Hartford set to prove they belong in first trip to NCAA Tournament

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The NCAA Tournament is as much about the little-guy programs as it is for the blue bloods who enter March Madness not hoping, but expecting, to compete for the national championship.

“One Shining Moment,’’ which has become a fabric of the NCAA Tournament, is as much about the one-and-done 16th seed as it is the champions cutting down the nets as the last team standing.

As the 2021 NCAA Tournament begins in earnest Friday in the Indianapolis COVID-19 bubble following Thursday night’s four play-in games, there isn’t a little-guy program more deserving of its one shining moment than the University of Hartford, which is making its first appearance in school history, 36 years after joining Division I.

“It’s historic for us,’’ Hartford coach John Gallagher said.

“Not everybody gets to be a part of March Madness,’’ Hartford grad-student guard Traci Carter said. “You want to do everything you can to be a part of it.’’

Hartford, which played in Division I during the 1984-85 season, has endured numerous teases in the form of multiple conference semifinal losses, along with advancing to the America East Tournament final last year only to have it canceled by COVID-19.

“It felt like the season never ended last year,” Gallagher said. “We were on a mission.”

Now, at 3:30 p.m. Friday, inside cavernous Lucas Oil Stadium, Hartford (15-8) gets to dance finally, as America East champions, and it gets to do it against No. 1 seeded Baylor, which is 22-2 and stacked with talent.

“Those guys lace up their shoes the same way we lace ours,’’ Carter said.

Carter, whose journey to Hartford has included stints at Marquette and La Salle, is hardly the intimidated type. This past summer, he endured the loss of his brother, Semaj, one of his six siblings, to gun violence in Philadelphia, and he responded by starting a camp program to get inner-city kids off the street.

So, 48 minutes of basketball against one of the most powerful teams in the nation is not something that’s likely to wilt him.

Five years ago, Yale beat a heavily favored Baylor team in the NCAA Tournament. In NCAA Tournament history, only one No. 16 seed has taken down a No. 1, and that was Hartford’s fellow America East member University of Maryland-Baltimore County, which beat Virginia in 2018.

“It’s March, when anything’s possible,’’ Carter said. “We’ve only got to get it right one time. It’s not a seven-game series. We’ve just got to play better than them one time.’’

Carter was parroting the message from his beloved coach Gallagher, whom he calls “family.’’

“It’s not the NBA, where it’s a seven-game series,’’ Gallagher said. “We’ve got to play one great game. Anything is possible. If you know anything about me, we’re not going to [Indianapolis] to say hello. We’re going there to win.”

Even against a Baylor team that’s deeper than Hartford, more athletic, more explosive offensively and a beast on the boards.

“It’s exciting,’’ Gallagher said. “But it’s daunting, too.’’

In a weird twist, the day Carter’s brother was gunned down in Philly — July 20 — was the same day that former Hartford coach Jack Phelan died suddenly at age 66. Phelan was the coach who elevated the program to Division I.

Gallagher, who worshipped Phelan and has been Hartford’s head coach since 2010, was on a golf course when he got the news and said he “cried for three holes.’’

“Jack had the vision for this,’’ Gallagher said. “We are playing this tournament in honor of Jack Phelan.’’

Gallagher, too, cited Hartford’s former players who never got a taste of the NCAA Tournament — players like Vin Baker, who became an NBA first-round draft pick and had a long productive professional career.

“This is theirs,’’ Gallagher said. “Because this has been a 36-year venture we’ve been on together. Some of us might not have been there together, but we did this together.’’

Baylor was the Big 12’s top scoring team and the best in field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Hartford was the top defensive team in the America East, holding opponents to 63.3 points per game and leading the conference in steals.

Whatever happens Friday, one-and-done or survive-and-advance, this moment will deservedly live on for the Hartford basketball program. Firsts will do that.

“Every day is a magical event, if you’re still living,’’ Carter told the Washington Post in an interview this week. “But here’s my thing: What nobody can take from us is we’re champions. Whether we win or lose, we’ve become legends where we live.”

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