TERRE HAUTE — Almost nobody believed Michael Menser. I mean, really believed.
Well, his coach and teammates did. But I’m reasonably certain that none of the other beat writers at the 2001 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament pre-tourney interview session even bothered to repeat Menser’s comment in print.
“If we put a good streak together,” the Indiana State Sycamore guard said, “we can win it.”
By “it,” Menser didn’t mean just ISU’s first-round game. He meant the whole tournament — a feat that no Sycamore men’s basketball team had accomplished since Larry Bird and Co. in 1979.
Surely, skeptics presumed, Menser had to say that. Why else would he think the Sycamores had a chance?
After all, they ended the season by losing six of their last eight games. They’d even lost their home finale — Senior Night, for cryin’ out loud, for Menser, forward Matt Renn and three teammates. They’d fallen from first place to a tie for fourth.
Thus, ISU became the No. 5 seed in the MVC Tournament at St. Louis, and no team seeded so low had ever won the championship.
Their dream of reaching the Big Dance had unraveled. Or so most people thought.
Thank goodness, Michael, Matt and the Sycamores kept believing. They did exactly what Menser said was possible. They put a good streak together, defeating higher-seeded rivals Southern Illinois, Creighton and Bradley to win the conference tournament. Then they beat 13th-ranked Oklahoma in the NCAA South Regional at Memphis.
ISU fans and Hauteans gained a Rolodex of memories from a championship season that ISU hasn’t matched since. Some fans would say their favorite was Menser’s 32-point performance against top-seeded Creighton in the MVC Tournament, giving ISU a rousing 87-74 victory. In voting announced this week, Missouri Valley fans chose Menser’s exploit as the sixth-greatest moment in the history of “Arch Madness” — the league’s nickname for its St. Louis-based tourney, where the current Sycamore squad plays Illinois State in Friday’s first round.
My most vivid image from that season is far less obvious.
It occurred half an hour after ISU stunned heavily favored Oklahoma 70-68 in overtime at Memphis. The arena, called The Pyramid, was almost empty. Fans left, happy or dejected. The shocked Sooners were gone. NCAA staffers crunched numbers and stapled together statistical booklets in a computer room. Writers and sportscasters cranked out their stories from the media bullpen. After interviewing players and coaches and analyzing the game stats, I decided to take a walk to gather my thoughts. Strolling back into the now-quiet arena, I spotted Menser sitting, alone, in a courtside chair, sipping on bottled water, gazing across the court.
I didn’t interrupt his moment. But a breathless, hurried team manager soon did. “Michael,” he said, urgently, “everybody’s on the bus.” Menser grabbed his equipment bag and dutifully followed him out to The Pyramid parking lot.
I’m not sure what Menser had been thinking about, as he sat in that chair. Knowing Michael, if I asked him today — nine years later — he’d probably say something typically gracious like, “Oh, just my coaches and teammates, and everything we achieved together.” Perhaps. But I’m guessing a few images popped up, too.
Like 10,000 students, Hauteans and ISU fans storming the Hulman Center court after he hit two 3-pointers in the final 8.5 seconds of a milestone victory over the Indiana Hoosiers that November.
Or taking in the scenery at San Juan, Puerto Rico — and winning a couple of games — in an early season tournament.
Or watching Renn — the other half of ISU’s senior dynamic duo — play in pain, night after night, while wearing a brace to protect the stress fracture in his lower left leg.
Or learning the finer points of the college game – and the value of a thick skin — from Coach Royce Waltman.
Or enduring two last-second losses to Southern Illinois on improbable buzzer-beater shots by Saluki archnemesis Jermaine Dearman.
Or getting revenge on Dearman’s team with a 67-64 Sycamore win in the MVC tourney’s first round.
Or that 32-point explosion against Creighton in the second round at St. Louis. Down 15-12, Menser injured his shooting elbow in a collision with the Bluejays’ Ryan Sears. Menser made a rare trip to the bench, resting briefly because his right hand “felt like it was burning.” The pain subsided, but that fire never left. He hit 9 of 18 field goals, including five 3-pointers from so far off he could see the East St. Louis city limits. The clincher came just before halftime.
He stood at halfcourt, dribbling away the half’s final 35 seconds. Sears, his defender, watched, patiently waiting for Menser to pass or drive. He did neither. When the clock reached :02, Menser pulled up and launched a 27-footer that swished the net. Creighton went into the lockerroom trailing 41-36 and never recovered. “That last one was worth a lot more than 3 points,” Waltman said of Menser’s shot. The Bluejays were done.
Or cutting down the MVC Tournament nets after beating Bradley 69-63 in the title game.
Or knowing his family drove from their hometown of Batesville to witness every Sycamore game.
Or maybe Michael sat in that chair at Memphis, simply reliving the dramatic win over Oklahoma just minutes before. Teammate Kelyn Block got three teeth knocked out, and surprised everyone by returning to lead ISU in an overtime win that made the front page of the next morning’s New York Times.
From Michael’s vantage point, the season’s highlights were a lot to absorb. No wonder he sat down and took a few minutes to comprehend it all.
It was pretty unbelievable, even for a believer.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TERRE HAUTE — Almost nobody believed Michael Menser. I mean, really believed.
- Mark Bennett Opinion
MARK BENNETT: Hall of Memories: Names, images of baseball greats trigger connections to our own past
Baseball Hall of Famers are just people. Totally human. Still, for Americans who follow the national pastime, those players represent a nostalgic connection to summers gone by.
MARK BENNETT: Former Terre Hautean Jim Lovell stood ready as Neil Armstrong’s backup on Apollo 11
The words “Apollo 11” stir optimism in me.
