Column by TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The Ned Shott Gym, always known for its oven-like environment, was cold on Saturday afternoon. Several people near the scorer’s table, myself included, said they never remembered it that cold there.
But the Big Blues basketball team was hot. And they have two consecutive victories to show for it.
Bluefield State hit 51.8 percent of its floor shots, went 21 for 27 at the foul line, took the best the Shepherd Rams could throw at them, and beat their visitors 92-83. Shepherd came in averaging 92 points a game.
The home crowd did its part. The volume and energy level gradually increased in the second half, especially after the Big Blues’ advantage reached 10 points, 72-62 with 11:36 left.
Two minutes later, during a timeout, the body language around the two benches clearly demonstrated Bluefield State’s grasp of the moment.
The Big Blues intently stared at coach Jamaal Jackson and seemed impatient to get back onto the floor. Some Shepherd players slouched, grim-faced. But the drama was far from over.
With about five minutes left, Shepherd concluded a 13-5 rally and BSC clung to a 77-75 lead.
At that point, Bluefield State’s “Big Sam” Ouedraogo lunged after the carom from an errant BSC 3-point attempt, caught up with the ball at the left corner of the playing floor, and batted it back to a teammate while he hurtled through the air.
His momentum carried him well out of bounds, over some teammates on the bench, and into a batch of equipment behind the sidelines.
There was a “thunk” as he hit an apparatus holding up a moveable practice backboard. The large piece of equipment shuddered as the 220-pound center bounced off of it.
It didn’t slow him down. He dashed behind the entire Bluefield State bench and, with a slight left turn, he was back on the court, eager for more action.
In the final minute, a fair portion of the fans were on their feet, yelling and clapping, as Shepherd tried three-pointers on three straight possessions, only to have their missed shots rebounded by three different Bluefield State players.
An 86-83 lead became a nine-point win.
Jackson said, “We needed every drop of energy the crowd had. They fed us.”
Roy Cooper, who connected on five treys en route to a team-high 24 points, said the seeds for the back-to-back wins had been growing for months.
“I think it’s been predicated on how hard we’ve been working in practice,” the senior said. “Our coach has been teaching us good defensive principles. Now it’s like we’re implementing it in the game.”
“We knew it was just a matter of time, of everyone working together.”
Three of his teammates went to the foul line in the final minute of Saturday’s game, and their 6 for 8 success rate also helped turn a one-possession game into a crowd-pleasing win.
“We’ve been talking about finishing,” Cooper said. “If you look at our games, we’ve been losing a lot of close games.”
“Our free throws were so bad,” he said, “we increased the time (in practice) we put in on free throws from 10 minutes up to 20 to 30 minutes of free throws, every time.”
He said players had visited the foul line for more shooting, even outside of formal practice.
“We’ve been working on it as a team,” Cooper said. “Everybody knows free throws win games down the stretch.”
He said the consecutive wins are “definitely going to bring us confidence.” He then amended that statement.
“We were confident even when we were ‘oh-fer,’ ” he said. “We know how to battle.”
Jackson said that following up on the victories, “They need to stay humble, realize how they got these wins.”
Then, as if to instill a little more confidence into both his players and the fan base, he said, “Our season is pretty much just beginning. I told them, with the four new additions at Christmastime, and they’re playing so many minutes, they won’t start clicking until mid-February.”
“Hopefully, we win some more games until then. But by then we should get clicking.”
He gestured in the general direction of the railroad tracks that run just behind the Ned Shott Gym, and said, “Hopefully, we’re like one of these trains out here — once we get rolling, we should be hard to stop.”
Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. Contact him at tbone @ bdtonline.com.