‘We fell apart’: Oakland’s season ends in Horizon semis

March 6, 2018

Detroit — There’s a classic scene in “Hoosiers” where Gene Hackman’s curmudgeonly Norman Dale decides to play with four players.

“My team,” Dale told the ref, “is on the floor.”

Well, for most of Monday night, Oakland looked like it was trying to do Dale one better, playing with practically three players — and the evening ended, predictably, with yet another March disappointment for Greg Kampe and Co., who lost to Cleveland State, 44-43, in the Horizon League semifinals at Little Caesars Arena.

BOX SCORE: Cleveland State 44, Oakland 43

Jalen Hayes (20) and Kendrick Nunn (19) scored all but four of Oakland’s points, while Isaiah Brock had five blocks and 13 rebounds.

Other than that, there was nothing much going for Oakland, which now hasn’t made a tournament championship game since 2011 in the Summit League.

“It’ll be tough to deal with,” said Hayes, the senior from Lansing, his voice shaking, “over the next couple weeks.”

To be sure.

Oakland started the year with sky-high expectations, as the runaway favorite to repeat as Horizon League regular-season champion — and even receiving preseason votes in the Associated Press top 25. But one by one, Oakland players were lost to injury, culminating with the biggest blow of all last month, the broken ankle suffered by senior Martez Walker.

The Golden Grizzlies, down to eight scholarship players, still held off IUPUI in the quarterfinals for just their second Horizon League tournament win, and first since 2014.

But it all came crashing down in downtown Detroit on Monday night, when Nunn’s floater to win it was off the mark.

“This year,” said Kampe, “was a disaster.

“I wish it was a video game and we could reset and start over.

“This team not only could’ve won a lot of games, but it could’ve done something in the NCAA Tournament. That’s how talented they were.”

Nunn, the nation’s second-leading scorer, had two off-games in as many nights in the tournament for Oakland (19-4) — the latter in which he was 7-for-24 shooting, including 4-for-13 on 3-pointers. He was harassed all night by Cleveland State senior Kenny Carpenter, of Detroit Cass Tech.

Carpenter also led the Vikings (12-22) with 16 points, none bigger than a 3-pointer to pull his team within 31-29 about eight minutes into the second half. That snapped a scoring drought of nearly six minutes, during which Oakland has forced Cleveland State into eight straight missed shots.

“In a game like this,” said Cleveland State coach Dennis Felton, in his first season on the job, “it feels like heaven when a shot goes in, especially a 3, because you know they’re so hard to come by.”

Cleveland State becomes the first No. 8 seed to play for a Horizon League championship since Wright State in 1995.

The Vikings play the winner of Monday’s other semifinal between Wright State and Milwaukee, which made the final a year ago as a No. 10 seed.

The 44 points were the fewest allowed this season by Oakland. The previous best was the 55 it allowed Sunday. Oakland, given its limited depth, had to reinvent itself over the last week — slowing things down and focusing a little more on defense. Little did Kampe realize the offense would be neutralized as much as it was.

Sophomores Brock (two) and Chris Palombizio (two) were the only other Oakland players to score. It wasn’t until Brock’s dunk with 10:54 left in the game that an Oakland player other than Nunn or Hayes scored. Palombizio was 0-for-3 on 3-pointers, freshman Chris Gilbert was 0-for-4, and the team was 5-for-25 — and many of the misses came on great looks There was no more open deep look, though, than Nunn’s with 1:28 to go and Oakland up one. It didn’t fall. It was that kind of season for Oakland.

Freshman Tyree Appleby then made a jumper to put Cleveland State back up by one, and Oakland missed its last five shots — including the Nunn runner at the end, which was set up by Cleveland State’s miss on the front end of a one-and-one (the Vikings were 3-for-11 on free throws). Everyone in the building knew Nunn would get that shot, whether he was defended by one player or the entire city of Cleveland.

“I’m a good player, I knock down tough shots and sometimes I don’t,” Nunn said. “I still have confidence in myself. I’m gonna shoot them.

“Tonight was an off night for me.”

Much like in Sunday’s semifinal victory, it was all Oakland early in the game, as the Golden Grizzlies raced out to a 12-point lead, 23-11.

But with 5:53 left in the half, Hayes picked up his third foul and headed to the bench — and from there, Oakland fell completely out of sorts, making mistakes at every turn.

That stretch included an incomprehensible 10-second violation on redshirt senior Nick Daniels, despite no Cleveland State press.

Oakland didn’t score for the final 6:29 of the first half, as Cleveland State — which will play in its first final since 2009 — went on an 11-0 run to cut it to 23-22 at the break. Carrying over to the second half, the drought reached nearly 10 minutes.

“We fell apart, there’s no question,” said Kampe, whose team shot just 25 percent (14-for-56) for the game — and scored its fewest points since a 58-42 loss to Wisconsin in 2009. “We just panicked.

“It is what it is. You hate to end like this.”