BY JIM MOORE
I saw a terrific college basketball game recently.
The two teams are the finest kind of rivals. They have a lot of recent history; both know each other's personnel very well; they respect each other - to a point. These are two of the best women's teams on the West Coast.
The opposing coaches are good friends, the kind of friends who share information on opponents, discuss each other's games, recruit the same kids and maybe even "borrow" a play or a strategy from the other -- and then try to beat the hell out of the other's team twice a year.
Each team has one of a pair of siblings playing for them. These sisters talk on the phone frequently. Not a lot is said - by coaches or players - that is not relayed the same evening between campuses. Bulletin-board material abounds.
The visiting team (in red uniforms) had momentum on its side. They beat the home team (white, of course) two seasons ago to end their rival's 23-game win streak. Then they beat them early last season, bringing to a halt a season-and-a-half home-court streak. Then they beat them again to make it three straight.
The game was played before a vocal and knowledgeable crowd. Because the two schools are only a couple of hours apart the crowd was actually just about 50-50. (Graduated players from recent teams on both sides were there, eyeing each other across the stands and retelling slightly exaggerated war stories.
The announcer introduced the lineups, over-emoting for the home team as announcers are prone to do these days. Half the crowd enjoyed it.
The game started tentatively, as rivalry games end to. The teams were well-prepared. The Red team would call play "2"; the White coach would call "4"; the Red coach would scream, "It's our `2'!"
The players talked a little trash - even the White team's lefty freshman point guard. The athletes ran up and down the floor with grace and power and dived like wrestlers for loose balls. The fans screamed in disbelief at the referees' calls. The coaches sweated through their expensive suits.
Red put together a late spurt to lead 38-32 at the half. White's tall, mobile post had just two points. Her teammate, a sharp-shooting forward, had no threes. Their coach had plenty to say' in the locker room at half time.
In the second half, Red began to pull away. Both teams had players foul trouble, necessitating substitutions that made the coaches nervous. Red's shifty-quick freshman guard forced White's lefty freshman guard into 10 turnovers. White's mobile post finally got a couple of baskets off offensive rebounds. With seven minutes to play, Red led by 16.
But White's tall, mobile post put together a streak. She scored three more buckets. The sharpshooting forward got a couple of looks at threes, and one went down. White's confidence improved visibly. With four minutes to play, Red's lead was just seven.
The gym smelled of popcorn and failing deodorant. Cheerleaders pounded their feet during free throws. Some players wanted the ball, and some just wanted to pass it. Assistant coaches checked on timeouts left.
Red's lanky freshman hit I couple of clutch pull-up jumpers. White was forced to foul. Red's vocal senior po it guard, on her way to a career-high 27 points, calmly' made free throw after free throw. The White coach got a technical foul. The Red coach kept a straight face.
Red won, 83-68. At the buzzer, its bench was an explosion of high-fives and high-pitched voices. The White players swallowed hard and l led up to exchange handshakes. The referees ran off the floor. Fans, friends and family streamed down onto the court and milled about, offering hugs of joy or consolation.
A reporter interviewed the White coach--cautiously. People trickled gradually out of the building, still a little high on adrenaline.
The Chapman Panthers beat the Cal Lutheran Regals. Yes, this vas small-time action. None of the players gets a dollar of athletics scholarship money. The tall and mobile post is barely six feet tall. The vocal senior point guard is 5-foot-6, has had two reconstructive knee surgeries and has a jump reach of about six inches. The crowd was fewer than 200. The gym was several feet shorter than normal size. The visiting team stopped in their vans at Tito's Tacos on the way home with $5 each to spend.
What defines small-time? These players dream of going to the NCAA tournament. They study in vans on road trips with pocket flashlights. They lift weights and run together in the off-season, on their own. They crowd in their coach's office to study game film.
Most of them take out big-time loans to get their degrees and play ball. They graduate. They play in front of family and friends. They get in the best shape of their lives. They instinctively make plays the didn't know they were capable of. They laugh and cry together as a team.
They look to their coaches as role models. They begin to see the intricate choreography of the higher levels of the game. They shoot threes in bundles, they make clutch free throws, they set crunching picks, they face off in spirited rivalries.
They play terrific basketball.
Jim Moore is sports information director at Chapman Unizersity.