News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 3, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Sometimes you just have to believe

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.

And smiling.

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 mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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