Opinion: From brink of program elimination, UC-Riverside authors one of college basketball's shining moments

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Several hours before he hit the shot of his life, and perhaps the shot of the year in college basketball, JP Moorman II had a surprise.

UC-Riverside, the program Moorman transferred to in March after three years at Temple, is not typically the kind of team that NBA stars would go out of their way to hang around. But as the Highlanders prepared to play Arizona State on Thursday night, Moorman had a friend he wanted to bring to shootaround.

“JP told me in the morning, ‘Hey, Chris Paul wants to come,’ ” coach Mike Magpayo told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview. “These guys’ eyes lit up. It was everything you’d hope for. He’s saying all the things that as a staff we believe in.”

The message from Paul, who sponsored the AAU team that Moorman played for growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, was mainly about togetherness. For a program that had spent the previous year fighting for its very existence, Paul’s words hit home.

UC-Riverside's J.P. Moorman hit the stunning last-second shot that beat Arizona State on Thursday.
UC-Riverside's J.P. Moorman hit the stunning last-second shot that beat Arizona State on Thursday.

“That was one thing that stuck with us through the game because we stayed so tight and connected in a hostile environment,” Moorman said. “The main thing is we gave ourselves a chance. That’s part of our culture and what we preach. If we give ourselves a chance with four minutes left, we feel like we can out-execute teams.”

Few would have given UC-Riverside a chance to be in this spot last fall when the university considered cutting all of its sports due to longstanding budget concerns that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But here they were, having just given up the go-ahead basket to Arizona State with 1.7 seconds remaining and needing to go the length of the court. The odds weren’t good, but for a program like UC-Riverside, they rarely are.

“The shot before, JP missed a three out of the corner and it was a good look,” Magpayo said. “He came into the timeout telling an assistant, ‘I’m not missing the next one,' and he didn’t lie. He didn’t miss the next one.”

Everything that happened from there is part of what makes college basketball, for all its flaws and lopsided games, so endearing. With one flash to the inbounder, a quick dribble and a heave from 70 feet away that swished through the net like it was destined to be there all along, Moorman didn’t just author a remarkable upset over a Pac-12 team. He justified why UC-Riverside’s decision in May to continue playing Div. I athletics was the right one.

“It feels every bit of great, every bit of awesome, every bit of superlative you can think of,” athletics director Wes Mallette said. “It was the heaviest lift I’ve ever had in my career, but nights like last night embody everything we’re about.”

'The biggest problem I had to fix'

For Mallette, who worked in corporate communications with large media companies like MTV and BET before going into college sports, the “lift” was an existential crisis that could have ended in lots of tears.

Even before COVID-19, UC-Riverside was the most subsidized program in Div. I with 91 percent of its $24 million athletics budget coming from university funds and student fees. When the pandemic hit, the university needed to significantly cut its budget, putting all of its sports on the chopping block.

Then in January, Tamica Smith-Jones — who had been the athletics director for the previous five years — left for Kennesaw State in the middle of the university’s budget review. That left Mallette as the primary person responsible for the athletic department’s survival.

“My career has been about building brands and fixing big problems,” he said. “This was unequivocally the biggest problem I had to fix, so being able to make sure I could keep the staff tighter, the donors together and then unveil the strategy to everyone involved was very important."

Mallette put together a plan with even more budget cuts and strategic spending while also ramping up fundraising efforts that he says are on track to be record-breaking for the athletic department when they’re officially announced.

“Your true value in any organization is how quickly you can get to a solution and a solution that works for people in a positive way,” he said. “Learning those lessons in corporate America is so valuable because when you move into the world of college sports, you have to apply those principles to create more efficient operations within your organization.”

'Grateful for each other'

It’s a language easily understood by Magpayo, the head coach, who began his career by building a successful real estate company in Southern California while coaching high school basketball on the side. This was around the time sports fans were learning the story of Brad Stevens, who had gone from working at Eli Lilly to a volunteer position at Butler to coaching in the national championship game in the span of a decade.

Magpayo, whose parents immigrated from the Philippines, saw Stevens’ trajectory as aspirational. He sent dozens of letters to coaches he didn’t know, hoping to luck into an opportunity. He got it from Kyle Smith, the current Washington State coach, who agreed to meet him for dinner in New York, let him hang around for a couple of months as a volunteer and then hired him to the staff.

“He used to make me lie and say I knew him from basketball camps because he didn’t want people to think he hired someone off the street,” Magpayo joked.

After working his way back to Southern California as an assistant at Riverside under David Patrick, he was elevated to head coach last July, becoming the first Asian-American to reach that position in Div. I.

With the encouragement of Smith, he also built the Asian-American Coaches Association that began with 13 people at the Final Four in 2012 and has grown to 150 members, with Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose mother is from the Philippines, now a friend and supporter.

“I just take his approach,” Magpayo said. “Our job is to do a great job and win as many games as we can so we can open the door.”

Moments like Thursday help significantly. Last year, Magpayo got his first win as a head coach against Washington and lost a game to Southern California in overtime. With another Pac-12 win under his belt — especially one in such dramatic fashion — the long road Riverside has traveled to save its program has a shot to turn into something meaningful.

“When it first happened, I just talked about faith and having faith that things would work out,” Magpayo said. “It was kind of a blessing going through COVID because they were in their own bubble, and we got really tight and had this grateful attitude the whole time. We always talk about that, just being grateful for each other.”

In the waning seconds Thursday night, with all that adversity behind them, they were grateful to have a chance to make history for their program. As Paul had told them earlier that day, one of the most important things in basketball is to have a positive environment around the team and build tight relationships with one another.

And as they talked about the final play, everyone’s eyes were locked in on Magpayo, totally engaged in the moment, not deflated about the lack of time on the clock or the difficult circumstance they faced. Then, moments later, they were celebrating like they never had before.

“It was a surreal feeling,” Moorman said. “It’s one that you dream of watching ESPN every morning. You see the top 10, college basketball players doing crazy things, and I’m just glad to be part of that echelon now.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UC-Riverside college hoops: Brink of elimination to stunning moment