Updated: March 16, 2014 at 8:42 am
DENVER — This one will tickle. The potential game-winning 3-pointer that scraped the wrong side of the rim. The collision that sent Alex Welsh to a trash can with an eruption of a bloodied nose, Treshawn Wilford into a series of concussion tests.
This one hurt. After UCCS lost, 76-72, to Metro State in the first round of the NCAA Division II tournament, the damage seemed both collateral and crushing.
But the damage shouldn't divert attention from what UCCS is building. Unthinkable just five months ago, this question was posed with sincere validity:
Is this now a program that can win a national championship?
"Absolutely," UCCS coach Jeff Culver told me after an aching defeat ended their season at 21-9, the most wins in school history. "There's no doubt in my mind this team is capable of winning a national championship."
He's right, too, as much as the final moment seemed to overwhelm the big picture. The big picture is startling; UCCS finished 5-21 last season and entered this one picked to finish ninth in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, an afterthought, at best.
Here was its afterthought following Saturday's riveting contest at the Auraria Event Center: Dang it.
A measure of roughly six inches prevented UCCS from beating No. 1-seeded Metro State in the national tournament. That's how close the Mountain Lions came to toppling the gold standard of the RMAC. That's how close the program was to busting the bracket and beating the nation's top-ranked team on its homecourt.
Trailing 74-72 with 7 seconds left, Derrick White skipped a pass to Tim Billingsley. UCCS got the shot it wanted, an open 3-pointer from the right corner, and it sailed just long.
"I thought it was going down," White said.
"I'll take that look all day," Culver added.
Billingsley was the right man for the right shot, 3 of 6 from 3 prior to the final heave. It simply didn't go down. Metro State advanced, and its coach offered fine praise for a UCCS program that considers Metro State the highest bar.
"To me, it's the start of a rivalry," Derrick Clark said afterward.
A rivalry? UCCS, making its first NCAA Tournament appearance, and Metro State, which plays its home games beneath a pair of NCAA title banners?
"If rivalry is too big of a word, it's the start of something," Clark continued.
It's not too big, and the NCAA stage wasn't too big for UCCS. If the Mountain Lions are picked outside the RMAC's top two going into next season, voters should be drug tested. All five starters return, and Culver adds a trio of redshirts who should help bridge the gap of frontcourt size that separated UCCS and Metro State.
"We're only going to get better next year," Culver said.
The midcourt collision between Welsh and Wilford was fit for a rugby scrum; Welsh dripped blood onto the court, while Wilford had to be asked if he knew where he was.
"He's going to have a headache," Culver said.
UCCS aims to build a Metro State. (So does everyone in the RMAC.) But the rosters are constructed with opposing blueprints. Metro State represents the city in name and campus only; three starters hail from Australia, a key reserve from Mexico. This has long been its M.O., and the results suggest that shouldn't change.
Brandon Jefferson's 37 points led the way.
An hour away but on the other end of the basketball map, UCCS mined the Denver suburbs for its entire starting five. Fifteen of its 18 players call Colorado home.
"We're right there," Culver said. "This is no fluke."
One of the two is new to the national conversation. Both figure to stay there.
"I absolutely believe this is a program that will be in contention for a national championship in the years to come," Culver said.
He's right, too.