There are 351 teams playing Division I basketball, 160 of which have been in the NCAA’s top tier since it was formed before the 1948-49 season. Of those original members, five — Army, The Citadel, Northwestern, St. Francis of Brooklyn and William and Mary — have never played in its signature event, the NCAA tournament.
For five weeks leading up to the conference tournaments, The Washington Post will examine each of them.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The banner, shiny and clearly brand-new, hangs proudly at the far end of the court inside the Generoso Pope Athletic Complex, better known to all those who regularly attend its basketball games as “The Pope .”
The Pope is the home court for the St. Francis College Terriers of Brooklyn — not to be confused with the St. Francis University Red Flash of Pennsylvania, which also competes in the Northeast Conference, meaning that, at least twice a year, St. Francis plays St. Francis.
The banner commemorates the Terriers’ appearance last spring in the National Invitation Tournament — the fourth time the school has played in the event, but the first time since 1963 that it had played in the postseason.
“I try to remind the kids all the time that they did something that hadn’t been done in 52 years,” St. Francis Coach Glenn Braica said recently, sitting in his office about an hour before tipoff on a Saturday afternoon at the Pope. He smiled wistfully. “I remind myself, too. We had a great season.”
His voice trailed off a little as he finished. There is no doubt that the 2014-2015 season was a superb one for St. Francis. The Terriers won the NEC regular season title with a 15-3 conference record. When all was said and done they were 23-12. But on the night of March 9th, given a golden chance to remove itself from the List of Five — the schools that have been in Division I since its classification in 1948 without qualifying for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — St. Francis came up three points short, losing to Robert Morris, 66-63, at The Pope on a night when it was packed as it had never been before.
“The place seats about 1,200,” Braica said. “We had students standing at one end of the court and we had people watching on TV monitors in the lobby. We probably could have doubled the attendance if we’d had room. It was a night I’ll never forget, even though losing hurt. It hurt a lot.”
The Terriers led 35-29 at halftime against a Robert Morris team that had been in the NEC final, without winning, three of the previous four years. They in time stretched the lead to eight — before going cold.
“There’s no doubt we got tight,” said Amdy Fall, a senior on this year’s team. “It was one of those deals where you’re trying not to think about it, so you end up thinking about it too much. We did things we hadn’t done all year: turned the ball over [17 times, after averaging 12 per game] missed free throws [13, out of 22 attempted]. We just hadn’t been there before. They had.”
St. Francis trailed by 10 with six minutes to go, but with 2.4 seconds to go, with the gap at just three, shooting guard Tyreek Jewell went to the foul line to shoot three. He missed each — the third one intentionally.
After two missed free throws at the other end, redshirt senior Lowell Ulmer threw up a desperate 65-footer at the buzzer. It hit the back rim, bounded in the air and . . .
“After all these years,” Braica said, “I thought it was going in.”
In the movies, the shot goes in. Inside the Pope, it bounced off the front rim and onto the floor.
Prior to the game, Father Brian Jordan, the school’s chaplain, had said a pregame blessing just outside the entrance to the gym, surrounded by about 50 loyal fans.
“We’ve been in the desert longer than Moses,” Father Jordan said. “The end is near.”
Yet the wandering continues.
According to the school’s official history, St. Francis has played basketball since 1896 — making it the oldest collegiate program in the basketball capital of New York City — although no one kept records on the team until 1901, when the Boys from Brooklyn, as they were known, went 13-1. Through the years, St. Francis had some excellent teams, too. The Terriers played often in Madison Square Garden and were the first city team to play a game on television: Their 1954 game against Seton Hall was seen locally on WPIX, channel 11.
They also won a national championship — the 1951 National Catholic Invitational Tournament, a big-time event in those days. There were NIT bids, in 1954, 1956 and 1963. The 1956 team, in fact, finished fourth in the NIT and reached as high as No. 13 in the Associated Press poll .
But as college basketball grew, St. Francis remained small. The school today has 2,671 undergraduates and is made up of five interconnected buildings on Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights. The Pope opened in 1971. The gym is on the third floor, above the swimming pool, which means one can inhale the chlorine walking through the main lobby.
“Actually it’s come a long way since I was there,” said Bob Valvano, who was the coach for four seasons, beginning in 1984. “The lighting is much better. Everything has actually been upgraded.
“When I coached there, the baseball team would practice in the gym in January and February,” he added. “I’d walk in a few minutes before our practice and they would be taking grounders on the court. I’d watch while baseballs took chunks out of the court all over the place. It was pretty wild.”
In 1991, three years after Valvano left, Ron Ganulin arrived. He was the ideal coach for St. Francis: Brooklyn-born, a 1968 graduate of Long Island University, Ganulin knew St. Francis and the area. He had also seen the other end of the basketball spectrum, during four years as an assistant to Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV.
“People have asked why would I leave UNLV for a job like St. Francis,” Ganulin said, laughing at the memory. “We’d just won a national title [in 1990] and gone back to the Final Four [in 1991]. But it was over at UNLV. We were going on probation. I knew I was already tainted just because I’d been interviewed by the NCAA. Tark used to say, ‘The NCAA isn’t driving into town or flying into town; it’s parachuting into town.’ It was time to get out.”
Ganulin turned the St. Francis program around, but it wasn’t easy. In his third season, the Terriers were 1-26.
