John Gallagher, head coach of the University of Hartford Men’s Basketball team and a West Hartford resident, spoke to We-Ha.com from Indianapolis, where he is readying his Hartford Hawks team to face No. 1 seed Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament.
By Ronni Newton
University of Hartford Men’s Basketball Coach John Gallagher said he didn’t believe his dream – of taking the team to the NCAA tournament – had really come true until the America East tournament ended in a Hawks’ victory on March 13.
“Last Saturday, when the buzzer sounded,” he said. He didn’t quite believe it until that moment.
“It was magical,” Gallagher said. The basketball gods are out there.”
Gallagher, a West Hartford resident, spoke with We-Ha.com Wednesday by phone from Indianapolis, where he and the team are preparing to face the top-seeded Baylor Bears Friday at 3:30 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Punching that ticket to the “Big Dance” was a big day for Gallagher, and his team. They were on a roll last year, ready to face the University of Vermont in the America East championship game with a trip to the NCAA Tournament as the prize for the winner, when COVID-19 put an end to their season, put March Madness on pause for a year.
This year, playing amid the pandemic restrictions, Gallagher led his Hawks to a 15-8 record, as the fourth-seeded team knocked off Vermont and then No. 6 UMass Lowell, 64-50, last Saturday at Chase Arena at Reich Family Pavilion in West Hartford. The team was led by grad student Traci Carter, who had 19 points.
“It’s so great to represent the University of Hartford, the Hartford community, the West Hartford community, to be on display like this,” Gallagher said.
“We dedicated this run to Jack Phelan. I can feel him with us,” Gallagher said.
Phelan, who also lived in West Hartford, and was a 1972 graduate of Northwest Catholic High School where he was a star basketball player, was the head coach of the University of Hartford team who led the program from Division II to Division I in 1984.
Phelan had been the athletic director at Farmington High School for 17 years when he died suddenly last summer. Gallagher said he can feel the spirit of Phelan with him, as well as the support of Phelan’s wife, Patti, and their three sons, Kenny, Jack, and Patrick.
“Jack created the ‘neighborhood.’ He didn’t create the term, but it was what he did for his players,” said Gallagher, whose reference to the team as the #Neighborhood has even further endeared the team to its local following. The term was initially intended to ensure those who have been involved with the program that they will always have that connection, that support.
While UConn may be the state’s school, “we are the neighborhood school,” Gallagher said. “There is a place for us in college basketball.”
The Town of West Hartford is showing its support in a major way – and early Thursday morning a Public Works crew hung a banner in a very visible location between above the “West Hartford” sign opposite the I-84 Exit 43 ramp, offering congratulations to “OUR #Neighborhood Team.”
Gallagher has been to the NCAA Tournament before – when he was a player in the late 1990s for St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. This, however, is the first time in the University of Hartford’s history the school has earned a berth. “Nothing can compare,” Gallagher said.
After the nets were cut down Saturday afternoon, Gallagher and the team quickly packed up their gear and headed to Indianapolis on a 5 p.m. flight. He said he was in his hotel room by 8:30 p.m.
If it weren’t for COVID, he said there would have been a celebration in West Hartford before they left, but that wasn’t able to happen. The program, luckily, has remained free of the the virus, he said.
Baylor is a formidable foe, and while the Hawks are an underdog, that in no way diminishes the excitement. He’s approaching the game with respect, rather than fear.
“If you’re here, you belong,” said Gallagher.
This year’s NCAA Tournament experience is like no other, for many reasons. While there isn’t the ability to interact with the other teams, they wave to a lot of the players. Rather than at most 16 teams at a regional venue, all 68 teams in the tournament are in Indianapolis.
“It’s exciting, but you have to stay focused,” Gallagher said. They practice and watch film every day. An escort – an “ambassador,” Gallagher said – takes the team to a minor league baseball stadium nearby so they can get outside and have some leisure time.
Gallagher has been keeping a diary of the trip, and the following, provided by the University of Hartford Athletic Department, is an excerpt from Wednesday:
At 4:00 PM, our group had a brief photo shoot on top of the parking garage attached to the Indiana Convention Center. Our travel party posed in front of the massive NCAA Tournament bracket that hangs from the JW Marriott. What an incredible setting… I can’t wait to see those pictures. That was the highlight of our day.
We went back to work before dinner and studied Baylor more on film. My staff distributed the scouting reports, which allows the group two nights to digest this information.
After dinner, we gave the guys the option of getting more shots up in the Convention Center, and this spirited hour ended with Michael Dunne winning a team “knock out” competition. The guys needed to have some levity in their day while they continued to prepare for Friday.
I think we accomplished both goals: We learned a lot more about our opponent and had some fun in the process. Two more sleeps until Baylor.
While they’re keeping busy, the team remains essentially in a bubble. Because of COVID-19, the teams aren’t permitted to watch other games, and all teams have to depart within 24 hours after a loss.
No matter what happens, going to the NCAA Tournament has increased the University of Hartford’s visibility, and Gallagher is hoping it leads to a closer and more active connection with his adopted hometown of West Hartford, an integral part of the #Neighborhood.
“I want people to realize we’re an option for you coming to watch a great basketball team … live and in person.” Fans weren’t allowed this year, but the team was 10-1 on the home court this season.
He’s planning on making a habit of getting into the tournament.
“What’s next is we’ve got to consistently do it,” Gallagher said.
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