OU defies 'basketball gods,' advances in Horizon
Detroit — Not much has made sense with Oakland men's basketball this season.
So, why not chalk up another head-scratcher?
With a wildly depleted roster that has the Golden Grizzlies down to eight scholarship players, Oakland had to figure it couldn't afford a down night from the nation's second-leading scorer, Kendrick Nunn, nor could it afford to be in foul trouble.
Both happened Sunday night, yet the Golden Grizzlies grinded out a 62-55 victory over IUPUI before an announced crowd of 6,771 at Little Caesars Arena to advance to Monday’s Horizon League tournament semifinals. Oakland (19-13), the No. 4 seed, meets No. 8 Cleveland State (11-22) at 7 p.m. Cleveland State upset No. 1 Northern Kentucky on Saturday.
Oakland's victory was just its second in the league tournament in five years since it joined the league. It was 0-3 the previous three Horizon League tournaments, losing to three worse seeds, twice on last-second shots.
"We looked the basketball gods in the eyes," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said, "and said, 'Not today.'"
Nunn, the redshirt senior, led the way with 18 points, though it was his seventh time falling short of 30 this season. Facing double-teams and even triple-teams at times, he was 6-for-20 shooting. He didn't make a 3-pointer until well into the second half and finished 2-for-10 outside the arc, but his teammates picked up the slack — particularly on two of his misses.
Late in the second half, Jalen Hayes grabbed one and put it back in, drawing the foul and making the free throw for a 53-50 lead. Then with 57.1 seconds left, Nunn misfired again, but Isaiah Brock tipped it in for a 58-55 lead.
On the other end of the floor, Brock, the sophomore big man, then made the play of the game with a block — his sixth of the night — to all but seal it, after Nunn made a pair of free throws for the 60-55 lead.
Oakland prevailed despite two rough possession calls going against it late in the second half, one on which one ref reversed another's call. Oakland coach Greg Kampe was hot, gesturing to refs and shouting, "That's two in a row!"
"It was big. It was big," Hayes said. "Even with those calls, there still was five minutes left in the game. That wouldn't decide the game either way. Just sticking with it, and moving on to the next possession.
"Coach always preaches to us to stay in the present tense."
The Golden Grizzlies did, and it paid off.
And oh, sure, what goes around, comes around. A short while later, with 3:16 left, Oakland sophomore big man Chris Palombizio appeared to get away with an over-the-back on an offensive rebound — on another wayward shot by Nunn — and he went to the line and split a pair for a 54-53 Golden Grizzlies lead.
Oakland never trailed again.
Brock finished with 10 points, but played spectacular defense, especially since he played most of the second half with three fouls, and never got a fourth.
Hayes had 13 points, after drawing his third foul in the first half and his fourth early in the second. Redshirt senior guard Nick Daniels also scored 13, playing through severe leg cramping. Not that he was ever coming out of the game.
"Nothing at all," Daniels said when asked what it would've taken to get him to the bench. "I don't care if my legs fall off."
IUPUI (11-19) shot just 37.7 percent, as Oakland won despite scoring 10 fewer points than it had in any previous win this season. The 55 points allowed were a season best for the Golden Grizzlies.
Senior Aaron Brennan scored 14 and junior D.J. McCall 12 for IUPUI, which wrapped up its first season in the Horizon League. Senior guard Ron Patterson, who averaged 10.7 points coming in, was held to none.
The Golden Grizzlies, playing in front of a decidedly home crowd, got off to a scorching start, jumping out to a 22-9 lead midway through the first half. They scored half those points off IUPUI turnovers.
But following two missed free throws by Nunn, IUPUI went on a 9-0 run and Oakland didn't score for a stretch of nearly six minutes — much of that span with Hayes stuck on the bench, after getting the early third foul.
IUPUI never led in the first half, but with the shot clock winding down, freshman Jaylen Minnett drained an off-balance 3-pointer to make it 28-28 at halftime.
"One of the things we gotta learn to play with is three guys on Jalen and three guys on Kendrick," said Kampe, who, because of all the injuries, is having to play a freshman point guard in Stan Scott and another freshman guard in Chris Gilbert — the latter who's played 36 minutes the last two games, after having played only 13 all year before that. Those two guards combined for one turnover Sunday.
Of Nunn specifically, Kampe said, "That wasn't the Kendrick Nunn we know and love. That's good. That means tomorrow, he'll probably make them all."
For the third time in three years of the Horizon League tournament in Detroit, the No. 1 seed was one-and-done. It was Valparaiso in 2016, Oakland on a last-second shot a season ago, and Northern Kentucky on Saturday night.
... Former Oakland player and assistant coach Drew Valentine is going to the NCAA Tournament. He's a first-year assistant at Loyola, Chicago, which won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament Sunday.
... Longtime Oakland trainer Tom Ford, who retired last spring after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease, was introduced early in the second half and received a lengthy ovation.