News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sycamores 2011

March 16, 2011

SPECIAL SECTION: B-Sides: Sycamores must find key qualities to 'upset' Syracuse

TERRE HAUTE — In 2001, Indiana State had two assets the current Sycamores need if they hope to upset 11th-ranked Syracuse.

(No, it’s not Michael Menser and Matt Renn — leaders of the last ISU team to reach the Big Dance. Yes, their smarts, finesse and fire would come in handy in Friday night’s NCAA Tournament game at Cleveland, but Michael and Matt are in their 30s now, out of eligibility, and surely one of the refs would recognize them if they suited up.)

1. At least one Sycamore must deliver a Kelyn Block-caliber performance.

2. They must be genuinely irritated by the word “upset” in that first sentence.

Those two qualities made the difference when ISU beat 13th-ranked Oklahoma 70-68 in overtime in the first round of the NCAA tourney in Memphis, Tenn., a decade ago. Don’t misunderstand. The other Sycamores — Menser, Renn, power forward Djibril Kante, center Terence Avery and their supporting cast — played superbly. Renn scored 16 of his 22 points in the final 14 1/2 minutes of regulation. Menser played all 45 minutes (the only player on either side to do so), dished out five assists and (at 5-foot-11) grabbed a team-high six rebounds. Kante collapsed to the floor with a twisted ankle late in the second half, but stuck it out to the finish. Avery made the most of his 28 minutes, scoring 11 points and matching Menser and Renn with six rebounds.

But their teammate, junior guard Kelyn Block, lived the kind of night he’ll tell his grandkids about someday.

The fact that his effort required toughness was fitting. Block came to ISU from Kansas as a high school football standout who decided to accept a basketball scholarship instead. Obviously, the kid had been hit hard before. This time, though, Block wore no helmet or shoulder pads.

With less than a minute left in regulation and the Sycamores leading 59-57, Sooners guard Hollis Price — Block’s defensive assignment — drove the lane and drew a foul from Kelyn. As the two tumbled to the floor, Price’s elbow inadvertently hit Block’s mouth. The contact was so fierce, three of Block’s lower teeth were knocked out or chipped off. Price’s tricep tendon was cut.

Block stood up briefly, then crumpled onto the hardwood of the arena, known as The Pyramid, bleeding. His three teeth lay on the court, too.

The crowd fell silent. Everyone — his teammates, and the Sooners — looked on, worried by the sight. When trainers led Block, staggering in pain, to the lockerroom, everyone figured he was done for the night.

In his absence, ISU’s lead dissolved into a 61-61 tie at the buzzer. So Coach Royce Waltman started the overtime period with Menser, Renn, Kante and two freshmen — Marcus Howard and Matt Berry. The Sooners had stolen the Sycamores’ momentum, and looked primed to take the win. Instead, just as the OT began, Block, stuffed with gauze and a mouthguard, came running out of the tunnel. The ISU fans went nuts. Waltman quickly sent Block in for Berry.

Seconds after re-taking the floor, Block slapped loose a Sooner pass and raced to a layup.

Oklahoma never led again.

Block scored four of his 17 points in overtime. Defensively, he held Price to 11 points, five below his average. The next morning, he had oral surgery in a Memphis hospital.

To win, the Sycamores needed the best each of their players could offer, and then something extra. Block provided that. “When he came back out, you could see a glow in their eyes,” said Oklahoma guard Kelley Newton, who’d known Block from their playground hoops days as kids in Kansas City, Kan.

That was the Sycamores’ 22nd win that season. They’d earned an automatic NCAA bid by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Still, the NCAA Selection Committee decided they were the 13th best team, out of 16, in the South Region of the Big Dance. The Sooners won the Big 12 championship. Thus, in the minds of many, the “mid-major” Sycamores were underdogs, and the Okies were the favorites.

The thing is, the Sycamore players and coaches respected Oklahoma, but truly didn’t consider the Sooners superior.

After the victory, ISU’s first postseason win since Larry Bird and Co. beat DePaul in the 1979 NCAA semifinals, Waltman corrected a reporter who used the word “upset” in a question about the message sent to the NCAA by the Sycamores’ win. (Several other lesser-seeded teams had just won first-round games, too.)

“I’m going to be a bit diplomatic and say this is a mild upset,” Waltman said. “One is the Big 12 champion, and one is from the Missouri Valley Conference. But that’s not to say the seventh-place teams from big conferences are better than other conference champions. I think the best statement we can make to the Selection Committee is what the so-called mid-majors have done yesterday and today.”

With a mouthful of cotton, Block couldn’t speak, but he sure delivered that statement personally in overtime against Oklahoma.

Let’s hope the 14th-seeded Sycamores find something extra against third-seeded Syracuse on Friday night, ISU’s first NCAA appearance since 2001.

It could happen. After all, in 1991, 15th-seeded Richmond beat second-seeded Syracuse 73-69 for one of the biggest upsets, er, I mean, surprises in NCAA Tournament history.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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