“The AD called me in and said, ‘The powers that be have a number in mind, and if you don’t win that many next year, you’re gone,’ ” he remembered. “It must have been nine or less because we won nine and I kept my job.”
Gradually, the Terriers became competitive in the NEC. They went 20-8 in 1998 and finished second in the conference. They reached the championship game of the conference tournament in 2001 and 2003 and tied for the regular season title in 2004.
It is the 2001 championship game, against Monmouth, that is still spoken about in whispered tones around the Pope.
“I’m still not over that one,” said Braica, who was Ganulin’s assistant coach back then. “Last year hurt, but that one . . .” He shook his head. “That was beyond hurt.”
With 14 minutes left in that NEC champioship, played in Trenton, the Terriers led 54-34. The promised land was three TV timeouts away. Then it all fell apart.
“No excuses,” Ganulin said of the 67-64 loss. “We got beat. They made a couple of shots, got rolling, and we got tight. But I do believe if Richy Dominguez hadn’t been sick, we would have won the game.”
Dominguez, the sixth-leading scorer in school history, didn’t just have the flu. He’d felt a sharp pain in his stomach after the semifinal win over Wagner and was up all night, getting sick over and over again.
“I thought I was dehydrated or I had a pulled muscle or both,” Dominguez, who now works at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, said last week. “The trainer kept trying to ice me and give me fluids. Nothing worked. I felt awful, but I had to play. It was our time.”
Dominguez actually played remarkably well, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds. But down the stretch he faded, completely out of energy.
“I don’t remember much about the last 10 minutes,” he said. “I remember the lead disappearing and felt helpless to stop it. I guess we all were.”
A week later, still in serious pain, Dominguez, at the urging of his girlfriend (now his wife), finally went to the hospital. Tests revealed he’d been bleeding internally because he had a tumor in his stomach caused by testicular cancer that had spread. He was rushed into surgery that day. He survived, but never played basketball again.
“The kid could have died because he didn’t want to let his team down,” Braica said. “He never should have been on the court that night. Unbelievable kid.
Thank God he recovered.”
Ganulin got emotional talking about Dominguez, but not so much when the subject of that final comes up. “Honestly, I hurt for the kids and I hurt for Glenn — he took it so hard,” he said. “I guess I’m different. I was proud. Disappointed but proud that we were good enough to be so close.”
Four years later, after going 13-15 overall, Ganulin was fired. By then, Braica was at St. John’s, working for his former Queens College teammate Norm Roberts. When Roberts and his staff were fired in 2010, Braica decided to take some time off. St. Francis interrupted it.
“I knew the school, and I’d seen the potential when I worked for Ron,” he said. “I also wanted a shot at being a head coach, like anyone else. Plus, I didn’t have to move.
“I turned right on the BQE [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway] to get here when I was an assistant, then left when I was at St. John’s,” added Braica, who has lived in the same house in Brooklyn for 23 years. “Now I’m back to turning right.”
In his first season, Braica recruited Jalen Cannon, a 6-foot-6 forward who proved to be a cornerstone player. Cannon graduated last spring as the school’s leading all-time scorer and rebounder. But, like Dominguez, he was playing hurt — though not as hurt — when St. Francis had a chance, last season, to end the wandering.
“His left [non-shooting] wrist had been taped for a while,” Braica said. “He said it was just sore. The day after the final, he finally went for an X-ray and we found out his hand was broken.”
It was a bit of deja vu for Ganulin, especially, who was back on the St. Francis sidelines alongside Braica — this time in a role reversal. After his third season, Braica had hired Ganulin to be his No. 1 assistant. Ganulin, 70, who had been working part-time at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan, often had been showing up at Braica’s practices.
“I told him he was coming to practice anyway; he might as well be on staff,” Braica said. “He’s not the kind of guy who can sit around. He needs basketball.”
This season has been difficult, especially without Cannon and three others who played prominent roles as seniors last season. What’s more, starting point guard Glenn Sanabria, who was expected to play a key role as a sophomore, tore the labrum in his shoulder in November and was gone for the season after six games. The Terriers are 13-16 overall, 9-7 in the balanced NEC, with two regular season games left to play.
“The way the league is this year, we know we’ll have a chance in the [conference] tournament,” said Chris Hooper, who like Fall is a senior with one chance left. “What happened last year still stings, but I’ll never forget what the building was like that night. I never thought we’d see a crowd like that at St. Francis.
“We’ve had to learn as we go this season. We’re getting better as the year goes on. We’ve had a lot of close losses. We start to win some of those games, who knows?”
That recent afternoon was evidence of the progress Hooper was talking about. Playing in front of a Pope crowd announced at 355, the Terriers made every key shot down the stretch and pulled away to beat Fairleigh Dickinson, the league leader at the time, 85-71.
“We’re getting there,” Braica said. “We still need to be more consistent because we’ll need three straight good games in March. Last year, we got two. We need three.”
One person who will be there if the Terriers get close again will be Dominguez. He was there last year, too. “I hurt for those kids because I know how they felt,” he said. “I’m still not completely over what happened to us 15 years ago. I’m grateful to be healthy. But I still feel the pain of that night.
“I need to be there when it happens. All I’ll feel will be joy. Pure joy.”
Hooper took a long pause when he was asked how he might feel if his team turned last year’s championship result around.
“I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “I think I’d probably just stand there for a minute and cry. Then the hugging would start.”
And the wandering, at long last, would end.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.