When the Division II championship game tips off Friday in Evansville, Ind., the University of Tampa men's basketball team will watch from afar and wonder what went wrong.
Arguably the school's most talented team, UT bowed out in its opening game of the South Region and failed to repeat last year's trip to the elite eight.
Fresh off its first Sunshine State Conference championship in four years, UT brought its 26-2 mark and stretch of 18 wins in 19 games into the South Region tournament. As top seed and host, the Spartans had a first-round bye and what seemed like an easy path to the region finals.
But that could be exactly where the problems started.
No fan of byes, UT coach Richard Schmidt was concerned going into the contest.
"I've said it before, when you have that bye, sometimes the other team has their legs," Schmidt said. "And the other team has played a game and you haven't. That can hurt you."
West Georgia would agree.
Sluggish at the start, UT opened with 40 percent shooting and hit 27 percent from 3-point range. Thanks to a 3-pointer from guard Earnest Williams at the buzzer, the Spartans managed a one-point lead at the half. But West Georgia, the fifth seed, had an answer for everything the Spartans tried in the second half.
The Braves went up by 10 with 13:18 remaining. The Spartans charged back to make the game close, but West Georgia dug in and held on for a 77-69 victory.
"There's no question I think the bye can hurt you," West Georgia coach Ed Murphy said. "We thought they might be a little flat. But the main thing about these teams was there was a conflicting style of play between us. Someone was going to get an advantage _ if it wasn't us it could have just as easily been them."
West Georgia did its part with four scorers in double figures, 50 percent shooting from 3-point range and 17-of-18 shooting from the free-throw line. That, Schmidt said, had more to do with the loss than having a first-round bye.
"We just got beat," Schmidt said. "We were sluggish at the beginning and we didn't play well for most of the game. We finally got going doing a good job, but we didn't play well enough to overcome the mistakes we made."
It didn't help matters that leading scorer and Sunshine State Conference Player of the Year Jon Brown was 2-for-15 from the floor and finished with five points, 10 below his season average.
Williams finished with 17 points, and Gecarri Freeman and Sylvere Bryan added 16 apiece.
"Very seldom do we win if Jon Brown goes 2-for-15," Schmidt said. "And Gecarri missed a layup near the end and J.B. (Bryan) couldn't get the rebound and the shot was off at the end there.
"Those things don't happen often."