Monday night lights: Oakland men’s basketball stares down semifinals of Horizon League Championship

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After one hour of practice on a basketball court plopped in the middle of none other than Joe Louis Arena, the Golden Grizzlies will play for their lives Monday evening at 9:30 p.m.

It will be their first game in nine days.

Losses are lethal at this point. One and done. But Oakland is also two wins away from its fourth NCAA Tournament berth and its first since the 2010-11 season.

“We’re approaching it as the most important games we’ll ever play,” head coach Greg Kampe said. “And they know that.”

Chip

The narrative has changed.

Chip Hooper, Max’s beloved father, who won the hearts of Oakland fans on Feb. 26, died Saturday, March 5.

Max flew home to California, but according to Kampe, he’s flying back for the game.

“#PLAY4CHIP” is scrawled across a black shoe in gold marker. Team 49 is writing the next chapter in the Oakland story.

The lineup

The Golden Grizzlies arrive at the Horizon League Championship adorned.

Kay Felder is Horizon League Player of the Year, Max Hooper is Sixth Man of the Year and Jalen Hayes is on the All-League Second Team.

“I think he should have been First Team,” Felder said. “But the voters didn’t think so.”

Nevertheless:

“When we win, everyone gets recognized,” Hooper said.

Even their huddle ends with a certain word.

“Before anything, we make sure we say family cause that’s what we are and that’s what we have become,” Felder said.

Preparation

Oakland scored the double-bye given to the top-two seeds in the Horizon League. The extra time could have spoiled like bad cheese. But Jalen Hayes isn’t worried.

“We needed that rest,” he said. “This week of practice, we’re going at it full force. So when the game comes, we’ll be ready.”

The Horizon League Championship has been the end goal since the beginning, even when competing across the Atlantic, Hayes said.

“In the summertime, when we took that 10-day trip to Spain, all we talked about was just getting ready, getting ready for this moment right here,” he said.

“We play six months for this,” Kampe said.

And those six months make a difference, he said. Take the showdown at the Palace on Dec. 22.

“When Michigan State made that run and came back, that place was so loud, and even though it was against us and we were supposed to be home,” Kampe said. “You learn as a kid how to handle that.”

Two months later:

“We went to Valpo, and we got down 17 and that place was going crazy, and like [snaps fingers] that, we had it back to two,” Kampe said. “I believe that if we hadn’t experienced Michigan State and Virginia and those places, we would have never gotten it.”

The Golden Grizzlies didn’t win, but it was close. Two points.

Oakland’s last game of the regular season was Feb. 26. That means nine days of no game until the big one and possibly two or more.

“I’m really worried about the first 10 minutes,” Kampe said. “[The opponent will] be on their third game. Now if we can get to the last 10 minutes, we’ll be in our 30th-40th minute while they’re in their 110th-120th, now it’ll be our advantage. That’s what the double-bye will be. But we’ve got to get to that 10 minutes.”

How they’re trying to get there:

“We gave them three days off,” Kampe said. “Felder was beat up. I think mentally they were beat up. … I want their legs fresh. More importantly, I want their minds fresh.”

First day back, he said, they played half a game. On Thursday, March 3, they prepped for Wright State. The next day, they worked on shooting and finished the game. On Saturday, they were going to prep for UDM. Sunday night, they’d know who they were playing.

“We haven’t been out there more than an hour any of one of the days,” Kampe said.

“We’re laser focused on Monday night,” Hooper said.

When 9:30 p.m. rolls around, they won’t be the only ones.

Oakland plays in the semifinals of the Horizon League Championship at 9:30 p.m. ET on Monday, March 7. Watch on ESPNU or listen on WDFN-AM (1130).

If the Golden Grizzlies win, they play in the finals at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 8. Watch on ESPN or listen on WDFN-AM (1130).

Transportation for Oakland students provided by the Center for Student Activities.

For tickets and more information, visit http://motorcitymadness.horizonleague.org/.