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The UTSA athletics department and men’s basketball program have granted the NCAA communications staff access to student-athletes and coaches to chronicle their experiences of competing in the inaugural First Four. Read Part 2 here.
By Greg Johnson
DAYTON, Ohio – Welcome to the First Four, UTSA.
The Roadrunners’ charter jet touched down a little after 8 p.m. Monday, and 40 minutes later, the travel party of about 90 people, which included administrators, family members and the band and cheerleaders, walked into the lobby of their hotel to the tune of the school’s fight song.
This is a new experience for every player on the UTSA roster. It marks the first time since 2004 and the fourth time overall that the program has been in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.
Among the UTSA players were Jeromie Hill and Igor Nujic, a pair of 6-8 freshmen forwards from Australia. Both came from the other side of world with dreams of being in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which means March Madness has no boundaries.
Those dreams will be realized Wednesday at 6:40 p.m. Eastern, when UTSA (19-13) takes on Alabama State (17-17) in Dayton. The winner advances to the second round to play the No. 1 overall seed Ohio State on Friday in Cleveland.
Since Hill and Nujic have lived in America only for a few months, it didn’t matter that neither knew where Dayton was. All either of them cared about was their team preparing to play in a marquee event.
“Having this happen in our first year is pretty amazing,” Hill said. “We have a Southland Conference championship already. You couldn’t ask for anything more perfect than that for a freshman year.”
Unfortunately for Nujic, playing in the game is out of the question because he is still healing from surgery to repair a double dislocation and broken bones in his right pinky finger that occurred five weeks ago. Still, he’s excited to see what the tournament is all about firsthand.
“I can remember spending early mornings watching NCAA basketball, especially when March Madness came around,” Nujic said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow!’ I would sleep in the daytime and watch basketball the rest of the day. It was ridiculous, and my parents would tell me to go to sleep. I would say, ‘No.’ ”
Everything about their first season as student-athletes has been a whirlwind, especially the last few days.
On Saturday, UTSA upset top-seeded McNeese State, 75-72, to earn the Southland Conference automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. The championship-game victory capped an improbable run by the seventh-seeded Roadrunners.
They rallied from 10 points down at the half and beat Texas-Arlington in the regular-season finale just to qualify for their conference tournament. Then they came from 14 down in the second half against Northwestern State in the quarterfinals to win, 97-96. Third-seeded Sam Houston State fell, 79-70, to UTSA in the semifinals.
“It’s amazing what happens when you have your backs to the wall,” said Hill, who grew up in Cairns near the Great Barrier Reef. “We have a talented team, but we sometimes rely on talent without using effort, as well. When we do put it together, it is amazing what we can do.”
They gathered to watch the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday and traveled to Dayton on Monday. There were other signs that this is no ordinary feat.
“(Monday) morning we were getting on the bus, and there was media there,” said Nujic, who was born in Croatia but moved to Perth at the age of 6. “That never happens. Approaching the bus, I didn’t know whether to look at the camera, wave or ignore it.”
The Roadrunners are peaking at the right time of the season. It is a parallel to Hill’s basketball career, because he considers himself a late bloomer.
At the age of 15, he was 6-1. A couple of years later, he grew 6½ inches in one year, and his basketball career began to take off. After high school, both he and Nujic were invited to the Australian Institute of Sport, where they became friends two years ago.
The invitation is prestigious in their country.
“Every day for seven hours, it was just basketball,” said Hill, who is the Roadrunners’ third-leading scorer at 13.6 and leading rebounder at 6.6. “It is designed to get you ready for the Olympics and play for your country.”
Jeromie Hill (left) talks during a press conference.
After being recruited by American colleges, he came to the U.S., where he took his official visits. He decided UTSA was the place for him. He inked his name during the early signing period in November 2009. Nujic decided to join him with the Roadrunners the next spring.
Both considered pro careers in Australia but decided to become student-athletes in America. They admit trouble adjusting to the concept of going to school and competing at the same time. No other country combines the two entities at such a high level.
“Going to college and getting an education is going to open up so many more doors,” Hill said. “After four years, I can go back there and play if I wish to.”
He isn’t ruling out playing professional basketball in America or Europe, either.
Both Nujic and Hill are majoring in general business, but that could change for both of them in the future. Hill is interested in sports entertainment and marketing.
For now, nothing compares to the excitement of the last few days.
“We’re young and trying to enjoy the moment,” Hill said.
It’s been G’days indeed, mates.