Remembering the Golden Grizzlies’ rise: After tournament defeat, don’t forget how Team 49 got there

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In the postgame press conference the night of Jan. 19, Oakland head coach Greg Kampe kept his usual contrasting calm. Whatever heat he makes during the game — sometimes so much you wonder what virulent evil he is fighting in the struggle — it vacates after.

“It’s like it was handed to us,” he said. “It was handed to us. It was really a good schedule. And we’ve screwed it up.”

He’d put his forearms on the table. Even if he’d slid his elbows up there, they wouldn’t have been able to bare the weight of raw disappointment.

*****

Oakland promised a lot before league play.

On Oct. 18, 2015, Kristen Davis published this in the Post:

 It’s the most talented team he’s ever coached.

Just one week into practice, head coach Greg Kampe already made that statement about this year’s men’s basketball team.

This was Kampe’s 32nd season at Oakland. You best be taking note when tenure talks like that.

Then they lose 99-93 in overtime to then-No. 1 Michigan State on Dec. 22. The loss was like a win. And the bar was high.

*****

“We have to look at ourselves,” he said. “What we’re looking at right now is not good. I’ll open the floor to questions for the players.”

Those players were Jalen Hayes and Kay Felder, who looked uneasy at best. But what else are you supposed to be after what had just gone down?

*****

Here’s how it was supposed to happen:

Oakland heads into Horizon League play with an 8-5 record and sweeps the first two against Cleveland State and Youngstown State, who were ranked seventh and ninth, respectively, to Oakland’s second spot in the conference preseason poll.

Oakland goes up against Valparaiso. Hard, as the Crusaders were the preseason No.1, but possible. Then No.8 University of Illinois at Chicago, No.4 Detroit and No.10 Northern Kentucky, Detroit being the only road game of the six, and the only real challenge.

You begin conference play 5-1, 6-0 at best, but surely 4-2 at worst. And everything’s all right.

*****

The press asked Hayes and Felder questions. Kampe fiddled with his papers, probably stat sheets, maybe half-listening to the questions. Soon the press was finished with the players.

“Does somebody have something I could write with?” Kampe said.

Got to figure it out. How did it happen?

*****

Here’s how it happened:

Oakland beat Cleveland State 86-68. No surprise.

Youngstown State put a hundred on the Golden Grizzlies and beat ‘em by two.

What?

Then Valpo comes in and holds this 87-a-game team to 67 and sends the Oakland crowd home on a Friday night. They’re 1-2.

Beat UIC handily, but what’s the story there?

Great win at Calihan Hall. Defeat Detroit by four. Now something’s cooking.

And then…

*****

“Here’s what I just wrote down,” Kampe said, “and I’m going to throw this at you, and then you can tell me what you think it means. We’re 3-3. … In our three wins, the teams are 12-for-51 from the three against us. In our three losses — I just added tonight — the teams are 36 of 77.”

“But the scary number there,” he said, “is in the three wins, they’re 12-for-51. In the three losses, they’re 36-for-77. That’s 25 threes a game they’re getting, and in the losses, they’re getting 16.

He made it sound simple: When the Golden Grizzlies came to play, they did. When they didn’t, they didn’t.

Not an overnight fix, he said.

Can’t do it in a day.

*****

And he was right. It took four.

They slapped Green Bay that Saturday.

After the 90-73 Northern Kentucky loss that Tuesday night in January, Oakland men’s basketball won 10 of their next 12.

The streak began with six wins in a row, five of those on the road. Simply improbable. 

And exactly what was supposed to happen.

The team got a spot straight into the semifinals of the Horizon League Championship with a double-bye from being the No.2 seed. But the narrative changed.

Chip Hooper, Max’s father, was battling cancer. He won the hearts of Oakland fans by making it out from California to see Max play his final home game on Feb. 26. He died Saturday, March 5.

“#PLAY4CHIP” showed up scrawled across black shoes in gold marker. Team 49 was writing the next chapter in Oakland history.

The memorial script only got action on the court for one Horizon League Championship game.

An end too fast for such a fight.