Wiedmer: At tourney time, football sometimes seems less cruel than basketball

UTC guard Moses Johnson (23) tries to shoot around Pittsburgh guard Fred Potvin (14) in the first half of the Mocs' NCAA tournament basketball game against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday, March 21, 2015, at the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.

Saturday inside Thompson-Boling Arena was why (imagine your humble columnist swallowing hard and wincing as he types the following words) big-time college football ... is ... sometimes ... better ... than ... college basketball.

Wow. I can't believe I just wrote that.

But as I sat in my den late Saturday morning, a lifelong college hoops junkie watching what some would say was the best-ever University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball season come to a stunning, abrupt and painful end in the opening round of the NCAA women's tournament, it just seemed so unfair that a 51-40 loss to Pittsburgh will be the last memory most of us will have of this terrific team that rose to No. 17 nationally.

This was the Mocs team, after all, that beat Tennessee when it was ranked fourth nationally. And Stanford when it was ranked No. 7. The team that crushed the Southern Conference in the regular season and then held on to claim its tournament title. The team that had played all year with such poise and confidence regardless of the opponent or circumstance.

And because of that you kept expecting that poise and confidence to eventually tame the Panthers and set up an intriguing Monday night rematch with the Lady Vols. Especially when UTC rallied from a wretched first half well enough to tie the game at 33.

But Pitt never quit. The Panthers beat the Mocs at their own game, getting the loose ball, making the key stop, hitting the big shot, being aggressive when needed and patient when warranted.

So UTC's season ends with a loss, which is how all but one team's season always ends in basketball. You know that going in. For all but one team, the ending is going to hurt. Sometimes worse than others, but it's only going to end well if you're cutting down nets after the final game, hoisting a trophy, picking confetti out of your hair.

Which is where major college football comes in, because major college football so rarely seems to sting that way at its finish. After all, 95 percent of college football teams never seriously dream of reaching that sport's Final Four, much less winning a national championship.

No, that doesn't include Alabama, along with a fair number of its SEC brethren. Ohio State, too. And Southern Cal. And Oregon. And Notre Dame. And Florida State. All the usual suspects.

But most of the rest would be quite happy with 9-3, a respectable bowl bid and a long weekend in some Deep South city or Florida, which quits being the South below the Panhandle, but is still a quite desirable retreat in late December and early January.

Merely consider UT's TaxSlayer Bowl win over Iowa. As bowls go, it might not even be considered the football equivalent of the NIT. But the Big Orange Nation was delighted to be there, and odds are most would have said they enjoyed the post-Christmas vacation even if they'd lost.

That's not to say football never hurts beyond those legitimately fighting for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Every Tennessee fan hurts after another loss to Alabama. Every Alabama fan hurts after an Iron Bowl loss to Auburn, at least one so much that he decided to kill a couple of trees at Auburn's famous Toomer's Corner.

It's perhaps worth noting that no Crimson Tide basketball fan has ever been accused of something so ghastly and disturbing as that.

But those are the vast exceptions. And there aren't 67 trails of tears at the end of the football season, as there are in the men's NCAA draw. Or 63 heavy hearts in the women's draw. That's basketball's burden only.

Or at least it seems that way at the major college level, since UTC's football playoff loss to New Hampshire in the NCAA's FCS division hurt pretty much like Saturday's loss to Pittsburgh. Shattered championship dreams hurt in any sport.

Nor is this a criticism of either the men's or women's NCAA tourney. Further along, this year's men's tourney has thus far been college athletics at its best. Or at least its most exciting. To have watched Thursday's men's games inside Louisville's Yum! Center alone, three of four decided by a single point, was to instantly understand what makes this opening weekend so amazing.

In fact, if the referees would ever learn the difference between a block and a charge, this postseason would be almost perfect.

Still, the suddenness and abruptness of UTC's loss to Pitt was a stark reminder of the pain that a season-ending, one-loss-and-done tournament can deliver.

"We didn't say much to each other," UTC's Jasmine Joyner said afterward. "You could tell by faces we were upset, disappointed."

That Mocs Nation is not alone in its hurt this time of year seems small consolation today for a UTC women's season that provided such hope and joy until the moment it too soon ended. It's almost enough, or at least a little enough, to make you wish basketball had bowl games.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.