COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Bob Knight had a floppy hat on his head and a look of satisfaction on his face, a bit of joy even.
Not so much because his Texas Tech team had finally figured out how to finish, ending a five game losing streak – one of the longest of his long career. But because he had ruined things for a bunch of national media who had descended here to hype up white-hot Texas A&M.
“You came here to write a big story about A&M and we just (expletive) you,” smiled Knight outside the Tech locker room as he prepared to head for the team bus.
Indeed he had, spoiling the deal not just for some writers, but for a jammed and jumping Reed Arena and a national television audience that tuned in to find out what these sixth-ranked Aggies were all about.
Instead Tech offered up a clinic in Bob Knight Basketball, his tried and true system – well-executed motion offense, tight man-to-man defense and smart, heady play – running circles around A&M and storming back from a double-digit deficit to win it, 77-75, on Jarrius Jackson’s genius length-of-the-court drive and buzzer-beating shot.
“I thought in the second half we played about as well as anytime we’ve played this season,” said Knight. “We made plays, got the lead and continued to make plays. And Jarrius’ basket was a great thing for us (because) it was the first time in our last three games that we’ve made the play to win the game.
“We had games won and lost them because of (poor) judgment or we were not able to make a play.”
It had been a brutal couple of weeks for the Red Raiders. One minute they were flying high after consecutive victories over top 10 teams Kansas and A&M, and at 15-5 looked headed to another NCAA Tournament.
The next the wheels started coming off. At Missouri they simply got beat. Against Texas, the Longhorns’ super-freshman Kevin Durant had 37 points and 23 rebounds. At Oklahoma they faded down the stretch, uncertain in the game’s critical moments.
Then in the final seconds against Nebraska, Tech’s Charlie Burgess tried to save a ball going out of bounds and inadvertently passed it to a Cornhusker, who promptly knocked down the game-winner. At Oklahoma State, they lost in double overtime, a series of missed chances, bad breaks and worse calls dooming them.
It was five consecutive defeats. One more would have tied the worst stretch in Knight’s career, established back in 1970-71 – his last season at Army.
But this probably hurt more now than then. Knight isn’t a young man at a military academy anymore, someone with a bright future and time to turn things around.
He is a proud man who at 66 doesn’t want to go out with middling teams, who doesn’t want the season where he broke Dean Smith’s record for career victories marred by frustrating loss after frustrating loss. Last year’s 15-17 mark, just the second losing season of his career, was bad enough.
But now with an experienced – if, by Big 12 standards, lightly talented and not very deep – club, these setbacks hurt maybe more than ever.
When he had his great teams at Indiana, talented and well-drilled, they were famous for winning the close ones, or hanging onto leads, or doing the little things that Knight treasures. This team has shown plenty of that – the passing, the cutting, the smart shots – but then it suddenly couldn’t win a game. Tech is now 16-10; truly just a few plays from so much more.
“We’ve been having some problems with finishing games and we haven’t been playing real well,” Knight said.
Tech needed a win for the NCAA Tournament. Knight needed one for so much more. But coming into this place, where A&M’s Billy Gillispie has gotten things rolling was a daunting task.
“(Our emotions) were down,” said guard Martin Zeno. “We’ve been just (right) there (but) then we make the wrong moves. (Tonight) when we got down, we just fought back, stayed close and said, ‘Let’s finish it.’”
The kids only care about this season, these games, and that’s just as they should. But the finish is coming for Knight one of these days too; another season or two, perhaps. And long losing streaks and gut-wrenching, self-destructive defeats are no way to cross that line, no way to have this play out.
His system still cranking, still winning, still silencing crowds, now that’s a more palpable finale. Ruining a reporter’s assignments is just gravy.
“I know what you’re about,” Knight joked. “I know why you were here and it sure as hell wasn’t for us.”
He laughed and turned to his son and assistant, Pat. The bus was waiting. At last, a pleasant trip home.
“OK,” he said. “Let’s go.”