Saturday, March 25, 2000

Coley is heart and soul of Tulsa's drama




BY PAUL DAUGHERTY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        AUSTIN, Texas — What do we say about Eric Coley? That he's a good basketball player? That he sinks his will into you like a set of teeth? That because of him, Tulsa is three wins from shocking the world?

        Maybe all three. Definitely all three.

        Tulsa beat Miami in the Sweet 16 Friday night because Eric Coley wouldn't have had it otherwise. He's the 6-foot-5 senior who plays like he's 6-1 when he needs to, and 6-11 when he wants. Coley does so much for the Golden Hurricane, you think there are five of him on the floor at once, each with three arms.

        Last week, he detonated UC with 16 points and 16 rebounds. Last night, he spurted early when Tulsa blew out to a 25-8 lead, and he pounded bricks late, when the Hurricane stumbled briefly.

        Every year, an unknown walks into the footlights of the Madness. Bryce Drew. Matt Santangelo. Lorenzo Charles. Eric Coley.

        Eric Coley?

        Why not? He's not just an unknown star. He's a movie, complete with tragedy and triumph. Two years ago, his mother died of brain cancer. Eight of his mother's siblings have either succumbed to cancer or been diagnosed with it.

        Coley put lots of miles on his Chevy truck that year, hauling the 70 miles between the Tulsa campus and his home in Vernon, Okla. When his mother died, Coley considered quitting basketball.

        He came back, though, in time to lead the Hurricane on this improbable run. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

        Plus, Coley ropes calves. He owns three horses and boards one close to campus. If he can't play pro basketball, he wants to be in the rodeo.

        He branded the game Friday. With Tulsa up 12-8 early, Coley sprinted the length of the floor to block from behind Johnny Hemsley's wide-open 3-point try. You only make a play like that if your heart demands it.

        “That just comes from hard play,” Coley said. “We said this morning, the team that had the most will was going to come out on top. That's what happened.”

        Coley followed with a drive into the lane, added a jumper in the lane, and just like that, Tulsa led 25-8.

        Said Brandon Kurtz, the Tulsa center: “The guy seems to be all over the place. He creates havoc. That's his style.”

        Miami came back. The Hurricanes couldn't miss from 3-point range, and for some reason Tulsa didn't pick up on that. Tulsa's defense was great everywhere but beyond the arc. When Vernon Jennings nailed a 3 with 10:34 left, Miami led 46-43.

        Then Coley resumed being Coley. He made a layup. Then two free throws. Then a block from behind of Miami senior Mario Bland. Bland is 6-6 and 265. He looks like a side of beef. Coley bumped him and swatted his shot.

        There were five Coleys out there, each with three arms. Weren't there?

        “He made four plays that I can recall when we had to have a basket,” Miami coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Jumping over top of us disrupting things.”

        Coley made a seeing-eye pass to a backdoor-cutting Tony Heard, who was fouled and made two free throws. Finally, Coley blocked another Bland shot. By the time he was done, Tulsa led, 65-51.

        The impressive thing about Tulsa Friday was the Hurricane beat Miami playing two styles, fast and smooth in the first half, banging and bruising in the second.

        In the first half, Tulsa played the same scrambling, hell-bent style — all elbows and knees — it played Sunday against UC. “Like they were shot out of a cannon,” Hamilton said.

        In the second half, it force-fed Kurtz, the 6-11 center, who scored 17 after halftime. “I was impressed with the way they kept scratching,” Hamilton said.

        Coley was behind that. And in front of it. And everywhere in between.

        Someone asked Tulsa coach Bil Self the inevitable “Cinderella” question. “Put whatever tag on us you want,” Self said.

        It's a great story, this Tulsa run. And this Eric Coley, he's the star.

        Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454. Fair Game, a collection of his columns, is available at local bookstores.



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