choice of a national championship or a chance for Carrie to hug her grandfather one last time, they picked the latter. Unanimously.
Gannon lost that Final Four game by 3, 97-94, in overtime. On a well-designed final play, Nolan had an open right-wing three, a shot she's made hundreds of times throughout her career. But this one was short, drawing only iron as the buzzer sounded. Maybe the shot missed because her elbow wasn't tucked in enough or because she didn't bend her knees enough. Or maybe it missed because she was being called to do something more important.