A dream season for the UAA men's basketball team came crashing down Thursday in the Four Four.
Needing just one more victory to advance to the title game of the NCAA Division II Championships, the fourth-ranked Seawolves fell short in a 56-50 loss to 10th-ranked Augusta State in the national semifinals in Springfield, Mass.
But going down in defeat wasn't what had All-America captain Luke Cooper hurting, All-America captain Carl Arts reflecting and longtime UAA coach Rusty Osborne in tears. All three knew Thursday was the last time the senior Seawolves would be on the court together.
And that was the most difficult thing to swallow.
"It's not the pain that we lost because I know we've had a great season and maximized our potential, but it's pain because it's over," Cooper said by cell phone. "Four years, 120 or so games, you just played your last one.
"It's sad knowing you'll never have teammates in this college atmosphere every again. You won't be able to practice again -- you hate it at the time but you look back and you appreciate it.
"Now it's never going to happen again."
And it's all Augusta State's fault. The 27-6 team from Georgia got a dominating first-half effort and big plays down the stretch from its two horses -- All-American Tyrekus Bowman and 6-foot-11 center Garret Siler -- to hold off the hard-charging Seawolves and hand UAA (29-6) just its third loss since Nov. 24 at the Great Alaska Shootout.
Augusta State advanced to Saturday's national championship game against Winona State.
"It's a great feeling. Nobody would have said this four weeks ago when we lost in the first round of our conference tournament," Augusta State coach Dip Metress said in a TV interview. "But we knew we had a good team. It's a credit to our players."
The Seawolves nearly fought back from a 28-11 halftime deficit in which they set a school record for fewest points in a half (the old mark was 12 at Kentucky) and tied the NCAA Elite Eight record.
The comeback was fueled by a 3-point barrage that got UAA as close as 38-35 and 44-41.
Each time, Augusta State responded. Inside the final minute, the Seawolves trailed 53-48.
UAA had a chance to pull within a deuce with 36 seconds left, but Arts' 3-pointer rimmed in and out to end the rally. His shot looked good as it rattled around a couple times before squirting out.
"Oh, man, I couldn't believe it. I was about to start celebrating," Arts said by phone. "It was a momentum killer. If we make that shot, we're down two points and it forces Augusta State to have a good possession."
"His three that went in and out made my heart stop for a second," Cooper said. "That goes and we're down two with 30 seconds left. It's a ballgame."
Instead, it was end game.
"They made everybody proud the way they came back," Osborne said by phone. "We played Seawolf basketball in the second half."
The loss ended a special season that saw the Seawolves break or tie at least 23 team and individual records -- including most victories (29), most playoff wins (four) and the longest winning streak (18). On top of that, UAA won a conference title for the first time since 1997, captured the NCAA West Regional and advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1988.
And leading the way were assistant coaches Shane Rinner and Bryan Weakley, and a fourth-year head coach who has been with the program for 17 seasons.
"The biggest thing I was proud of (was) that we laid a foundation to the way we are going to do things within the program," said Osborne, his voice trembling. "We had some guys work hard over the last four years to build this program back up to an elite national level and we don't want it to fall away from that.
"After the hurt goes away, after the empty feeling leaves the stomach, they're gonna have a lot of great memories."
Most of Thursday's memories will focus on the second half because the Seawolves were awful the first 20 minutes. They missed shots, stood around and at times compounded bad turnovers with dumb fouls.
UAA missed 11 straight 3-pointers and managed only 11 points in the half, the fewest in 31 seasons of UAA basketball. How bad was it?
On one possession, the Seawolves were unable to score despite having three quality chances.
About four minutes before halftime, Cooper drove to the rim, made a tough bank shot and was fouled -- but the referee said the foul came before the basket and waived off the two points. Then Doug Hardy missed an open layup and McCade Olsen missed a point-blank follow.
"I was like, 'Wow, I never thought we'd be down that much,' " Arts said. "The first half was horrible. There's no way you're gonna win a game here when you come out with a half like that. We just dug ourselves in too much of a hole."
Augusta State's two-time All-American Bowman bagged 13 of his 18 points by halftime.
Then in the second half it was Siler, a near 7-foot 300-pounder, who killed the Seawolves. He scored 13 of his 17 points after halftime -- most within 6 feet of the rim -- and provided 11 of his team's final 20 points.
"He was a beast down low. McCade had his hands full and he did the best he possibly could," Arts said. "He was just huge."
Olsen, giving up 4 inches and 85 pounds, bounced off the aggressive Siler several times trying to defend the post.
The Seawolves canned 9 of 18 long-range 3-pointers after halftime, helping them score 11 points in the opening 3:20 of the second half, matching their total from the entire first half.
Olsen triggered an 18-5 run with 10 of his 14 points and Arts, Chris Bryant and Cameron Burney also got into the 3-point party.
But the three they needed the most rimmed out at the end, taking UAA's title hopes with it.
"We ran out of time," Osborne said. "It would have been better to win, but it doesn't take away from the character and the toughness they showed in battling back."
It was the final college games for senior starters Arts, Bryant, Cooper and Olsen. Arts is from Valdez, Bryant from Metlakatla -- and Arts took special pride in helping the Seawolves get back to the pinnacle of Division II basketball at the site of the Hall of Fame.
It's been a ride -- one that saw him become UAA's third-leading all-time scorer and rebounder -- he'll never forget.
"For me to come here from a small town and make a big impact, I always wanted to leave a legacy behind me so when people think of the school I went to they think of my name," he said.
Find assistant sports editor Van Williams online at adn.com/contact/vwilliams or call 257-4335.
Augusta St.28 28 -- 56
UAA11 39 -- 50
Augusta St. -- Bowman 7-15 3-4 18; Siler 8-11 1-1 17; Dixon 2-4 2-3 7; Howard 2-11 1-2 7; Madgen 0-8 5-6 5; Smith 1-1 0-0 2; Tambon 0-0 0-0 0; Brown 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 12-16 56.
UAA -- Arts 8-14 0-0 19; Olsen 5-13 2-2 14; Bryant 3-13 0-0 9; Burney 3-7 0-0 8; Trueman 0-0 0-0 0; Kettler 0-0 0-0 0; Cooper 0-1 0-0 0; Hardy 0-2 0-0 0; Ridgeway 0-1 0-0 0; White 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 19-54 2-2 50.
3-point goals -- Augusta St. 4-15 (Howard 2-9; Dixon 1-2; Bowman 1-3; Madgen 0-1), UAA 10-31 (Bryant 3-11; Arts 3-6; Burney 2-5; Olsen 2-5; Cooper 0-1; White 0-3). Fouled out -- Augusta St.-None, UAA-None. Rebounds -- Augusta St. 36 (Bowman 9), UAA 30 (Olsen 8). Assists -- Augusta St. 10 (Howard 3; Bowman 3), UAA 14 (Cooper 7). Total fouls -- Augusta St. 10, UAA 19. Technical fouls -- Augusta St.-None, UAA-None.