Horizon League's best ready to dance with Kansas
Eli Holman (background) shouts with joy as the Titans celebrate their Horizon League championship. By Michael Martinez
The final seconds ticked off the clock as emotion took control of Ray McCallum. Once. Twice. Ten times he drove the ball to the hardwood floor. It was as if with each hard dribble the sophomore was exorcising the early-season demons that had threatened to consume Detroit.
But the Titans persevered through suspensions, injuries and hardship and, as the season ended, it was McCallum that was doing the crushing-rising above the rim one last time to slam one last dunk and put an exclamation mark on a championship season.
UDM is NCAA Tournament-bound for the first time since Rashad Phillips donned the Titan red. And it took another legendary tournament from a No. 3 to make it happen.
In the span of five days, McCallum, the tournament MVP, blossomed into a superstar. This was his moment, one that's been in the making since he chose Detroit two years ago.
"He's helped us tremendously," said Eli Holman, his voice hoarse with shouting and that infectious smile of his overtaking his face. "I mean, man, that dude. I'm glad he came."
Back on the map.
The game was a microcosm of the season: UDM struggled early before collectively rallying.
It was the first half nightmares are made of. Detroit's scorers couldn't score, its big men picked up quick fouls and the offense floundered as player after player tried to take over one-on-one and failed.
Every missed shot seemed to fuel the brown-and-gold fire of the thousands who packed Valpo's ARC, and a small Crusader lead ballooned to nine as the fans roared.
They had the Horizon League player of the year, the best regular-season record and all the reason in the world to be optimistic.
But for every Titan clank off the rim and every unnecessary Titan turnover, there was a LaMarcus Lowe block, a Jason Calliste steal or a big Titan rebound.
When all else was failing, Detroit turned-as it has all season-to defense. They played collectively, five bodies and ten hands at a time. Reaching. Denying. Deflecting.
As a result, the Titans trailed at the half by just one possession.
"We played probably one of the worst halves that we've played in the last six weeks," Holman said. "But we did not give up in the second half. That's what it's all about; sticking together."
When nothing offensively was going right, McCallum drove left. His hanging floater at 17:33 in the second half set off something inside him. Even he doesn't know quite what.
He was fouled on the play, setting up an and-one at the free throw line. Back on defense, a fired up McCallum slapped the floor.
Then he stole the ball. Then Holman dunked it.
Valpo called timeout, sensing the momentum was shifting. But it was too late. McCallum, animated as ever, screamed to the ESPN cameras: "I want this!"
Two minutes later he gave Detroit the lead.
It was as if he wasn't even thinking. Basketball instincts took over. Dribble right. Pull up. Swish.
"I don't even remember," McCallum would say later. "I lost my mind out there. I was just in another zone, wanting to win."
Back on the map.
But it was more than McCallum. It was Lowe, a senior bench player thrust into a starting role at the start of the season. It was Calliste, a quiet sharpshooter who would rather not talk after games.
It was Donavan Foster's defense, Doug Anderson's athleticism and Evan Bruinsma's scrappiness.
In short, they won as a team.
That's how they've been all year, through good times and bad.
Just ask Holman, who had to sit 10 games after a fraternity party fight.
"My team carried me," he said. "If it wasn't for my team, I wouldn't be here. I thank them for that. This is why we're 2012 Horizon League champs, baby!
Pure joy took over as he half-screamed, half-sang, "We goin' to the dance! We goin' to the dance! We goin' to the dance! Happy Birthday, coach Mac!"
It was the best birthday present a father could ask for.
"This is the only thing I got him," the younger McCallum sheepishly admitted. "I told him: 'Hey, this is it, man. I hope you're happy with this because there ain't no big box.' "
But there is a big trophy-one that's ready to return to Calihan Hall after 13 years.
Coach McCallum turned 51 Tuesday but for a few hours that age didn't matter. He could be a kid again.
As the game ended, the usually reserved coach was swallowed in a sea of red as the student section poured over him.
But, suddenly, his neatly ironed, monogrammed dress shirt reappeared, its cuff-linked sleeve thrust in the air in celebration.
Moments later, McCallum was dancing with his team on the black wood stage as champions, reminiscent of Dick Vitale's famous center-court disco after his team beat No. 1 Marquette in 1977.
After the game, he took questions from reporters with his other presents: a championship hat, a t-shirt and the basketball net, draped over his neck.
He talked about the journey, how proud he was of his players and how special the moment was.
This is why he was brought in four years ago.
Now, the next phase in this magical season begins. Detroit will face Kansas to open the NCAA Tournament. No one knows if the Titans can follow Butler's footsteps and be a Horizon League Cinderella.
They certainly have the talent. And, after this postseason run, you would be a fool to question their heart.
If the clock strikes midnight before that can happen, though, remember Tuesday night.
Remember the joy in the players' faces as they raised the championship trophy and chanted, "Dee-troit Basket-ball!"
The words don't just apply to the Pistons anymore. There's pride in Detroit's college team, something that hasn't been around McNichols and Livernois in quite some time.
Detroit's Rays of Hope-father and son, along with their 11 brothers-have been immortalized as champions.
And this team, this university, this city has a reason to dance again.
Detroit, finally, is back on the map.
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