Dec. 5—In terms of pure drama? Indiana State's 69-68 win over Miami of Ohio was one of the better ones I've seen at Hulman Center in quite a while.
The lead changed hands five times in the final minute-plus, ISU scored on a beautiful bit of improvisation, and then had to survive an unlikely plot twist right at the death.
It kind of reminded of another win in another debut coaching season.
Remember Carl Richard's flip-and-win against Creighton in 2011? Richard hit the winner off of an ISU miss by Jake Odum at the buzzer to give the Sycamores a dramatic 61-59 win over the Bluejays. At the time, it kept ISU undefeated in Missouri Valley Conference play in Greg Lansing's first season.
Though the stakes weren't as high for ISU on Saturday in a nonconference game, the competitiveness was very similar. The 2011 game featured 14 lead changes and 10 ties. ISU's game on Saturday against Miami featured 16.
The other similarity? The 2011 team was a lot of fun and kind of snuck up on a lot of people — ISU fans and beyond — as a contender.
I'm not predicting contention for the these Sycamores, though the MVC isn't quite as fearsome as thought going into the season, but they are fun, and there is that sense of all-for-one, one-for-all.
Between ISU's one-point win over Miami and the ISU women's one-point loss to Western Michigan, one in which they rallied for a near-miracle comeback, it was a good day to be at Hulman Center on Saturday.
1. Offense was good, but defense is what gets you W's — As fun as the tit-for-tat basket-trading was in the final minute, ISU won this via its defense in the last half of the second half.
Up until that point, I kept wondering what combination could be put on the floor that could get the Sycamores some stops. Nothing was working.
The five that meshed to do it would not have been the quintet anyone would have guessed. Xavier Bledson, Cooper Neese, Cam Crawford, Micah Thomas and Zach Hobbs were on the floor when ISU locked Miami down for 10 straight possessions, allowing ISU to overcome an eight-point deficit to take the lead.
When I reeled off those names to Josh Schertz in the postgame press conference, he kind of arched his brow when Hobbs' name was brought up.
Hobbs was brought to ISU to be a shooter, not a defender. He's struggled in that department, his preseason injury messed up his shooting timing and rhythm, but Schertz wanted to maintain a small lineup when Cam Henry (more on him in a moment) was yanked from the game.
Schertz said Hobbs had never defended in the post before, but, the seeds of the move were planted in practice.
When I got to practice on Friday, I noticed assistant coach Bryston Williams working specifically with Hobbs on his defensive positioning. He was drilling him, primarily, on his man-on-man defending technique.
It paid off. Hobbs held the fort against Miami's Precious Ayah and Elijah McNamara. The guards did their job and ISU held what had been a potent RedHawks attack in-check.
Hopefully, that stretch will drive home via positive reinforcement that this team can win via defense too, not just it's shot-making.
2. Get used to the short rotation — It's standing operating procedure for fans to ask me on social media about why so-and-so isn't playing.
In the past, there was almost always a non-coaching decision reason, an injury, an illness, an occasional suspension. Something for me to find out, in other words, if I hadn't already reported it.
With Schertz, everyone, including me, is just going to have to understand that sometimes players aren't going to play due to matchups and the combinations Schertz wants on the floor.
Kailex Stephens, who didn't play on Saturday, was perfectly healthy. I knew that. I saw him at practice on Friday.
Yet, when I had fans asking me about why Stephens wasn't playing, I didn't answer. I suspected it was just a coaches' decision, the same reason why Dearon Tucker didn't play at Loyola (or on Saturday), and why Cam Crawford didn't play or played sparingly at Myrtle Beach.
I still thought maybe he got sick or there was a reason I didn't ask about.
No. It was what I thought it was. Schertz didn't think the matchups favored Stephens. For Schertz, a seven-man rotation, something rarely seen in recent years, was perfectly fine with him.
I'm learning, you're learning. We'll get used to it together.
3. Good and the avoidable of Henry — Henry was brilliant for the most part on Saturday. He scored 21 points, he had eight rebounds and five assists. When gets downhill? He's very hard to stop.
Yet, Henry wasn't on the floor when the game turned in the latter part of the second half with ISU's defensive stand. Why? He lost composure.
Henry and Miami guard Mekhi Lairy began yapping at each other in the second half. Something was said under the basket at the 12-minute mark after Isaiah Coleman-Lands earned a steal on a Henry drive to the basket that Lairy stopped via contact.
Henry said something to Lairy after the play and Lairy did kind of rise up to Henry and bumped him before both began retreating up the floor.
Henry and Lairy were still talking halfway up the court when Henry lost his cool. He shouldered Lairy from behind. A foul was called. Henry lightly bumped Lairy after the whistle too.
Henry was fortunate that he got away with just a regular foul. There was clear intent. Maybe Lairy sold it a bit, and that may helped Henry, but he still bumped Lairy from behind and that's a no-no.
One might say they "like the fire", but clearly, Schertz didn't. He yanked Henry immediately and only put him back in late when he felt he needed more offense on the floor.
Henry is a really good player. He clearly belongs at this level. But composure has to play its part too. If getting overheated gets to the point where you can't be on the floor, then it's intensity being channeled in the wrong direction.
Henry was pretty fortunate his teammates bailed him out with their defense to given him a chance to return to the game at all.
Keep your cool, Cam!
