Believe it or not, Cerina could be the difference against BYU this afternoon.
As the clock wound down on TCU's opening round 70-61 over Wyoming n the MWC Tournament yesterday afternoon, Hank Thorns dropped to the ground and took it all in. He wasn't crying or anything like that, he just fell into a squat with his head down and presumably let a little bit of the frustration of the past 13 games fade away. He wasn't the only one - Greg Hill had a smile on his face as if he was down the street at the Bellagio and had just converted split aces into blackjacks with his last $100. Jim Christian had the look of a man who had just been told he was being released from prison after spending the past few years of his life wrongfully on death row. And while a win in the 8/9 game against the only team the Frogs had beaten in conference play all year isn't going to automatically turn this thing around, the 4 of 5 others of you watching couldn't help but feel good about these guys FINALLY putting it all together in the post-Moss era of this particular season.
When I, perhaps a bit hastily, closed the curtain on the 2010/11 basketball season last week, I said the following, "...best case scenario the Frogs shock Air Force, ride that momentum to take down a Wyoming team that is much better than they are and has won three times as many league games… and then get crushed once again by BYU – albeit a suddenly deflated BYU - in a game that counts. " While we didn't quite shock Air Force and we still have to play a BYU team that should by all means crush us, when I wrote the second part of that statement, I knew it to be false. To say that Wyoming was a much better team than TCU was just me riding the wave of negative emotion I've built up over the past few months of following these guys as closely as I've followed any TCU basketball team since 2003. I mean, we smoked the Cowboys in January and while we dropped the return game in Laramie, we never should've let it get away, even without Moss. And that whole, "three times as many league games," thing was deliberately misleading to sound worse, because as you all well know we only won one ourselves. So when spitpurple and I were talking before the game yesterday and he said he had a feeling we were going to win, I honestly had to agree with him.
So how did we do it yesterday? Well, the answer is pretty simple - we didnt' collapse down the stretch, even when Wyoming was making it interesting. In the games that we've kept close since Moss went away - both Air Force games, the Wyoming game, the second game against Utah and even the second game against San Diego State - we had our chances late and either couldn't get a stop or couldn't get a shot off. Part of this is the fault of the coaches' - in both Air Force games when we had a chance to tie or win it late, we ran the same high screen for Thorns that resulted in an impossible shot that was unsurprisingly missed. Another part of it is that our team is just not defensive minded. But, perhaps most of all, we lack a go-to guy and even though we're trying to turn Thorns into just that, the fact is he's a short PG who is understandably going to have a tough time finishing at the rim against a team with size down low. Perhaps this will change next year with Moss expectedly coming back, but as presently constructed the best option for this team isn't to try and force any one player to be a Kobe-like assassin, it's to spread the floor and give any of our at least pretty good shooters a chance to put games away. Which is exactly what happened yesterday.
Clearly, Hank Thorns and Greg Hill were MVPs 1 and 1A of yesterday's game. But first I want to talk about JR Cadot, a player who, at least based on the amount of coverage he gets in Caribbean newspapers, should be having the kinds of performances he had yesterday every time out. His 13 points and 13 rebounds may not jump off the page on a day where Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves just broke the all time record for consecutive games with a double double, but you can't diminish the importance of Cadot's aggressive play in the win. TCU is an awful rebounding team, which is a major reason why we haven't scored a lot of points. A lot of this has to do with our lack of size, but rebounding is about being aggressive and wanting the ball more than your opponent. You have to sacrifice some offense and give up your body, which is something no one on this team has seemed too interested in doing. So to see Cadot -a sleeper favorite of mine simply because of the one or two highlight reel dunks he contributes every game, although that's about all he does - playing this hard says a little something about the mindset of the team even as the season has collapsed around them.
As for Thorns and Hill, when I spoke above about how the reason we won is because we didn't collapse down the stretch, these are the two guys who wouldn't allow that to happen. (Sorry, that syntax was AWFUL. Every major writer ever just threw up in their mouths a little bit). With a little over 12 minutes remaining in the game, Wyoming took the lead 42-41 and despite all of the good things TCU had done in the first half by jumping out to a huge lead, it looked like another second half fade was in order. Apparently Greg Hill didn't get the message. After that lead, he immediately came out and hit a three, putting the Frogs up by two which sparked a 9-0 run and a lead they would never give back. I was about to end that sentence with, "although it wasn't for lack of trying," but really, this is the first time in months that the boys put their foot on another team's neck and never took the pressure off as the Cowboys never got within 8 the rest of the way. Hill finished with a team high 18 points and, to go along with his career high 23 against Air Force in the season finale, is playing like a senior who wants to prolong the feeling as long as possible. I'm not sure he's going be the difference maker this afternoon against BYU, but you can bet he's going to play his ass off and try to shock the basketball world.
But as good as Hill's day was, I'm not sure Hank Thorns didn't have a better one. The Vegas native, playing in front of friends and family, finished the day with 16 points and 9 assists and had perhaps the most important play of the game. With just under two minutes left, Wyoming pulled to within 10 and looked to be making one last ditch run at winning the game. Thorns, though, had other ideas, driving the lane and converting a 3 point play that ended the Cowboys chances. I still stick by what I said about about Thorns not being a sure-fire go to guy, but when it works out like it did yesterday, I'll take the results.
Of course, all good things must come to an end and the biggest shame in this is that the team has less than 24 hours to enjoy it before getting back out and facing a BYU team that has beaten them 15 consecutive times. FIFTEEN! Bolstered by the swagger that comes with getting your first win since January, our guys certainly aren't backing down though, notably Hank Thorns who thinks we can expose BYU inside due to the lack of the suspended Brandon Davies.
(side note: Pretty curious that in the past year BYU has suspended two solid basketball players from the team for behavioral problems... and they were both black. Could the teachings of Uncle Rulon be creeping their way back into mainstream Mormon culture? And let's be honest - unless Jimmer Fredette truly is a saint or is Jesus come back to earth in human form, there's NO WAY he hasn't used his status to slay some of that Aryan Poon they have flitting about in Provo. Had it been him, would they have been as forceful with their enforcement? Methinks nein. side note complete)
Thorns had this to say in the post game:
"They're vulnerable in the post, we can probably drive it down there more. We know they only got [Noah] Hartsock down there. So [we are] probably going to pound the ball in, let Niko do his thing down there and make plays for us."
Of course, when you see the line "let Niko do his thing down there and make plays for us" in the context of winning a basketball game against a Top 10 ranked team, perhaps you should take that kind of confidence with a grain of salt. BYU is a team that runs as well as anyone else in the country; without Davies, they're going to be running even harder. This is dangerous for a team like TCU who has little to no bench depth because, while you might be able to keep it close at first, after a while, when you stop sucking air, you'll look up and see you're down by 15-20. But I understand that when yesterday's win was only your second in the conference and likely your last one the year, you've gotta condense all of that smack talk into a neat little package. And you know what? I love it. I love that, despite the odds being COMPLETELY against us, and despite losing by double digits to this same team twice already this year, we're not afraid. Sure, it'd be foolish to proclaim that the Frogs will win this afternoon, but at least they're acting like a real basketball team again.
Yesterday's win might turn out to be just that - yesterday's win. But no matter what happens today, with only two seniors departing, that feeling will stick with these guys through the off season and into next year. It's not much, but it's something to build on, and after the 1-15 in conference showing, that's more than I ever thought we could hope for. Go Frogs.