BOSTON -- "I'm not ready to walk away."
Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez had been saying it to his players for the last two weeks -- during practice, at team meals, during the final timeout of a double-OT win in the conference tourney semis with an NCAA berth at stake. It was a mantra, reminding the Jaspers that Gonzalez would not allow their season to end prematurely.
Not in the MAAC conference tourney semis.
Not in the MAAC conference tourney finals.
Not until they'd gone as far as they possibly could in the NCAA Tournament.
Well, Manhattan reached that point on Friday. After 23 regular-season wins, 14 conference victories and 39 minutes of heroically battling a bigger and stronger Syracuse team, Gonzalez was finally convinced. The Jaspers were hopelessly behind, down 76-65 with 32.5 seconds left in the game.
"I thought, 'Now I'm ready to walk away,'" Gonzalez said. "'Now, it's okay to lose.'"
So Gonzalez subbed for both of his senior starters -- Jared Johnson and Justin Jackette, the duo that had helped him build a 5-22 team in 1998-99 into a legitimate mid-major power -- and wrapped the two in a sideline bear hug before they could sit down.
"I told them how much I loved them," said Gonzalez, whose reclamation project has turned him into one of the nation's hottest coaching commodities. "And how we wouldn't be where we are without 'em."
It was a Hallmark moment, and the Manhattan contingent dutifully recognized it, rising to applaud the seniors. And as much as the loss stung -- the Jaspers closed within one, but never took the lead in the final 33 minutes of the game -- both departing players realized there are worse ways to go out.
"I'd much rather walk off after losing in front of my friends and family in a packed FleetCenter in the NCAA Tournament than after losing in Trenton, New Jersey (where the MAAC tournament is played)," said Jackette, eyes still bleary after ending his collegiate career with a scoreless, 0-for-5 outing. "We weren't satisfied just to get here, but we were satisfied with the way we played and we showed we belonged."
That they did.
The Jaspers were visibly overmatched from the tip, but they pestered Syracuse throughout. Junior Luis Flores, the leading scorer in the tournament at 24.8 ppg, knifed consistently through the 'Cuse defense and arched buttery jumpers over Syracuse's big bodies. The Jaspers' press forced 18 turnovers, including 12 in the first half. And Johnson went out in style, with 22 points, one short of his career high. The 6-foot-7 senior made a living finding gaps in the Orange's 2-3 zone, nailing short jumpers all day and going a surgical 9-for-13 from the floor.
And it was exciting to see. When the Jaspers closed the gap to 39-38 with 15:46 remaining, Gonzalez, whose hoarse voice could be heard despite the packed house, bounded off the bench, out to the free throw line, slapping hands with his players.
"I'm proud to have Coach Gonzalez as my coach," said Johnson. "We achieved so much in my four years here, and today we gave people what they wanted to see. We didn't go out without a fight. "
And at that, Johnson threw his duffel bag over his shoulder and headed out of the Jaspers' locker room toward the idling bus. For a guy whose college career was over, he didn't appear overly dejected. Because after the effort he and his teammates gave on Friday, not to mention throughout the season, the Jaspers were finally ready to walk away.
Andy Latack is a writer for ESPN The Magazine and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.