If you tried to come up with story ideas prior to Saturday's game at Millett Hall between Miami University (don't call the school Miami of Ohio, unless you want to be beaten with a stick) and Belmont, you were wasting your time.
Belmont was the presumptive favorite, heading into the contest as one of the sexy picks to be "This Year's Butler," with a record of 7-3, which included losses to perennial powers Duke and Memphis. Belmont only lost two seniors from last year's team that went 30-5, losing in the round of 64 in the NCAA tournament.
Miami came into the contest at 2-5, their only Division I win against local rival Dayton. The RedHawks only have two seniors, and were already battling the injury bug, missing Allen Roberts and Bill Edwards for the game. Miami coach Charlie Coles admitted in a post-game interview that he expected to lose by 10-15 points.
Coach Coles should have known better. The RedHawks play in Millett Hall, which is one of the most unique venues in Division I college basketball. It doesn't feel like a basketball arena. Kyle compared it last season to Studio 54. I believe it's more like a movie theatre or symphony hall. Not many basketball arenas have carpeted aisles or fabric-covered cushioned seating. The lighting around the seating area is so dim, taking a decent picture is difficult unless you are literally sitting on the court. It is a place where you should always expect the unexpected.
Strange and wonderful surprises were in store for the 1,324 fans that made the trek to Oxford for the late afternoon tip. It would be easy to blame Christmas shopping or the students being on break for the meager attendance, but folks aren't driving in from Cincinnati or Dayton like they used to in the glory days of Miami basketball. The entire upper level of 9,200-seat Millett Hall is tarped or curtained-off in an attempt to make the arena more intimate.
Those in attendance were treated to the usual strobe-light effect from the overhead lights while each of the retired jerseys was spotlighted. The pregame hype video was set to "All I Do is Win," which at this point needs some rules set about its usage. If your team is 2-5, and coming off a 16-17 record last season, your team has been doing a lot more besides winning.
Like several other schools, the Miami faithful stand until the home team scores its first point. Usually, fans get to take their seat in the first couple minutes of the game. But three minutes had elapsed and still no RedHawk bucket. Charlie Coles even took a 30-second timeout to try to get things organized, during which a few of the older fans took the opportunity to sneak in a quick sitting break. Four minutes gone, still no points for the home team and the home fans still stood. Finally, a Josh Sewell superhoop 4:41 into the contest gave the fans relief and saved Miami from the indignity of having a zero on their side of the scoreboard at the first media time-out.
At that first media time-out, Miami took the opportunity to honor Darrell Hedric as part of its "Fantastic 14" promotion this season that honors various Miami greats on each game's ticket this year. Hedric played for the Redskins (as they were then) back in the 50s and coached the team from 1970-1984. To help honor Hedric, former Miami guard and five-time NBA champion Ron Harper, who played for Hedric, returned to campus.
Most of the first half was typical Miami basketball; slow-paced on offense, meat-grinder ruthless on defense. Belmont had trouble adapting to the style, and soon found themselves down 28-17. The Bruins would cut into the deficit a little bit, but trailed 31-26 at the half.
As the cheerleaders took to the court to perform a routine to canned pep-band music (which sounds really bad on the infamous Millett Hall sound system), since the band was absent, a faint barking could be heard. Was it someone's service dog getting a bit anxious? Nope, it was the halftime act getting warmed-up. Not one, but FIVE FRISBEE DOGS were getting ready to strut their stuff. Each dog got a little solo time, and then all five fought each other for Frisbees in a fur-flying finale.
The second half featured a couple of surreal moments. With around 13:30 left in the game, Belmont guard J.J. Mann motioned to the bench that he needed a sub. Not usually that notable, except the reason he needed it was. Mann had broken the shoelace in his right shoe. None of the trainers or managers seemed to pack an extra set of laces, so in a scene reminiscent of Butler's Rob Walls having to give up his shoes to Joel Cornette in the 2003 NCAA tournament because Cornette drenched his shoes knocking over a water cooler diving for a loose ball, a Belmont player on the end of the bench sacrificed his right shoe so Mann could have the shoelace out of it.
