The Fifth Lap
As Tamir Jackson lay belly down on the Tudor Fieldhouse floor with just seconds left in his final home game, he let his fist come down on the hard court, echoing throughout the arena. Then he raised it and let it come down again. And again. And a few more times.
It was not a tantrum - far from it. It was a release of emotions - of frustration, of love, of desperately wanting one more win at home.
When that last home win finally bounced out of reach despite a herculean 30-point effort by Jackson and a furious rally by him and his team, all the emotions just seemed to finally spill out.
This was not the way Jackson's senior season at Rice was supposed to be. Less than a year ago, he was one of the stars on a team that seemed poised to elevate the program to heights it had not seen in many years. The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) seemed like an achievable goal, the NCAA tournament not an impossible dream. But as one teammate after another transferred away, that team of potential was soon transformed into a short-handed, undersized shell of itself.
Part of this season will inevitably be about what could have been. It is easy to see how all the pieces might have fit together. Omar Oraby and Arselan Kazemi would have shored up the interior defense and given Jackson, Julian DeBose and our guards room to penetrate offensively. Austin Ramljak would have been able to thrive in a role as sharpshooting spark instead of being asked to carry so much of the possession-to-possession scoring burden. The rest of the players would have had the opportunity to find their roles in more natural positions instead of being forced to shift in order to compensate for a lack of team size. It is all what might have been.
But there is more to this season than just what might have been. There is also what was.
There was the development of Wiess junior walk-on Bahrom Firozgary. When Firozgary first joined the team, he was clearly overwhelmed by the size and speed of the game. In his first few games, he was prone to quick fouls and turnovers.
However, as the season progressed, so did Firozgary, with many of his contributions not showing up in the box score. He added height both offensively and defensively, hustled for loose balls, and was often part of the team's pick-and-roll offense, setting screens at the top of the key.
Firozgary's improvement and contributions became even more important when sophomore Seth Gearhart was forced out of the lineup for the final 10 games of the regular season by an injury. Over those final 10 regular season games, Firozgary averaged 15.4 minutes per game. During that stretch, he shot sparingly but efficiently, averaging 2.3 points per game and firing 45 percent from the field and 69 percent from the free-throw line. His journey was one of this season's silver linings.
There was also the indomitable attitude of this season's team. Despite adversity, this team never quit. It never showed up to Tudor Fieldhouse intimidated, never mailed in games. And even when games were out of reach, the Owls still competed to win that possession, that series, that section of the contest.
While there were definitely stretches that were painful to watch, instants when the coaching staff seemed disappointingly uncreative, and times when the number of lopsided losses seemed to carry a lot of weight, there were also moments that were exciting, even inspiring. Moments like Ramljak heating up from behind the arc. Moments like DeBose playing powerfully above the rim. I would be remiss to leave out the incredibly sweet come-from-behind victory at home against crosstown rival Houston.
Finally, there was Jackson, the sole senior. The Rice community owes something to the man who decided to stay. He led the team in points per game, rebounds per game and minutes per game, and he was second in steals and assists per game.
However, what he meant to this program in its year in the wilderness stretches beyond the box score. It is telling not only that last weekend's game was marketed as "Tamir's final home game," but also that the student section was filled with supporters, many of whom stayed the entire game. It is telling that a giant "We love Tamir" sign hung alongside the "Come and Take It" flag. It is telling that somehow, after the pregame honor, the two standing ovations and all the sideline hugs at the end of the game, it still did not feel like he had been recognized enough.
It is going to be a bit painful to watch this year's NCAA tournament, especially if the University of Oregon makes a deep run featuring Kazemi. It simply does not seem fair for the ones who left to succeed while those who stayed struggled. In the storybook version of this season, Rice would be the Cinderella team to make the tournament and knock out the Ducks. But sports track more closely to real life than Disney Channel movies, and this season proved to be one bridge too far.
Which takes us back to last Saturday night, with Jackson sprawled out on the floor having dived after one last ball that bounced away.
Somehow, as he pulled himself up off the court, it all seemed OK.
Yes, there was failure - but it was failure that warranted every bit of a winner's applause.
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