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March 10, 2014

Todd Golden: Sycamores ran with the best

ST. LOUIS — It’s hard to run with Secretariat.

Secretariat, for the uninitiated, won horse racing’s Triple Crown in 1973 and famously stormed to victory in the Belmont Stakes by an unfathomable 31 lengths. Secretariat is widely considered to be the greatest thoroughbred of all time, and his Belmont performance is one of sports’ all-time greatest moments.

In Missouri Valley Conference terms, Wichita State is Secretariat. And like the famous Big Red, the Shockers surged past all and sundry in the Valley this season.

On Sunday, when Indiana State lined up as WSU’s last obstacle to an undefeated regular season, it was easy to view the Sycamores as Sham, a quality horse that ran out of gas trying to chase down Secretariat at the Belmont.

But the Sycamores were no Sham. They ran hard. They absorbed all manner of bumps and bruises along the way. ISU ran and ran to the bitter end.

It wasn’t enough. WSU won Sunday’s MVC Tournament championship game 83-69, but it wasn’t for lack of fight on the Sycamores’ part.

The Sycamores never faded away. They didn’t meekly slip out of Scottrade Center, as Evansville and Missouri State did before them this weekend. They never made it the WSU coronation many feared it would be until the bitter end. ISU knocked separate 12-point, 15-point and 18-point deficits down to single digits.

While that was small comfort to a disconsolate bunch of Sycamores after the game, it is something to be proud of.

“I was kind of disappointed when the game ended, obviously, but now I’m sitting [at the press conference] and I’m proud of the fight,” ISU point guard Jake Odum said. “[WSU] earned it. 34-0? Nobody’s beat them all year. They’re the best team in the country, but we fought with them. We were right there hand-in-hand with them for 30 minutes. We just couldn’t finish out.”

ISU’s fight wasn’t easy, as adversity came at it in waves. It started before the game tipped off. Late Saturday night, ISU forward Justin Gant wasn’t in bed resting up for the Shockers, he was in a St. Louis hospital emergency room.

Gant’s right eye was poked by Southern Illinois’ Bola Olaniyan during Saturday’s semifinal victory. Gant played through it Saturday, but bleeding in the eye caused his condition to progressively get worse. He went to the emergency room, was released and cleared to play, but it was a jarring evening.

You wouldn’t have known it on Sunday. With a nasty looking purple spot in his eye, he converted 7 of 11 to score 18 points and went a long way toward silencing those who question his toughness.

But it was Odum, as usual, who embodied ISU’s fight best. Odum injured the knuckle on his right index finger when tried to draw a charge on WSU’s Ron Baker near the start of the second half. He told ISU’s coaching staff he broke his hand and went to the locker room for treatment.

Minutes later, he was back on the floor. ISU is still not sure whether he broke the hand, dislocated it, or neither, but Odum definitely played hurt. And he was one of the biggest reasons ISU stayed calm as it sliced a 15-point deficit down to four in the second half.

Odum had eight points, seven assists, five rebounds and one turnover as he played with one hand in crunch time. It doesn’t get more impressive than that.

The best compliment to ISU’s effort was paid by the Shockers themselves. When Odum was substituted out with 1:03 to go, WSU guard Ron Baker made sure he patted Odum on the back. He then clapped over the top of his head and asked the WSU crowd to give Odum his due. WSU point guard Fred Van Vleet applauded as well.

An extremely classy move.

“That kid right there is a very special kid,” said Baker, when asked about his gesture. “He’s had a really strong four years at his university. He’s put up special numbers. He’s made history here.

“I’m just sad for his fans to see him not accomplish what he was trying to accomplish, but right there, I was trying to give him some love because he deserved it. He played a hard game and his career will always be looked at,” Baker added.

WSU coach Gregg Marshall sang ISU’s praises too. He wished the league was better so that ISU’s 23-10 season could’ve been rewarded with a NCAA Tournament bid. No team pushed the Shockers as much as the Sycamores did in the conference.

“To cut it to five, to do basically a 10-0 run because we were up 15, and have us on the ropes … I did not anticipate that in any form. When they cut it to five, it was a ballgame, and we made the plays to get over the hump,” Marshall said. “I hope they get to the NIT at least and do extremely well and win the whole thing.”

There’s a famous photo of Secretariat’s Belmont victory where jockey Ron Turcotte looks behind him, peers down the front stretch and sees no horses coming at him.

When WSU turned and looked down the front stretch, it saw ISU, and it gave a respectful nod.

The Sycamores earned it.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at 812-231-4272 or Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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