Moments after Mann had returned to the game, a battle for a rebound raised the ire of Belmont coach Rick Byrd. Byrd thought his player had been fouled in the battle for the rebound and stormed up the sideline voicing his displeasure. Believing Coach Byrd was being a bit too demonstrative, one official whistled Byrd for a technical foul. Byrd then got into a crouch and seconds later, for reasons unknown, a second technical had been called by a second official and Byrd had been ejected.
Coach Byrd said a couple of quick words to his team then walked to the Miami bench to shake hands with Coles. After shaking hands, Coles put his arm around Byrd and started posing to the crowd like it was a photo opportunity. Coles noticed that Byrd was wearing a similar dress shirt with sweater vest combo that he was, pointed to Byrd, and then popped his own sweater vest a bit before allowing Byrd to retreat to the locker room.
Belmont Associate Head Coach Brian Ayers couldn't have dreamed that he would be in charge of the Bruins at the start of the day. One Belmont fan noted that he hadn't seen Byrd be ejected in the 12 years he had been a fan of the team. But Ayers handled the situation well. After Miami had extended the lead to 50-37, Ayers decided to take the game up-tempo and force the RedHawks out of their comfort zone. Belmont pressed full-court on most possessions, and with four minutes left, the deficit was down to two, 56-54.
Miami needed someone to step up. In this case, it was senior Julian Mavunga. Mavunga, who was a high school teammate of Mr. Too Big, Gordon Hayward, got the ball almost every possession. In the last minute, it was Mavunga who stepped to the line over and over again. He made 5-6 free throws and made a key steal that helped seal an upset 66-61 win over the Bruins.
You would think the hometown faithful would have celebrated wildly about the victory. But there was just some mild applause and everyone gathered their coats and belongings and headed to the exits. Maybe it's hard to be excited after sitting in a nice cushioned seat for two hours in dim lighting; you're just too mellowed out. Or maybe, they had a deeper understanding. They knew what was going to happen. Because at Millett, you have to expect the unexpected.
at MIAMI (OH.) 66, BELMONT 61 12/17/2011
BELMONT 7-4 (2-0) -- D. Hanlen 3-8 0-0 7; K. Johnson 4-7 7-9 17; I. Clark 4-12 0-0 10; B. Baker 2-5 0-0 4; J. Mann 6-8 0-0 13; M. Hedgepeth 2-6 0-0 4; S. Saunders 0-3 4-4 4; B. Jenkins 0-0 0-0 0; A. Barnes 0-0 0-0 0; R. Chamberlain 0-0 2-3 2; S. Turner 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-49 13-16 61. MIAMI (OH.) 3-5 (0-0) -- Q. Rollins 5-6 1-3 11; J. Harris 3-8 5-7 12; J. Mavunga 2-7 12-16 17; J. Sewell 4-10 2-2 12; W. Sullivan 1-3 0-0 3; D. McGhee 3-4 0-0 6; B. Sullivan 2-6 0-0 5; V. Legarza 0-1 0-0 0; J. Tadlock 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-45 20-28 66.
Three-point goals: BELM 6-21 (B. Baker 0-3; D. Hanlen 1-5; I. Clark 2-8; K. Johnson 2-2; J. Mann 1-3), MIO 6-19 (J. Mavunga 1-2; J. Harris 1-5; J. Sewell 2-5; B. Sullivan 1-5; W. Sullivan 1-2); Rebounds: BELM 30 (K. Johnson 8), MIO 29 (J. Mavunga 10); Assists: BELM 11 (D. Hanlen 4), MIO 11 (Q. Rollins 4); Total Fouls -- BELM 19, MIO 18; Fouled Out: BELM-None; MIO-None.