I keep coming back to one way to describe the four days I spent at Danville Area Community College last week.


There was plenty of pride present at DACC, visible most obviously in the hundreds of volunteers that helped the 2023 NJCAA Division II men’s basketball tournament go off without a hitch.

It always does at Mary Miller Gymnasium, which has hosted the event since 1994.

Inevitably, there was hope among all 16 teams that ventured to east central Illinois in pursuit of the prize each had dreamed of since October — or before. They came from as far as Arizona, Florida and New York for a chance at a national title.

The excitement included the fourth-seeded Jaguars, who had qualified for the tournament for the first time since 2018. As a top-four seed, DACC had realistic expectations of claiming its first national title since 1991.

Packed crowds were the norm whenever the Jaguars trotted on to their home floor, the main stage of a venue that holds about 2,000 people.

Thus, I witnessed heartbreak when DACC suffered an overtime loss to eventual national runner-up Macomb (Mich.) in the semifinal round last Friday night and was forced to settle for a third-place finish after a 74-65 victory over sixth-seeded Orange County (N.Y.) the following night in the consolation game.

My first feeling when the buzzer sounded on the Monarchs’ 69-67 win was empathy for the volunteers who had donated their time. They did a nice job of remaining impartial and welcoming to all of the teams involved, but surely they were all rooting for their hometown team deep down.

That said, that group ought to applaud themselves as the real champions of the week. Thanks to their efforts, Mary Miller Gym was as ready for the task of hosting the affair as it has been every year for the past nearly two decades.

There are simply too many folks who donated their time to list, from those who ran the hospitality room to those who helped coordinate travel arrangements to those who sold 50-50 raffle tickets.

DACC president Stephen Nacco wasn’t above jumping into the action in the venue’s concession stand.

Snazzy graphics, introductory videos and broadcast replays played on the gym’s videoboard. Video broadcasts originated from the gym’s newly added media suite above the bleachers on the south side of the venue. As usual, WDAN 1490-AM was on hand to score all of the action.

It all looked perfectly clean and tidy.

“This year with the integration of the media suite, it really just streamlined our whole production,” tournament Chairman Brian Hensgen said. “It hides the cameras and hides the wires and so on and so forth, so it creates a professional-looking facility for all the individuals inside the gym.”

The tournament is a regular draw for fans far and wide even when DACC doesn’t qualify.

And with the Jaguars back in the field for the first time in five years, capacity crowds were common whenever DACC took the floor.

“The local people are so into it,” Orange County coach Tom Rickard said. “I’m really impressed with that. The college does a great job. It’s a great facility. They treat us very nicely here and I think it’s fantastic that they made it because it brings more excitement to the tournament.”

The Jaguars — coached by Danville native DaJuan Gouard — should feel satisfied, too, although disappointment was the dominant feeling after their semifinal loss. I was standing on the baseline during the end of that game, squarely under the basket between both sets of bleachers.

When DACC surged ahead to a 67-62 lead early in the extra period, the crowd’s response was thunderous and, frankly, everything you’d want in a Final Four matchup.

“I was a high school basketball coach for four years,” Macomb coach Hassan Nizam said. “I felt like I was back coaching high school basketball on a Friday night in an inner-city rivalry.”

Naturally, the energy subsided a bit when the Monarchs surged back for a comeback win and earned a berth in the championship game. Milwaukee Area Tech — the 7-seed — won its first-ever national title after defeating Macomb 86-65 on Saturday night.

DACC would have triumphed at the buzzer had Ryan Caddell’s corner three-point attempt not rattled in — and out.

Gouard made clear after the Jaguars’ win over the Colts in the third-place game that the team shed tears at their shootaround that morning and the usually talkative group was quiet at that morning’s breakfast.

Time, it is said, heals all wounds.

“I feel like it’s still going to sting a little bit (in 10 years),” DACC sophomore guard Ramelle Arnold said. “Just thinking about, you know, if I have kids and (telling them), ‘Look, you know, that was me up there, one game away from being number one,’ but like, I mean, it’s still a special thing to be a part of at the end of the day.”

I was impressed by DACC’s ability — and willingness — to go the extra mile when I spent time there for the Vermilion County high school basketball tournament in January. That event drew crowds that packed DACC’s intimate confines and created a loud, hostile and fun environment.

The NJCAA tournament was no different. Danville native John Jansky painted a portrait of the late Kobe Bryant in roughly eight minutes during halftime of the Jaguars’ semifinal game. He had performed at DACC a few times in the past and has also painted the likes of Michael Jordan, Mike Krzyzewski and longtime tournament Director Dick Shockey.

The Danville Barbershop Chorus lent its voice to the National Anthem before the title game, which pitted the Monarchs against Milwaukee Area Tech.

Nobody won a contest that invited fans to shoot shots from varying distances during halftime — at least at the games that I was at — but it was entertaining to watch them try.

“When it comes down to the overall experience for not only our players and coaches, but our fans, we want to create an atmosphere,” Hensgen said.

“Our atmosphere can only be produced with the attention to detail and making sure we have quality performers, we have quality National Anthem singers and we have activities planned out throughout the tournament for everyone, to just get them engaged.”

DACC has cast a bid to continue its three-decade long tradition of hosting the tournament. When the NJCAA makes its decision on April 14, it ought to realize that well enough is often best left alone.

“There is so much respect for this Danville community in general,” Nizam said. “The way they’ve treated us since we’ve gotten here has been absolutely incredible. The hospitality, the environment (last Friday night), they love their basketball here. My biggest takeaway is the way they’ve been treating their guests. It’s second to none.”

Joey Wright is a staff writer for the News-Gazette. He can be reached at jwright@news-gazette.com.