Students road trip to IPFW with Russi

In sports, road games present a particular challenge for teams to overcome. With an entire stadium cheering in opposition, it can often seem impossible to pull off a victory.

On Saturday, Dec. 5, however, that task wasn’t quite as difficult for the Oakland University basketball teams in their conference schedule opener versus IPFW.

For no charge, over 170 students who signed up for the trip were treated to a day of free food and entertainment, as they accompanied players and coaches to the games in Fort Wayne, Ind.

After meeting in East Vandenburg, students enjoyed a free breakfast before boarding the buses headed to Indiana at 10 a.m.

After the 3-hour bus ride to the campus of IPFW, Oakland’s following of over 200 fans – including students, alumni, and even university president Gary Russi – entered Allen County War Memorial Coliseum to root for the Grizzlies.

“We tried to find a school in our league that’s pretty close, so we can develop a rivalry, and we decided to pick Fort Wayne (IPFW),” Russi said. “The best way to do this is to offer a free bus ride, free food for students to come, and root the team on. It’s been pretty exciting.”

With IPFW holding their Homecoming celebration the same day, OU’s presence at the games helped neutralize the home crowd’s effect on the game.

In the first game of the doubleheader, the women’s team came up just short in their efforts to spoil homecoming for the Mastodons, falling by a score of 64-58.

After a first half filled with turnovers and poor shooting that ended in a 24-24 tie, both teams came out blazing in the second half.

IPFW pulled ahead 52-46 with just under seven minutes left, but the Grizzlies stormed back with a 12-6 run to tie the game at 58-58.

After senior Hanna Reising’s 3-pointer tied the game, capping off the run at 2:36 left in the second half, Oakland went cold from the floor. IPFW was able to end the game on a 6-0 run.

Senior Melissa Jeltema and freshman Bethany Watterworth led Oakland with 14 points each. The team fell to 2-5 overall, 0-1 in Summit League play.

After a 45-minute break, the men’s squad took to the floor, trying for the split.

OU shot out to a 32-20 lead – its biggest of the game – with 4:24 remaining in the first half. After trading 3-point baskets and free throws with IPFW, the Grizzlies went into the locker room at halftime with a 40-29 lead and considerable momentum.

IPFW’s Ben Botts tried his best to cut off that momentum, as the junior hit two straight 3-pointers to open the second half, cutting Oakland’s lead to 40-35.

Oakland would go on another huge run, including back-to-back triples from sophomore Blake Cushingberry and senior Johnathon Jones, putting the team up 68-57.

IPFW, however, wouldn’t quit, and cut the lead down to 74-70 with just over a minute left in the game. Jones would then give the Grizzlies’ faithful in the crowd something to really cheer about.

With time running out on the shot clock, Jones hit a fade-away jumper over his defender, icing the game. IPFW was forced to foul the rest of the way, and Oakland (23 of 25 from the free-throw line, tying a school record) finished the game out, winning 84-76.

Both of IPFW’s big men, Trey McCorkle and Antwone Snead, had difficulty guarding Oakland center Keith Benson in the post, as the 6’11” junior controlled much of the game his with 20 points and 11 rebounds – his league-leading fourth double-double of the season.

Oakland evened their overall record to 4-4, and 1-0 in conference play.

The mass of Oakland fans in the stands were treated to high-fives and waves from the players and coaches as they left the court – a “thank you” to the 200-plus devoted followers in attendance.

No one was more pleased with the turnout than Grizz Gang president Anthony Lewis, a senior elementary education major.

“Overall, we had less people come out than last year, but it’s probably because of finals,” Lewis said. “Regardless, our crowd was very energetic, and I think the trip was a success.”

With Golden Grizzlies supporters invading Fort Wayne, hearing chants of “Go Black! Go Gold!” must have made the games feel just like the O’Rena for the two basketball teams.

An impromptu interview by reporter Ryan Hegedus with OU President Gary Russi at the game:

RH: What do you think about the road trip event?

GR: This is the second year of doing this trip and it’s been a lot of fun. Last year, I think we had about the same number of people; I think there will be about 200 people at the game today. But what’s really encouraging is that the mix has changed. This year, we see a lot more alumni join the students, and it’s really pretty exciting. We try to find a school in our league that’s pretty close, so we can develop a rivalry, and so we decided to pick Fort Wayne (IPFW). So the best way to do it is to offer a bus ride, free food for students to come, and root the team on. It’s pretty exciting.

RH: I’ve seen you at some games this year, what do you think of the teams so far?

GR: I missed some games, haven’t seen them all; of course, both of them (the teams) have been on the road a lot and they’ve been playing some really tough teams.

RH: What do you think of the schedule?

GR: I think it’s very well thought out. It helps the team harden a little bit as they play along through the year, playing those tougher teams. So hopefully as we enter conference play – by the way, today is the first conference game for both teams – we’ll be a little bit more talented, a little bit stronger. I think the ranking for the men’s team reflects the talent that we have. One poll I saw, we were ranked at #17 in the mid-major poll. So now, it’s just about jelling as a team. The women’s team is strong too. Unfortunately, they lost their 6’3” center (Brittany Carnago). They’ve got a good team, but that was a huge loss. She was probably going to be conference Player of the Year. The good news is, she’s going to go through surgery in January, and she’ll be back next year. All in all, I think both teams are positioned very well, now they just need to come together and play.

RH: What do you think of the increased exposure that the school gets by playing all of these top-ranked basketball programs around the country?

GR: Oh, it’s absolutely wonderful. We’ve been in Division I now for just about 11 years, so we’re pretty young, but the men’s team has been to the NCAA tournament, and the women’s team has been there twice. It’s remarkable that we’ve been able to do that, and because of that, we’re in the press every day. And you see us all over the country. Of course, with the Internet and other electronic media, we’re getting a lot of exposure. People know who we are now, so it’s been really good.