Saturday, March 1, 2008

Men's Basketball Senior Day 3/1/2008

Stanford 60 Washington State 53 Wow, you couldn't have scripted a better senior day game. There was the line outside Maples before doors opened, the seniors being honoured and Trent starting them, digging ourselves out of the first half deficit with the trademark smothering defense that has been absent in the last couple of games, an incredibly pumped up Brook Lopez whose passion inspired the 6th Man Section, Taj Finger's huge 3 to tie it up, Maples being the loudest it has been all season and of course the win which guaranteed us at least a second place finish in the Pac-10.
The first day of March was a beautiful day, and slowly but surely, the line began to grow as we waited for doors to open. I noticed even more seniors than usual (if that's possible) who were in line for their final game at Maples. Talking to them, there was a tinge of sadness that this would be it and I encouraged as many friends as possible to go to the Pac-10 tournament or even next week's games against the LA schools. Entering Maples and claiming our front row and center spots for the last time was a strange feeling and it could be me paying less attention, but it seemed as if the seniors who usually heckle opposing team players were more subdued than usual. Perhaps fellow seniors were just trying to soak in their last game as well. One other thing that I noticed was that the black out day didn't quite work too well. Perhaps they should have gotten a sponsor to hand out free black shirts.
My favourite part of Senior Day is when the players are honoured and have their parents join them on the floor. This year was no different and it was definitely an emotional moment for me (and I'm sure countless others). Trent's decision to start the seniors and Brook was ok in my book, even if it allowed WSU to get off to a good start and may have caused our usual starters to be out of sync. Their effort and dedication to our program was recognised and if I'm not wrong, WSU was only spotted a 2 point (or was it 5) lead before our starting 5 was in. But our team as a whole didn't come out too strong and WSU was able to grab some offensive rebounds, and penetrate and dish to the open man. Low also made some 3s that we couldn't really do much about.

On the offensive end, there were definitely some missed calls. It looked like Kenny was fouled on a pull up jumper and even if people claim that the replay wasn't conclusive, Goods being slapped on the arm before launching a 3 could be heard loud and clear. The crowd and Trent really got on the officiating crew after that no-call. It was probably the maddest I've seen a Maples crowd before. With Dave Libbey around, I wasn't too surprised and the thing is, the more a home crowd gets on him, the more he calls it the other way. Same thing happened when I was in Tempe for the ASU game except the calls were going our way since we were the road team. The guy has an enormous ego and loves being in his position of power. He even tried to get a fan thrown out. When Brook started jawing with him after picking up his second foul (it wasn't Libbey who called the foul), I feared for the worse and was hoping that Trent would get him out of there as soon as possible. Taj probably came just in the nick of time but then Libbey stalked Brook all the way to the bench and I'm not sure what Trent did to talk Libbey out of calling a technical on Brook, but he deserves coach of the year just for that.

At the same time, I didn't think we were doing a terrible job offensively. I don't believe we gave up any fast break points in the first half to a WSU team that makes a living out of getting steals (Weaver's foul trouble probably helped). Sure, shots weren't falling but I was very pleased to see us run 3 inbounds plays in the first half, capped off by the well designed Shiller to Robin alley-oop with 1.9 seconds left. That's probably more than we've run in all our previous conference games combined. It is as if Trent has been saving them for the end of the season so that it won't show up on scouting reports and opponents, expecting us to simply lob the ball to the back, will be caught off guard. Despite the 11 point deficit at the half, I was strangely not too upset with our play.

The second half was almost a mirror image of our second half performance against ASU when we overcame a 10 point deficit thanks to some stifling defense and great offensive execution. What made it even better this time, was the passion that everyone was playing with. Brook led the way by putting the team on his back and if anyone tries to convince me that he may come back next year, I'll ask them whether they saw him play against WSU on Senior Day. Brook played knowing full well that it was his last game at Maples, and while he has been often criticised for being too emotional, especially when on the road, his emotion was just what the doctor ordered and really inspired the fans. For one of the few times this season, the 6th Man section was rocking like a real student section. It was more situational than anything else, but as I had wished for in previous posts, we finally got it together for Senior Day. It was a tremendous feeling.

When Taj hit that 3 to level the scores for the first time in the game, Maples erupted. On defense, we rotated well and got our hands in passing lanes to deny the drive and dish that Washington State (Weaver especially) had used repeatedly against us. We didn't allow any offensive rebounds and the ball was bouncing our way and straight into Brook's hands for an easy putback. Brook wasn't forcing shots either. He passed out of double teams, and didn't try baseline fadeaways as he has in the past. Everything was clicking. When we needed free throws to ice it, Goods who had struggled from the stripe earlier in the game was there to seal the deal. His free throws brought some of the loudest cheers I've heard in Maples in a while. What a win. Thank you seniors!
The season is far from over but with all the emotions that Senior Day brings (Alex and I couldn't bear to leave Maples after the game), I just feel incredibly fortunate that I've been able to be part of this 2007-2008 season. When I first decided to try and attend every single basketball game this year, I never thought in my wildest dreams that we'd have this many wins. On one hand, I was trying to keep my expectations tempered but to be honest, all I really hoped for was 10 conference wins and to see us play in the NCAA tournament in person. To go 16-1 at home in a conference as talented as the Pac-10 is amazing, and I hope students realise how lucky we've been to witness this. To have this perfectly scripted game as my last home game, what more can you ask for? Well I guess I'm going to be greedy and say, let's keep up this momentum and passion. There's still a lot more of basketball to be played. On to LA, my second home for the next few weeks.
~ Zhihao

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