Moral victory--the very mention of it normally conjures up feelings of resignation...and defeat. After all, no competitor aims to finish 2nd--or to lose a match going into a competition. But in rare cases, the phrase is more than appropriate. That occurred Thursday in Viejas Arena on San Diego State's campus.
The game in question was the UCSB Gauchos' tussle against the nationally-ranked and heavily favored Aztecs. The Show, as Aztec fans dub it, usually consists of a massacre by the home team against a hapless visiting team. On paper, the status quo was supposed to happen with the Gauchos. They were heavy underdogs, with the betting spread in the mid teens.
In the first half, and for most of the second half, the predictable was materializing. The Aztecs were bigger at each position, were more athletic at almost every position, and even more experienced at almost every position. In other words, the deck was stacked against the youthful Gauchos, and they played like it for most of the game.
It wasn't due to lack of effort, but every time a Gaucho player would try their go-to move, an Aztec defender (or two in Alan Williams' case), was already in front of the Gaucho in question, cutting off penetration lanes. And on the other end, Chase Tapley appeared so relaxed in knocking down his 3-points with such regularity, a close glimpse would reveal that he was literally dancing to his own tune after each made 3. This was just a regular Saturday morning pick up game, and the world was Tapley's oyster--at least that's how it appeared from the sidelines.
After a predictable first half, where the Aztecs merely toyed with the Gauchos, letting the visiting team score a few buckets, only to squash any hopes of an upset with a barrage of perimeter jumpers and a few dunks sprinkled in between--just to let the sold out crowd know who was boss--something happened in the second half.
That something emerged from left field. Yes, the Gauchos were playing hard in the first half--and at the start of the second half, but each previous attempt at a comeback was thwarted by what should have been a demoralizing response by the Aztecs. The Gauchos never let the seemingly insurmountable leads get to their heads. The Gauchos kept at it, unfazed by the uphill battle.
Kyle Boswell kept bombing in 3-point jumpers. Taran Brown kept attacking the basket with quiet determination--as well as hitting the perimeter jumper when it was open. In fact, the Gauchos kept passing the rock around the horn until a teammate was open for a jumper. And Nate Garth kept penetrating, and finding an open teammate for an easy bucket. And on one defensive possession, Brown swatted away an Aztec would-be layup with alarming ferocity.
The statement was the powerful Aztecs would perhaps win the game, but the Gauchos weren't going to let the game out of control, and they weren't going to take defeat lying down. The Aztecs had better keep bringing it, because the upstart Gauchos weren't going to go down without a fight.
Down by almost 30 points at one time, the Gauchos continued to chip away at the monstrous lead, and would eventually make the margin respectable. The Gauchos outplayed and outscored the Aztecs in the latter portion of the game. The Gauchos kept playing--and playing hard. And they found out that if they executed their offense, retained composure, and took the open shot when it presented itself, good things would happen.
And on defense, if they communicated and continued to apply pressure defense, good things will happen. Fans know the final score: 84 - 70 bad guys. And they know Boswell hit numerous contested jumpers. And they know once Brown stopped hesitating, he was knocking down his jumpers as well. But what they may have missed is what was going on in the trenches.
Winston Shepard III was everybody's high school all-American last year, and Coach Steve Fisher's 2012 prized Aztec recruit. Duke DaRe, UCSB's undersized walk-on, didn't care. Despite giving up 8 inches in height and an even large deficit in wingspan, he still harassed Shepard, poking the ball out of Shepard's possession. Sam Beeler, UCSB's freshman center from San Diego, displayed none of the deer-in-the-headlights look playing before the home town. He calmly received passes in the paint and finished, even getting a put back against the vaunted Aztec front court.
Alan Williams muscled in his usual garbage buckets, inducing a few contusions along the way. The Aztecs did not want to have anything to do with Big Al. But he was also able to step back and hit the mid-range jumper. 12,000 fans were silenced by them. Mr. Williams did not have that in his bag of tricks last year. Like everybody in Viejas, I was speechless. Well, almost everybody. A few SDSU hecklers would comment, but the Gaucho bench must have seen this in practice a few times, because they were nodding with confirmation.
In fact, despite being down by a country mile at times, the Gaucho bench kept encouraging the players on the court. There was no sense of discord or desperation. Just run the offense. Yes, a few plays were head-scratchers, but there weren't that many. San Diego State players were just that good. When focused, very few teams in the country can beat the Aztecs. Seriously. They have Final Four talent, and if they don't reach the Sweet 16, it will be a major upset. These guys are for real, with at least a few NBA prospects: Tapley, Shepard, Jamaal Franklin just to name a few.
But that didn't stop Garth from throwing caution to the wind--and yet remaining disciplined. I saw Garth explode into the lane with conviction that I haven't seen from him. Aztec guards are elite athletically, but Garth blew by them in the second half like he was in the high occupancy vehicle lane on I-5 looking for a party in Tijuana. Nate even finished a drive. But more often than not (9 assists--really?), he found an open teammate for an easy layup or wide-open jumper, leaving Aztec defenders flat-footed.
The pessimists would point out that the Aztecs probably let their foot
off the pedal with the outcome determined. But the glass-half-full
crowd would realize that while the Aztecs may have called it in, the
GAUCHOS DID NOT. There was no quit in the Gauchos. I'm confident this is a good omen for the team, because they banded together when they could have easily chalked it up as another blowout defeat. Instead, they were able to make the Aztec fan base a little more uncomfortable near the end of the game, and Coach Fisher pull out a few more hairs.
While UCSB head coach Bob Williams can't be all too happy with the outcome, he at least knows what he has to work with, that his kids have heart, and that paying attention to the little details does bear fruit. That was one of the finest examples of the Gauchos making adjustments at halftime I've seen, which also reflects on the coaching staff. These young Gauchos are ready and willing to be coached up, so Coach Williams can take some comfort in knowing his young pups are coachable.
Do I like moral victories? In one word--Hell-No! But if there was ever an example of one I could live with, I witnessed it Thursday night.