When asked about Brown”s chances of winning during pre-game warm-ups, this was a night in which I honestly said, “There is a better chance of me shitting gold tonight. I”m just hoping they can score 50.” And then later, with 1:32 remaining and a 67-60 Friars lead, “Great effort tonight, but one day, they have to figure out how to win one of these.” Then something miraculous happened.
Well, several miraculous things in succession actually. The Bears threw away an inbounds pass and Providence took over, up 7 with less than 90 seconds to go. Brown, as they did so many times on this night, dug in and forced a tough shot that missed. Rafael Maia, one of Brown”s two frontcourt rookies, grabbed his 11th rebound and pushed the ball up the floor. The ball found its way to Tucker Halpern who ripped a pass across the court to Sean McGonagill who nailed a three to cut the deficit to 4. Had to have that one.
Full timeout from Coach Martin. The Bears” last timeout.
Brown set up a press. The Bears denied the inbounds pass and Providence was forced to take a timeout just before the five-count. Then, Brown”s defense (yes, you read that right) forces a game-changing play. Matt Sullivan, who did all the little things tonight (7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) picks one out of the air. The ball swings to McGonagill. He returns the favor and sets up Halpern for another trey. Splash. Whoa.
The Pizzitola Center had been quiet all night until LaDontae Henton went absolutely bonkers from everywhere on the court, turning the Pitz into a Friar pep rally midway through the second half. The building”s home fans only constituted about 20% of those in attendance (students on vacation), but suddenly all the noise was coming from behind the Brown bench and in the small pockets of brown-adorned folks cloaked amidst a sea of black.
67-66 Friars. Timeout Providence.
Coach Martin, I learned in the postgame aftermath, huddled the Bears up and set up the defensive strategy for how to press and if not, who to foul. He also drew up an offensive play since the Bears had no timeouts to call when they got the ball back.
Providence got the ball in and it made its way to Vincent Council. In my furious attempt to live-tweet this game for IHO, I heard but did not see him make the first (loud roar) and miss the second (gasp). I decided to look up. And I”m glad I did.
Tucker Halpern missed the entirety of last season with a debilitating case of mononucleosis. He spent the better part of eleven months in bed, completely miserable. He saw specialist after specialist with little success in diagnosing why he was having such an unusually serious reaction to mono. He had to drop out of school. His family stopped worrying about his missing basketball games and started to look at the big picture. Tucker hoped to get back to school by September.
Basketball very much became an afterthought. Finally, late in the summer of 2012, Tucker”s health started to improve, but it was a “one-step forward, two steps back” sort of recovery. He had allergic reactions to the medication he was taking and his hands and feet started to painfully swell. July and August went by quickly. He started swimming to work on his conditioning because it was too painful to run. Eventually, the swelling went away. September came and went and Halpern had barely put up a single shot in the gym in the previous eleven months. He finally got to shoot in October and started working towards passing Coach Martin”s mandatory conditioning test. Finally, after several failed attempts, he passed it in late-November, several games into the season.
Surely, none of this was going through his mind with 10 seconds to go as Sean McGonagill floated a pass to him on the left wing, down two to Providence. Halpern already had his comeback story. He was in school working towards his degree and back with his friends in Providence. And better yet, he had worked his way back into basketball shape and earned his place on the court. But Halpern caught the pass, upfaked, and stroked the purest of shots, sending the small contingent of Brown fans into a frenzy and causing thousands of jaw drops and facepalms across the country from folks tuning into NBCSN. For Halpern, it was all gravy. Or rather, onions. (Never mind that he mentioned, offhand, after the game that he thought his three tied the game, instead of thrusting the Bears into the lead, 69-68. Ignorance is bliss or the folly of youth, take your pick.)
The Bears held strong for a final stop and sent shockwaves across this basketball-crazy city with the most unlikely of 69-68 victories. A 9-1 run on 3-3 shooting and a steal in the final 45 seconds. The 293rd ranked team in the country over the 61st. The kind of incredible game that makes college basketball the most thrilling sport in the country.
Like Halpern with his health, Mike Martin and the Bears now have their signature victory this year. With eight healthy players on the roster and two rookies in the starting frontcourt, no one is expecting much. But who”s going to count out Brown when these guys are playing with house money? With a first-year coach proving his worth and a team buying into playing defense–real, hard-nosed, scrappy defense? With a bench that showed up to play against a Big East foe (Sharkey! Schmidt!)? With two freshman starters getting better every game? With a stone-cold assassin shooter playing like he”s got a second lease on his career?
The Bears are putting something special together. It may not come together the way it did tonight every night this season. But the ceiling is high in Providence. And for one night, that”s something worthy of celebration.