DENVER -- One of the defining images of the 2011 NCAA tournament isn't going to be a shot, a block, a foul, a rebound, anything like that. It's not a basketball play at all.
It's Taylor Tyndall, 11 years old, crying her eyes and cheeks red on the Morehead State bench as her father's team -- her team, too -- loses and the NCAA tournament ends for the Eagles. If you caught the end of the game on television, you couldn't have missed her. The cameras hung with Taylor in her most vulnerable moment, perhaps the most public one she'll ever have. "She lives and breathes it," Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall said about the team's ups and downs. This season, it was almost all ups. There Taylor is on the bench, scrunched by men three times her size and sitting next to 6-year-old Colin O'Connor, the son of assistant coach Wade O'Connor. Taylor's trying to compose herself, but she can't. It's gut-wrenching and hard to watch. Her favorite team is going to lose, so the leaking begins. It's easy to dismiss the normal reaction, but think about how she felt. She's just 11. You were 11 once, too, and sports made you emotional beyond control. It's just a game, but for most kids, it's not merely that. For Taylor, basketball is her life, to a large extent, because she associates the great parts of living being with her father, who gets custody of his children every other weekend.
Taylor and younger sister Gracie, 8, attend every Morehead State game they possibly can. They were there for the upset over Louisville Thursday afternoon. That was the high.
"That was a really special moment for dad and I," she said. "We celebrated by watching more TV and more basketball. That's how we celebrate every year. By watching basketball."
If cameras had caught Taylor then, during the end of Thursday's upset, they'd have seen a girl ready to pop out of her seat at the end of the Eagles' bench, just as excited as the freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors who'd just made a dream come true.
After No. 12 Richmond defeated the 13th-seeded Eagles 65-48 in the Round of 32 Saturday afternoon at the Pepsi Center, I walked and talked with Taylor back to the team's locker room. The tears were wiped clean. She had no problem talking about what the game, and her father's relationship, meant to her and her sister.
"I had a very great time with my dad," she said. "Whenever I got a chance with him, I made every moment last. I wish I could've spent more time with him."
Tyndall brings his children into team meetings and postgame press conferences and on the bench for games because he wants to make his family work the best he possibly can, all while trying to keep a Morehead State program on the rise -- a program that was 4-23 before he arrived. This year, Tyndall coached the team to 25 wins, tying the school record, and getting that coveted NCAA tournament win.
"It's very special any time you can have your kids be part of whatever your job is," Tyndall said. "For me, I spend a lot of hours away recruiting, watching game tape, I'm not home a whole bunch -- so when my girls are around, they're with me."
Having youngsters around is encouraged within the program. Colin O'Connor spent the entirety of the Morehead State shootaround eagerly defending one of his best buddies, departing senior Demonte Harper. That's the kid who hit the shot that got the Eagles to the next round, remember. Taylor and Colin and Gracie have become a sublet of the Morehead State team this season. The players acknowledge and embrace them constantly. Grace shags loose rebounds in shootarounds while O'Connor tries to play three feet taller than he is.
"It has been a very good experience with the team, and I'm going to miss the seniors, my friends," Taylor said, clutching her bright-yellow Morehead State shirt that pays homage to the team's seniors, Kenneth Faried, Harper and Sam Goodman. Taylor plays basketball and claims her favorite hobby is "doing homework." A fifth-grader, her favorite subject is social studies.
Tyndall keeps his offspring around him because his kids fuel him.
"She's always the one that since I've been the head coach has been there for me," Tyndall said. "She's my best buddy in the whole world. She's kind of like the little sister to my players, and she's at about every game. ... I'm an emotional, pretty passionate guy. You try to be the best dad that you can, but in this profession, it's not easy. So when they can be around, I want them to be around all the time."
The coach kept his emotions in check afterward, but said it wasn't easy.
"It's a crazy, crazy game. I say this all the time. The game will hurt you no matter who you are," he said. "You're going to have nights like Thursday where you literally can't explain how good you feel, and then games and days like today where you can't explain how much it hurts. That's basketball."
After the majority of the postgame interviews ended in the Eagles' locker room, Taylor fell into her father's body and clutched for some comfort. She wasn't completely over the loss, even if she tried to be strong for dad. As they packed up their things and prepared to go back to the hotel before getting on a plane for Morehead, Ky., Donnie Tyndall had this exchange with his older daughter.
"To see them cry is tough," said Tyndall, "but to win a big game like we did Thursday and they get to be there, you take the good with the bad, right buddy?"
"Yes, sir," Taylor said.