Nov. 20, 2004
"Santa Clara... small, slow, can't shoot. If you can't shoot, you can't jump and you're slow, you have real problems playing a team like North Carolina."
Santa Clara 77 North Carolina 66
The opening words came from the mouth of Dick Davey the day before knocking the college basketball world off its axis by taking out the team Sports Illustrated called the best in the country.
For the fifth time in his career, Davey beat a top-25 team in what he calls the most significant regular-season win in his 12-plus years on the Mission campus. With the intent of playing in the prestigious Newell Challenge to toughen up the squad in preparation for league play, the oddsmakers agreed with Davey, 16 point underdogs and any thought of beating the Heels would be considered pure folly.
In the opening half, the forecasters looked correct as SCU fell behind by 11 points. The only thing the Broncos had going for them was Travis Niesen with other scoring options harder to find than weapons of mass destruction. However, a 19-4 run would give them a lead they would not relinquish. There would be no repeat of BYU, Mississippi State or Gonzaga from the year before. There may be something said about the phrase "learning to win."
In the aftermath, Niesen described himself as a player who wasn't very good, just one who plays hard. UNC coach Roy Williams was the first to disagree, saying the undersized power forward is "a tough, competitive rascal. He's the kind of kid you don't like to play against, but he's the kind of kid you'd love to have on your team, so to me, that's about as good a compliment as you can give anybody."
The lefty was like a football team with a dominant ground game. You know what's coming but there's no answer to stop it. Absolutely dominating All-American candidate Sean May, Niesen scored a career-high 26 getting to the rim before May or any other Heel could react.
Said Niesen, "We turned to each other and said, `There's so much time left and there's so much basketball left. Even when we were up 11 with about four minutes to go, there's a lot of time left on the clock and we could lose. I just refused to lose and I think everyone on our team (thought)that. Whether we won or lost, I'm really proud of the way we played. I can't play any harder than that and the other guys can't play harder than that. That's what basketball is all about.
"I grew up watching those guys play. I have so much respect for Coach Williams. I met him when I was being recruited and he's such a stand up guy. Their program is first class and their post men are the strongest guys I've ever faced in my life."
The will of the men in white was stronger on this night, repelling the few rallies UNC would put together by holding their own on the boards, outrebounding the Tar Heels 38-34. Other than May and a late box score padding effort by SI cover boy Rashad McCants, there were no other options to penetrate the Broncos swarming defense.
"It goes to show you if you play with the type of energy that we played with, good things can happen," said top assistant Steve Seandel. "They (UNC) had an off night. Let's face it. All our guys will be the first to admit they are much better than the way they played but we played them tonight. It was a heck of a win for our guys and the biggest win we've had in a long time."
The planets were aligned properly for the upset with Santa Clara already having three games under its belt while the Tar Heels were playing their first game without their starting point guard. Would they be the kind of team Seandel would like to tangle with in a couple months?
"I'd like to play them again in March. They are awfully good and they didn't play particularly well. Their energy defensively was not as high as we'd seen it on tape."
The coaching staff would never admit it, but even if the Broncos turn into a team capable of making a run at the league title, there was a real chance of losing three games in nine days to teams that made the NCAA tournament last year. They threw that forecast out the window by beating the biggest and baddest of the bunch.
One of the strategic adjustments made was the starting of three guards. One of Davey's greatest strengths is listening to input from his assistants. On the way back to the hotel after getting blasted by New Mexico, Seandel told me he'd suggest to Double D they use freshman Brody Angley along with Bailey and Perkins to deal with a North Carolina A&T press that forced 50 turnovers in two games.
Angley played well under duress and they stuck with that lineup against UNC. The high school football star from Redding, Calif. tossed in eight points with seven rebounds and five assists while throwing his body around as if he needed a tough yard off tackle on a fourth-and-one. Angley's play gives the Broncos three guys outside who can create problems with the bounce. When asked if the Broncos will stick with that three guard look at UOP, Seandel responded by saying, "That's three days and a couple beers away."
It's doubtful a beverage ever tasted better.