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Dave Boling: Survive and advance? After WSU guard Myles Rice battled cancer, each game is a victory

Mar. 22—OMAHA, Neb. — Survive and advance.

The phrase is almost the official motto of March, as it applies to the attitude required to succeed in the NCAA Tournament.

Survive and advance: Do whatever it takes to win and then get ready for the next challenge that will demand you do it again.

I'd doubt that any player in this tournament has more literally embraced that concept than Washington State's Myles Rice — with far higher stakes involved.

It's more than a game when the "survive" part of the phrase involves a year of chemotherapy to counter the incursion of Hodgkin lymphoma, and the "advance" portion refers to the remaining years of your life.

Asked about the survive-and-advance saying on Friday, after his Cougars survived a second-half deficit to Drake to advance to Saturday's round-of-32 game against Iowa State, Rice talked about how they had managed to dig out a win without playing their best game.

Right. But, I mean, as a man in remission for a year, what does that mean to you?

Rice caught the perspective I was looking for.

"It was definitely a mental battle, and probably one of the things that has made me as mentally sound as I have been this season," he said. "You learn to deal with it, knowing your routine, knowing when you're going to be going through a chemo session, and knowing how long you're going to be there, and knowing how long it's going to put you down."

So, a shooting slump? Tough to deal with? Yeah, well, try chemotherapy.

The pressure of big games? Hey, cancer is the ultimate loser-out contest.

Rice laughed at the questions. "Shooting slump? No, that's not hard at all. I've been through the wringer far worse than this, so, me playing bad, or not making the right decision, that doesn't bother me. Basketball is a game, and you're supposed to have fun."

Rice was a recruiting find for the Cougars, with his talents somewhat overlooked in the early pandemic days when WSU was the only Power Five school to offer the point guard from Columbia, South Carolina.

The story of his illness has been told well and at length as he turned into a star for the Cougars. In short, Rice started chemotherapy in October 2022, and after six months of treatment, he was declared in remission almost exactly a year ago.

It's unfair to summarize the effects of chemotherapy in just a paragraph. But he's on the other side of it. And Rice has often cited the experience as one from which he could build. And also one that reveals a great deal about a person's character.

"To see him going through that hard situation with a smile on his face every day was something," teammate Andrej Jakimovski said. "To see him going through that, and how he dealt with it, it gave me the chills. I can't really explain it; it meant so much to us, and tells so much about him as a person."

Rice tried to get to practices and games when his strength permitted, and "he would try to help us with things he would see in the games, what other teams were trying to do to us," Jakimovski said. "Some days you could see he was tired, you could tell, but he handled it so well."

Rice's return this fall offered an instant impact.

In the Cougars' third game, he scored 21 points against a talented Mississippi State team. He poured in 28 against Eastern Washington, hitting 6 of 8 3-pointers. The biggest numbers came in January against Stanford, when he topped out at 35 points, eight assists and four steals.

By the end of the regular season, he was voted the Pacific-12 Conference's Freshman of the Year — the first Cougar to receive that honor.

Later in the season, though, Rice hit a shooting slump that caused him to miss every 3-pointer he attempted for six games.

When asked, he'd say that he would remain confident and rely on the craft and mechanics he'd always used.

He broke the drought early in Thursday's game against Drake, stepping with confidence into a long shot from out front. When it passed through the net, his coaches and teammates leaped off the bench.

It's impossible, of course, to imagine the collective psychic power of having an entire team and staff wishing for Rice to nail the long jumper.

They had to be thinking, "Bank one in, get a good bounce, something, anything."

Given all this young man had been through, and the grace with which he had dealt with enormous challenges, the ball had to go through — so many people on that team might have willed it to be so.

"Going through chemotherapy, there's days when you don't have enough energy, and you have to find ways to get through the day," Rice said. "That's how you keep advancing. For me, I had my family and the support of the community, it all started there."

During those rugged days, did you ever think basketball was over?

"A little bit, at times," he said. "But I knew I was destined to play this game I love, for just this moment in my life."