EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Some games are not about winning and losing. Some are simply about showing you belong. So when Carl Thomas finally walked off the court Friday night, his shirt dangling, sweat dripping down his back, and embraced his teammates at the end of what — for the starters on the best team to ever come out of Ypsilanti — was their last game together, the fans began to buzz. Then, slowly, they clapped. And finally, many of them stood and cheered. It was a message, and the message was this: forget the loss. They belong, these kids from Eastern Michigan, all of them — Carl Thomas, who hit those long-distance bombs, and his twin brother Charles, who made the dizzy cross-court passes, and Marcus Kennedy, the big guy with the goggles, and Kory Hallas, the skinny forward, and little Lorenzo Neely, the boyish looking point guard who, before the game, wore a T-shirt during warm-ups that read, quite appropriately, “The Five Heartbeats.”

They belonged, these five heartbeats, right here in the thick of the NCAA championships, playing against North Carolina, one of the finest college basketball machines ever assembled, and holding their own, thank you. Never mind that until two weeks ago, few people had even heard of Eastern Michigan
— including people in their home state. Never mind that last month they were a game away from missing the tournament completely. Never mind. They had been given a chance, a chance most players from small colleges only dream about, and they had taken that chance and run all the way into Friday night, the Sweet Sixteen.

And they weren’t finished.

Here they were, halfway through the game, going basket for basket with Dean Smith’s Tar Heels. Basket for basket? Yes. North Carolina would score, and then Thomas would race downcourt and chuck in a three pointer, and then North Carolina would score, and Neely would push it downcourt and pass inside to Kennedy for a lay-up, and then North Carolina would score, and Charles Thomas would bang one from the three- point range. The score was 15-13, and 38-36 and 44-42.

Eastern Michigan. North Carolina.

Basket for basket?

“Hey, we came in thinking we could win,” Carl Thomas would say.

For a while, they had us believing it, too. Eastern mysticism

And that is the magic of this EMU team, that is what you should take with you long after the final tally of this game — a lopsided 93-67 for North Carolina, not really indicative of the battle — fades from memory. EMU making their first-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance, played hard, they played intensely. In the end, their lack of depth would hurt them, as would their defensive collapses. In the end, North Carolina would run off all those unanswered points. In the end, the Tar Heels would be what they were supposed to be: bigger, deeper, stronger.

“They kept bringing guys in off the bench and every one of them looked bigger than the one they replaced,” Neely marveled afterward.

So it finished as a rout. But for a while there — whoa, boy. It was the kind of game you dream about when David meets Goliath. Here was Eastern Michigan, playing loose, shirt- flapping basketball, racing up-court, doing all the things you’re not supposed to do — cross-court passing, hanging in midair and then finding a man, shooting outside without even looking inside — all the things that drive a coach crazy, unless they work. And they were working. The shots were falling. The passes were true. “You have to give them credit,” Dean Smith admitted afterward. “They threw us off our rhythm.”

For a while, they did more than that. Here were the Thomas brothers, who used to be football stars at Lansing Everett High School — Magic Johnson’s alma-mater — and Charles, the former quarterback, lofted the ball to Carl, the former-receiver, and Carl slammed it home and hung on the rim. Two points. Here was Hallas, the Canadian-born senior, banking in a basket to pull the Hurons within four points. Here was Kennedy, the guy with the bullet in his leg, the guy who transferred from Ferris State just to get one year at Eastern, one great year — and he was banging the boards with players such as Eric Montross and Pete Chilcutt. And he was proving a point, the same point they were all making: basketball is basketball. It doesn’t matter how many recruiting letters you got. Toss it up, and let’s see what you got.

“Years from now, I can tell my kids I played in a Sweet Sixteen game, against North Carolina,” Kennedy said afterward. “I’m proud of that, anyhow.”

“How would you sum up this whole thing, this whole unexpected experience?” he was asked.

Kennedy said, “I had fun.”

Didn’t we all? They’ll settle for three

And what a pleasant change. A team in it for the fun, for the thrill of the moment. Eastern Michigan gave us a good March, the kind of March we had a few years ago, when the Wolverines went all the way with a new coach and an underdog team. The kind of March that makes you believe in college basketball. This team will split up now, the best team to ever come out of Ypsilanti. They will try different things. Almost certainly none of them will play in the NBA. So this may be their fattest memory, the farthest they ever go in big time basketball. They did the moment proud. Ben Braun, their coach, showed the nation a cohesive, flammable group, great shooters, great passers.
“I told them to be proud,” he said afterward. But they already know that.

If nothing else, a few more people now know where Eastern Michigan is. A few more people realize our state is not just two teams when it comes to college basketball. This was the year little EMU went beyond the Wolverines, beyond the Spartans, to a 26-7 season. This is the year they crashed the tournament and beat Mississippi State and Penn State and boxed for 30 minutes against North Carolina. This was the year they saw cameras from ESPN and CBS and heard the questions like “Which one of you is Charles and which one of you

is Carl?”

A hell of a year, when you think about it. Especially since, officially, they are a team without a name.

“Have you guys ever discussed what you would like the team called, now that

‘Hurons’ is going to be dropped?” someone asked Carl Thomas.

He paused for a moment. “I think I’d call us ‘The Winners.’ Yeah. The Eastern Michigan Winners.”

Has a nice ring to it.

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