DAYTON, Ohio -- By defeating Coppin State in the NCAA opening-round game Tuesday night, Mount St. Mary's advanced to play North Carolina in Friday's first round. And as time ticked away, the 69-60 win secure, Mountaineers senior guard Chris Vann celebrated the victory by throwing the ball high into the gray darkness of the University of Dayton Arena rafters.
He meant it as a pass.
On Sunday, March 9, Vann's friend and classmate Dustin Bauer, 22, a popular Mount St. Mary's track star, was critically injured in a fall in a stairwell at his on-campus residence. The basketball team was in the Pittsburgh area, preparing for a Northeast Conference semifinal, and after receiving the news via calls and text messages, the Mountaineers went out and destroyed top seed Robert Morris 83-65. Bauer was rushed to a hospital and placed on life support.
He died that Wednesday, March 12, the same night the No. 4-seeded Mountaineers clinched the NEC title with a win at No. 3-seeded Sacred Heart.
As Vann's friend still clung to life, the fans who had driven the five hours from Emmitsburg, Md., to Sacred Heart's campus in Fairfield, Conn., brought signs emblazoned with urgings to "Win it for D.B." They chanted his name, then chanted his initials, while Mount St. Mary's held off the favored hosts for a 68-55 win. But within a few hours, Bauer was gone.
"He meant a lot to us, the whole school," Vann said after Tuesday's victory, in which he scored 13 points. "He was one of the 'Mount Maniacs,' which is what we call our student section. I met him my sophomore year. He became one of my best friends. He ran cross country, and we were both supportive of each other in our respective sports. To lose him really hurt a lot. To win the NEC championship right around the same time he passed away let the whole community reflect on what he had done."
Bauer's death was a devastating loss for a close-knit campus that ranks as one of Division I's smallest, with fewer than 1,500 students.
"This has all been a reality check for us," said Mount St. Mary's coach Milan Brown, whose team, with its victory Tuesday, won the program's first NCAA tournament game. "Amidst all the hoopla of March, it's given us a dose of the real world. It reminded our staff and our players that just because we're playing in March, real life doesn't stop. I think Dustin helped us balance things instead of being so excited about this. Real life sobers you up some. So we were able to find the middle ground, find the balance between being excited and being really thankful for the opportunities we have."
Mount St. Mary's took full advantage of its NCAA opportunity Tuesday night. The Mountaineers didn't panic when Coppin State, the surprising winner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with 20 overall losses, took an early lead with a series of explosive dunks. They didn't blink when Tywain McKee, the flashy Eagles guard who had won three straight MEAC tourney games with last-minute heroics, answered each rally with a spectacular play. And the Mountaineers didn't stop fighting until the final minute, when a tenuous single-digit lead finally seemed safe.
Just before he threw the ball aloft, Vann pointed a finger to the heavens.
Half an hour later, he paused to eulogize his friend.
"He was so outgoing," Vann said, his eyes moistening. "He always spoke his mind. He was such a funny guy. When you were feeling down, he'd come up to you and cheer you up. We're all going to remember him. We miss him a lot."
Remembrances were everywhere in Dayton. The Mountaineers band members had "D.B." painted on their faces, and the cheerleaders wore wristbands with the number 13, Bauer's lucky number. Vann wore one of the wristbands during pregame warmups, and he couldn't help making note of some numerological coincidences later.
"His favorite number was 13," Vann said, smiling. "And we beat Sacred Heart in the NEC championship game by 13 points. And you know what? I scored 13 for him tonight."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.