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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Forget the Madness, This Team Is Magical

March 28, 2004|Dave Kindred | Sporting News

Unless you're deep into Division III college basketball in the western half of Pennsylvania, you may not know the kind of season La Roche College's Redhawks had.

"Extraordinary," said Scott Lang, the Redhawk coach.

"Unique," he also said.

And he said, "Magical." Ignore, if you can, the mighty flagship university basketball empires chasing millions of dollars and March Madness immortality.

Behold, instead, the Redhawks. They went 14-14. They were 5-7 in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference, better than only one of the league's seven teams.

If those numbers suggest mediocrity, there is this to be said about numbers: They lie. The numbers aren't what was extraordinary, unique and magical at the little Catholic school in Pittsburgh. The stories were.

They're stories that make college athletics. Scott Lang says they're stories that show "what can be done with commitment, character and players who care about each other."

Here's Extraordinary: Sixteen roster players showed up at La Roche's first team meeting. By season's end, only eight remained. Eight others were lost about every way players can be lost. Injury, discipline, academic failing, financial difficulty and just plain quitting.

One who stayed was Ismael Mbana of Equatorial Guinea.

"La Roche brought him to America through a program that takes students from countries suffering in wars," Lang says. "He'd never played anything but intramurals. He didn't know a block-out from a bounce pass. But by the time we got to the conference tournament, he was a starter.

"When we're 10-12 and down to six players, we're playing Penn State-Behrend. They're 21-1 and ranked 19th in the country. So I asked our manager to suit up. Jesse Zafiratos. A soccer player. Had never played basketball. I said, 'Jesse, we can't risk finishing this game with four guys.' "

Zafiratos, who's 5-foot-6, gave Lang two important minutes when point guard Cliff Foster was in foul trouble. "We went to a box-and-one and told Jesse to just go wherever their best shooter went," Lang said. "We put him in the paint on offense so they'd have to guard him."

Down 18 in the first half, La Roche won, 60-58, on a shot by Foster.

Here's Unique: Early in a November practice, Lang saw forward Chris Bibey back away from a charge. Lang shouted, "Chris, you've got to be tougher."

Bibey has thyroid cancer. The coach knew that and knew Bibey underwent radioactive iodine treatments. But if a kid can't stand in there -- "We're big on taking charges" -- the coach can't cut him any slack, not even if he's a good kid with cancer.

Still, Lang wasn't ready for what Bibey told him.

"Coach, if I take that charge, I might not get up," Bibey said.

The cancer treatments left him weak and caused pain in his bones.

Running hurt. Falling hurt more. But, until then, he'd said nothing to the coach about it. That day, maybe too frightened to go on, Bibey quit the team.

"I begged him to come back in any capacity," Lang said. "I wanted him to come back as a player, as a coach, as a manager, anything. We just wanted him around. He's such a good kid."

Six weeks later, Bibey returned -- to play. And played the rest of the season.

"One night on a bus trip, he opened up," Lang said. "He said the iodine was like drinking poison. 'Coach, for four days, I'm like the living dead.' "

And there came a time, in this season that Lang and Bibey will long remember, when a ball rolled loose toward the La Roche bench. And the good kid with cancer threw himself on the floor to get the ball.

"He could've broken his legs, broken his wrists, anything," Lang said. "Everybody on our bench jumped up. It was so inspiring."

Here's Magical: "I'm not sure yet how we won the first game in the conference tournament," Lang said. "We were down 15 with 7 1/2 minutes to play, then we made a three and another three with a foul for a four-point play. In a blink, we'd won.

"The semifinal, it was tied with 36 seconds to play, and we had the ball out with only one second on the shot clock. Looks like the clock's going to get us, then Penn State-Behrend will run out time for a last shot.

Only on the pass in, they kick it, we get a new clock, we get fouled, we win. It was a perfect game. Our guys had taken on an attitude, 'We don't care what happens. We're going to win.' And that game, from scouting to game plan to execution, was as perfect as any coach could ever want.

"Then, the championship game was a complete reversal. We shot 28 percent and got outrebounded by 20, but we experimented with a box-and-one defense early, wound up using it the entire game and won in overtime, 44-42. We outscored them in overtime, 2-0."

At season's end, La Roche's starters were Mbana, Foster, Jason Dolak, Kenny Gibbs and Brandon Kelly; the reserves were Bibey, Zafiratos and Demetris Pringle.

Most days, Lang and his assistants practiced with the Redhawks so they could play five-on-five. There's the beauty of D-III, the curative for March Madness.

That, and this: None of the multimillion-dollar empire makers could go 14-14 and say, as Scott Lang did, "Man, it felt like 27-1."

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