’Bows can count on the B team
THERE was this feeling, last night, in the Rainbow Classic's third-place game. It was incredible. It started small. It was just a germ of an idea. Just an inkling. Just a particle. It grew gradually, slowly, until it dawned on everyone that it could actually be a possibility.
And then Hawaii's Chris Botez hit a basket, a jumper from the baseline, 12-feet-plus. And then Hiram Thompson -- who, by all rights, should be hearing raucous applause for making the last basket in the last seconds of a 20-point rout -- made a layup off an inbounds play. And then Thompson again, playing without fear, with confidence now, beating his defender baseline on the dribble. Layup again.
"I knew I had to not give up the opportunity," he would say.
And Deonte Tatum, hitting a 3, only the second of his career. And Botez on the floor, fighting for the ball. Matthew Gipson, a running, thunderous dunk. A confidence dunk.
Ahmet Gueye, making another incredible Ahmet Gueye play.
And it exploded in the air, somewhere in the midst of all this. It washed over everyone. A full-fledged feeling: Oh my goodness, these guys are in this.
These guys are actually in this game.
With Bobby Nash now out for the season (he's applying for a medical hardship). With Matt Lojeski playing banged up. With Matt Gibson still Working His Way Back to You, Babe (With a Burning Love Inside). With the realization that Julian Sensley -- who was also in jeans, last night -- will probably be earning his pro paycheck in euros or drachmas or pesos or yen, next year.
With only nine guys suited up and the Rainbows a battered shell of the Hawaii team that beat Michigan State what now seems like so very long ago. With the way it was looking. With the way they had lost the night before.
With the looming possibility, as one pregame observer dryly put it, that the Rainbows had "peaked in their first game."
How did this happen? How the heck did it get to this point?
And yet they were in it. This lineup. These guys. And that realization was wonderful.
"When an animal is up against the wall and he's hurt, that's when he's most deadly," Gipson said.
"They were all excited about it," Riley Wallace said, "the fact that people thought we weren't going to win."
Thought they weren't going to win? They had no business winning, under all these circumstances, against a team as good as Northwestern State.
Remember Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's quote about looking out at a lineup that made him want to throw up?
True freshmen. Guys out of position. Three 'Bows who had started games in their Hawaii careers, out. Including Sensley, who had pulled himself from the lineup with an Achilles' injury.
"It was a weird feeling," Lojeski said of looking to see who was out on the court with him last night.
"At practice today for the first time ever it was more of a walk-through," Wallace said. His tired team didn't even have enough bodies to go full out.
But then in the second half they weren't just in it, but winning it. These guys. This lineup. This team, on this night. Despite all this. They were doing it.
And it was wonderful.
"We were supposed to win that game, I think," Gipson would say.
There was more Thompson. Driving to the hoop without fear. Finding guys. Beating the shot clock. Making an impossible, twisting layup under the hoop.
Out of nowhere.
"He's slow, he's not fast, he's not quick," Wallace said.
He was everywhere.
"But he's a Ph. D.," Wallace said.
He's a fighter. They all were. You could see it in the second half. Something was different. They were playing with passion and love and heart and joy. It was one of those nights.
"We played together like a team and like a family," Gipson said.
It was the biggest win of the year. This one, not Michigan State. It was something special, to beat that team with these guys at this point.
"We know we're a good team now," Lojeski said.
There was Thompson afterward. He couldn't stop smiling. He was babbling.
"Opportunities come," the true-freshman hero was saying. "You don't know when they come."
Gipson could only shake his head and smile and soak in the moment.
"He's an opportunist," Gipson whispered. He thought that summed it up just right.