Thursday, March 5, 1997
Storybook end eludes Miami

The Cincinnati Enquirer

TOLEDO, Ohio - What this story needs is a script doctor. Someone to patch up the plot, to punch up the dialogue, to take the outline of a teary tale and bring it to a happier, Hollywood ending.

It can't end like this, can it? Shouldn't the Miami RedHawks have roused their coach from his hospital bed with a Game for The Gipper? Shouldn't this battered bunch have found the means to win the Mid-American Conference Tournament for Charlie Coles, and waltzed into college basketball's Big Dance to the tune of ''You've Gotta Have Heart?''

Couldn't life imitate art just this once?

Sadly, no. The most compelling story so far in this mad March came to an unsatisfying conclusion Wednesday night. In their biggest game of their season, the emotionally charged RedHawks were short-circuited by their smallest opponent.

Eastern Michigan's Earl Boykins, the best petite player this side of Li'l Penny, devastated Miami with his dribbling and broke even the healthiest hearts with his rainbow jumpers.

Final score: Eastern Michigan 92, Miami 77. Fade to black.

Unbelievable year

''We've had an unbelievable year, to say the least, to come as far as we have come,'' said RedHawks star Wally Szczerbiak. ''The only thing that has kept us strong is that our coach would want us to stay strong and not use him as an excuse. We just tried to play our hearts out.''

This much they did. But after a season of setbacks - injuries, academic casualties and Saturday's trauma in Kalamazoo - Wednesday's performance suggested a RedHawks team that was utterly spent. It showed in their three-point shooting (3-for-21), in their sluggish defense of Eastern Michigan's perimeter game and, particularly, in their inability to contain Boykins.

The RedHawks won two tournament games in the wake of Coles' heart attack, but they would never lead Wednesday.

No reprieves in MAC

In some places, postseason conference tournaments exist as a cash machine, an excuse for excessive drinking and a last-minute showcase for bubble teams. The first Big Ten Tournament is being staged to determine whether the league lands six teams in the NCAA bracket, or only five.

In the MAC, however, there are no reprieves.

Only once since 1987 has the MAC placed as many as two teams in the NCAA Tournament, and that trend isn't likely to change now. The RedHawks, now 17-12, suited up Wednesday knowing they would win, or they would watch.

''I know what my team's going to do,'' Coles had told a visitor to his hospital room. ''They won't be denied. This is all about heart and these guys have it.''

Permitted to watch Wednesday's game on television, Coles had to conclude Boykins' heart was a little bit bigger.

The 5-foot-5 dervish penetrated, pulled up and passed off for 29 points and seven assists in the championship game. He played 40 turnover-free minutes and was unanimously named the tournament's outstanding player.

''Tonight, I was selfish,'' Boykins said. ''I wanted that award. I was determined to get it. I wasn't going to let Miami, Ball State or Toledo beat us.''

Having scored 35 points in Eastern Michigan's overtime victory Tuesday night, Boykins arrived at the SeaGate Centre leg-weary. Shadowed by Miami's Anthony Taylor, he would not get loose for his first basket until the game's eighth minute. Still, he finished the first half with 16 points.

Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager Wayne Embry, who watched Boykins Tuesday, called him, ''the most complete small player ever.''

''The big difference is most small players are drive-and-dish guys,'' Embry said. ''He can make the shot. There's no doubt in my mind he can play in the big leagues.''

Earl Boykins, granted, is a great story. Miami just would have made a better one.

RedHawks' run is done