I was an elementary school kid growing up in Vigo County when Neil Armstrong put the first footprint on the moon on July 20, 1969. So much seemed possible
MARK BENNETT: Dad-to-dad advice
Giving unsolicited advice is like offering somebody else your toothbrush, because it’s worked so well for you.
MARK BENNETT: The road ahead
An invisible force shield — just like those found in comic books — formed a barrier between us and the edge of that road.
MARK BENNETT: Generational ‘Catch 22’
Baby Boomers’ long run of cultural dominance gradually gives way to America’s 22-year-olds
Transformative changes: Five ways to strengthen Terre Haute’s ‘festival park’
Without realizing it, the crowds walking through Fairbanks Park during this week’s Banks of the Wabash Festival are paying tribute to two eras of visionaries.
MARK BENNETT: Mother of all missed opportunities
So often, we entrust mothers with so much. They draw duty as mediators when there’s a problem at school, healers when pain hits, and self-sacrificers willing to put the needs of their families ahead of their own. Not perfect, but perfectly equipped, thank God, to be the glue that holds things together. Mother’s Day offers an ideal moment to remember those qualities.
MARK BENNETT: Low, and OK with it
The little sticker in the upper-left corner of a vehicle’s windshield reminds us — three months in advance — when to get an oil change.
MARK BENNETT: Telling a difficult story
Arthur Feinsod struggled to vocalize lines from his own play, “Coming to See Aunt Sophie.”
MARK BENNETT: It’s (Not) So Easy
Arctic air bled into the Wabash Avenue post-hippie-era diner-pub every time the wooden door swung open.
MARK BENNETT: Dues Paid, change under way
In the 1940s, Dorothy Jerse sat in a University of Illinois accounting class, listening to a guest speaker.
MARK BENNETT: All aboard!
Find me a George Mason University basketball T-shirt in Indiana.
MARK BENNETT: New public-access point begins quest to create more spots to experience river
Fairness holds no power over the Wabash River.
MARK BENNETT: People spaces
Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week. By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics.
MARK BENNETT: Blessings of a long, cold, snowy winter
As spring, summer arrive, Hoosiers will appreciate icy months (well, maybe a little)
MARK BENNETT: Healing Indiana’s Achilles’ heel
Illinois served as the easy target.
At that moment.
MARK BENNETT: Yeah, yeah, yeah... For some grownups, first impression not so fab
We’re pretty smart here in middle America.
Our DNA carries the common-sense chromosome. From birth, Midwestern culture begins honing us into the most rational and perceptive of human beings. Sure, our prisons are full, but generally, we mean well. And we’re wise.
MARK BENNETT: Remembering the less glitzy days on Manning’s road to the Super Bowl
A blur of memories.
They’ll flicker fast and furious tonight, like a spinning Rolodex, when Peyton Manning runs onto the MetLife Stadium turf in Jersey City, as a Denver Bronco, playing for a Super Bowl ring against the Seattle Seahawks. Most Hauteans will experience flashbacks, too.
MARK BENNETT: A lengthening climb
The American economy is improving.
Confidence has risen since the government shutdown by the polarized Congress last fall. Indicators in various sectors show promise.
MARK BENNETT: Tackling entrenched economic problems could brighten local forecast
Without a DeLorean, there’s no going back to 1995.
MARK BENNETT: What is Indiana’s image in the eyes of the world?
A bus pulled up to the curb near the riverfront in downtown Chicago. An unusual advertisement was painted on its side.
Raising the bar
Around coffeeshops, kitchen tables and office watercoolers, Hoosiers have cussed and discussed the federal health care law.
MARK BENNETT: ABA’s record proves Bobby Leonard’s a legit Hall of Famer
Bobby Leonard symbolized the feisty competitive flair of the old ABA.
MARK BENNETT: Letter from coach’s young daughter put pro sports, Christmas in perspective
Most of us sympathize with people forced to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That list is growing, now that Black Friday has morphed into Black Thursday, causing retail employees to join doctors, nurses, hospital staffers, police, firefighters, emergency responders, military members, convenience store clerks, road crews and media to spend holidays at work. Ideally, we’ll feel gratitude when we require their services on those special days. Too often, their sacrificed time gets taken for granted.
Terry Leonard wanted the executives to remember her dad, and their family, at Christmastime.
And, amazingly, they listened.
MARK BENNETT: A degree of success
Determination to get that diploma Larry Bird’s deepest bond with fellow ISU alums, students
MARK BENNETT: Brad Fenton and friends set dominos in motion to make Larry Bird statue a reality
The idea has been out there for awhile, floating.
Locals in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s would say, “They need to put up a statue of Larry Bird. I mean, one of the all-time greatest basketball players played right here in Terre Haute at Indiana State University.”
MARK BENNETT: Next chapter set to begin
Use the classic Tommy Tutone song to memorize the following number …
MARK BENNETT: One-ring blues?
Minutes before kickoff tonight, the Lucas Oil Stadium tech crew should play Sam Cooke’s classic, “(What a) Wonderful World” over the sound system.
MARK BENNETT: At Peace in Parke County
Northwestern Parke County — The stream merely trickles beneath Mill Creek Bridge. It’s just a few inches deep, but the water keeps moving.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute native Tommy John belongs in Cooperstown for pitching like a Hall of Famer
Few players in history left a greater impact on baseball than Tommy John.
And he did so through his performance on the field.
- More Mark Bennett Opinion Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: Hall of Memories: Names, images of baseball greats trigger connections to our own past