4. ISU would be kicking itself if ... — Somehow, Coleman-Lands' half-court bomb had counted.
It was a fortunate make off of even more fortunate circumstances.
Watching it live, and at the angle from my vantage point, screened off by the participants, I didn't appreciate how weird that play was.
Dalonte Brown's inbounds pass went to Coleman-Lands and it was deflected by Cam Crawford off of Coleman-Lands' hand.
That put enough backspin on the ball that instead of bouncing out of bounds, it bounced near the half-court corner and stayed inbounds. It also never floated over the center line. That allowed Coleman-Lands the time to gather the loose ball and get off the half-court shot he made ... but that was release a skosh after the buzzer sounded.
Why would ISU have been kicking itself? The rest of the Sycamores on the floor kind of relaxed when the deflection occurred, thinking the game was over. And, of course, it normally would have been.
Now, to be fair? Crawford was the only Sycamore in range to do anything about it as the other Sycamores were still guarding other RedHawks elsewhere inside the Miami half of the court, but when you watch on replay, you see Neese's hands up celebrating before the half-court shot was taken.
5. Miami likely will be kicking itself ... — When Miami got the ball back after Neese's go-ahead layup, there was 1.6 seconds left.
Should there have been more?
I was informed by someone in a position to know that if Miami had asked for a ruling on the game clock, it's likely a couple of tenths might have been added. Miami made no request, so it wasn't reviewed.
Given what happened afterwards, a couple of tenths made all the difference in the world.
I looked at it at home, albeit off of the ESPN feed, which isn't nearly as good as what they use for replay inside Hulman Center. The best I could pause it, Neese's shot appeared to drop through the cylinder with 2.1 left.
Now, that doesn't mean that's when the clock gets stopped. It's on the whistle. However, given the ESPN audio meltdown at Hulman Center, I couldn't detect a whistle. So who knows?
Yet another angle to this game that made it so compelling.
—ISU Player of the Game — Henry was good, Bledson was his usual talisman self, but let's roll with Cooper Neese. Not only did he get the game-winner, but he grinded all 40 minutes and saw his 3-point shot fall (4-for-10) after a recent mini-slump. Neese scored 20 points.
—Opposing Player of the Game — Lairy was exactly as I remembered him when I saw him play at Bosse ... fun to watch. Quick as hell, a pest on both ends, and savvy. He was the RedHawks' best player when they nearly won the game in the final minute. He had a team-high 18 points, but his influence went beyond that.
—Random — A couple of random things.
First? Very cool that ISU honored the 1977 national champion men's gymnasts. When a program is cut, as men's gymnastics was in the 80s, their legacy sort of gets unwittingly cut with it.
With no continuation of a tradition, and as the sands go through the hourglass, fewer people left who were around to witness a program in-person, it gets very difficult to even have the will to honor athletes from disappeared programs.
It's also awkward from a public relations point of view for a school to honor athletes from a sport that they cut, even if the actual principles who pulled the trigger aren't around anymore.
I feel for ISU's gymnasts, wrestlers, men's swimmers and men's golfers. All of those sports were cut way before my time. I have no institution knowledge of their existence. Few under 50 do.
Men's and women's tennis were cut in my time ... 2009 to be exact. Both had proud histories, but as time passes, it's easier to forget. The only reminder right now is the sad sight of the unused Duane Klueh tennis complex on 5th Street.
Those gymnasts deserved the moment and the cool retro banner that now dominates the east side of Hulman Center. I'm happy they got it.
Second? Spare a thought for Brian Jennings and Matt Renn, the ESPN3 broadcast team on Saturday.
I said to Renn right after the game ended that it was one of the more dramatic games I'd seen in Hulman Center in a few years.
He was irritated, though, and it took me a second to hash out why.
The audio malfunction (don't ask me what happened, because I don't know) robbed Renn and Jennings the chance to call a very compelling game.
Broadcasts want those moments. So do writers. I was having a blast putting it out there in real time on Twitter and the game story was a lot of fun to write.
So to have that fun taken away through no fault of their own? Bad luck for Jennings and Renn.
Finally? I'm ready for a break. ISU's schedule has been punishing. Lots of road games. Lots of quick turnarounds.
It happens sometimes. Bad travel years I remember on the beat occurred in 2009-10, when ISU played at LSU, Western Kentucky and Arkansas State in a 13-day span.
The worst was in the 2014-15 season, when I was away from home for fie straight weekends, literally, from coast-to-coast.
Football played a role in that one. I was at IUPUI on Nov. 13 and then had an insanely short turnaround to go to football at Youngstown State the next day.
On Nov. 20, I was at Western Illinois for football, the season-ender where ISU lost, but made the FCS playoffs anyway.
On Nov. 28, I was in Las Vegas for the last of two basketball games.
On Dec. 6, I was in Chattanooga for the second-round FCS playoff game.
And finally, on Dec. 13, I was in New York City for ISU's basketball game at Iona. That was a crazy stretch.
There's still more travel to come too. ISU goes to North Dakota State next Monday.
I am making my first flight trip for basketball since the 2018-19 season. For reasons that escape me, it was $300 cheaper to fly out of St. Louis, so I tack on a drive to my night flight to Fargo.
Later, ISU goes to Northern Illinois before Christmas.
Good thing I have satellite radio and a Spotify Premium account. I'll need them.