STAMFORD -- The magic simply ran out for the Newtown High basketball team -- that's about the only way to describe it.
Just two days after scoring an improbable and inspirational win over powerhouse Crosby, the Nighthawks -- the 29th and final team in the Class LL state tournament, the team which didn't even have a winning record -- saw their state tournament dreams come to an end with a 56-34 loss at Westhill on Wednesday night.
And while it may have been tough to do Tuesday night with the sting of defeat and elimination still so raw, the Nighthawks should look back with pride at what they accomplished this season -- as should all the teams at Newtown High. Because it was about so much more than athletics this winter. It was about standing tall in the face of unspeakable tragedy and, with the entire world watching, having the courage to step forward and represent a town so overwhelmed with anguish and despair.
The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School occurred the morning after the Newtown boys basketball team's first regular-season game. Stolen that horrific morning were the lives of 20 angelic first-graders and six courageous educators. In the aftermath of that unspeakable tragedy, the athletes at Newtown High -- children themselves -- helped a community heal and set an example of strength and fortitude for the rest of the world to follow.
"I think we really held up, given the circumstances and everything going on in our town," said senior Gavin Scallon. "I think we can say we left it all on the floor, and I'm proud that there was never really a game where I thought we didn't give it our best shot."
In the whirlwind days that followed the tragedy, the gymnasium provided a sanctuary. And when the Newtown High athletes eventually returned to action, they helped provide a glimmer of hope to a community that so desperately needed it.
"It was definitely nice to just be able to come to practice," Scallon said. "I think it helped the people in the community, for them to come and just watch us play for a couple hours, or watch the girls team, and not think about a kid who maybe lived down the road."
The Nighthawks' boys basketball team epitomized the resiliency of their community. They went 8-12 in the regular season. Their eight wins were the bare minimum required to qualify for the state tournament. They lost their first three games and six of their first eight, then ended the regular season with four more losses in a row. They squeaked into the South-West Conference playoffs as the eighth and final seed -- and very nearly pulled off a stunning upset of top seed and eventual champion Bunnell. Newtown led by three heading into the fourth quarter in that game but couldn't hold it and lost by seven.
"There was a stretch of time, early in the season, where we could have folded," said first-year coach Tim Tallcouch, a Newtown High chemistry teacher who took over after five years at the helm at Wilton High. "But we stayed the course and the kids came to work every day. They played hard and we kept getting better and better and better. And we peaked at the right time."
But while Newtown couldn't bring down that giant, it's gritty, never-say-quit effort foreshadowed the miraculous win Monday against Crosby in Waterbury. Connor Quinn scored 14 points and Scallon and Julian Dunn scored 12 apiece as the Nighthawks stunned a team that had already won 22 games this season. That win sent shock waves across Connecticut and garnered national media attention.
"That's what you're in this business for," Tallcouch said of the monumental win. "That's what you coach for, and it'll always be in my heart for the rest of my coaching career."
The Nighthawks' hopes of a repeat performance on Wednesday were dashed by 13th-seeded Westhill, which never trailed and steadily pulled away. The Vikings led by nine at halftime and used a 15-4 run over the final 5:20 of the third quarter to extend that lead to 18 heading into the fourth quarter. For Newtown, the shots that went in on Monday didn't fall on Wednesday. The passes that connected on Monday missed their marks on Wednesday.
Quinn finished with nine points. Mike Daubert scored eight. Dunn had six. In the end, it just wasn't enough. Not this time.
And so ends a magical run for the Nighthawks.
But not before it provided some amazing memories.
And some hope.