EAST LANSING — In the closing seconds of Tuesday’s hissing defeat, several Michigan State fans began to razz Purdue’s bald-headed senior forward, Cuonzo Martin.
“Hey, Cuonzo, how’s it feel to be ranked 25th in the country?”
“Hey, Cuonzo. Nice haircut.”
Martin, hands on hips, breathing hard from the 12 points he scored in the last six minutes, rolled his eyes and pushed his lips together. He blew them a kiss. Mmmwah! A winner’s revenge.
Across the floor, a beefy center named Jamie Feick — rhymes with “strike”
— looked glumly at the scoreboard. No kisses for him. This should have been his night. This should have been his story. It was shaping up as one of those Star-Is- Born evenings — network TV; sold-out arena; the big gun, Shawn Respert, having a bad game, missing from the outside, missing from inside. And so someone else had to step up; someone needed to put on the cape and knock over the phone booth.
And Feick was doing it. In two hours of basketball, he brought to mind the best days of Mike Peplowski, all growling enthusiasm and rebound-sucking and backboard-banging and lay- up, lay-up, lay-up. Feick was keeping the Spartans alive. He was their best chance at storing the Big Ten title away, the way a squirrel stores a walnut. It was right there — in his eyes, in his hands.
And then it was gone.
“Jamie had an outstanding game,” Jud Heathcote would sigh, after the Boilermakers dished the Spartans only their second conference loss against eight wins. “Unfortunately, outside of Jamie, nobody else did.” Feick? He’d trade stats for a win
And still, it was almost enough. Respert, the senior star they had all come to see, was being held to one shot in the first half, and mostly rim-clangers in the second. But Feick? He was somewhere between Bill Laimbeer and the Incredible Hulk.
He did the big things, like soaring after every rebound, or scoring on tough inside moves, taking feeds and dropping them off the glass. And he did the little things, too. Like diving for a loose ball and poking it off the defender out of bounds. Or grabbing the ball lightning-quick after a basket and feeding the new break.
Or the time when he went eye-to-eye with Purdue’s 6-foot-11 center Brad Miller. Miller pump-faked, pump-faked, pump-faked — and Feick never bit. Finally, Miller, with a two-inch height advantage, went up, and Feick went right with him, and when Miller finally unleashed a shot, Feick banged that thing away the way a volleyball star bangs a spike over the net.
The ball landed in the first row.
“Did you realize what kind of night you were having?” Feick was asked after the game. “Did you ever think, ‘I could be the star of this most important game’?”
“No,” he said, studying the rare quiet of the Spartans’ locker room. “I would trade 30 points and 30 rebounds to say we’d won this game right now.”
They had a chance. As poorly as Respert was playing — he shot 4-for-14 and had his worst point output in two seasons — the Spartans had a one-point lead with less than three minutes to go. Eric Snow had made some spectacular plays, and Quinton Brooks had tossed in some neat shots, and it seemed, to put it in oldie terms, that the Belmonts were going to win a big one without Dion.
But Purdue down the stretch seemed to be breathing purer air. The Boilermakers came alive in the end — I should say Martin came alive. He hit a 14-foot jumper. He banged a 20- footer for three points. He threw in a lay-up. He drew two fouls.
“I don’t want to say I save myself a little for the second half,” Martin, who finished with 28 points, said afterward, “but I guess I do.”
Feick, on the other hand, had nothing left. He had put it all on the floor. And it was still a few points shy. He has nothing to beef about
So now the Big Ten is a race again, with Purdue just a half-game back, and Michigan 1 1/2 behind, and, if you’re a Spartans fan, you have to feel like a wonderful opportunity was burned to ashes Tuesday night.
And yet you learn from games like these, and maybe a guy like Feick, who had problems with ball control in seasons past and wasn’t expected to do great things this year, well, maybe he rises another notch. Heathcote said that, over the summer, Jamie decided “to be a center” and to work on the things he needed to star in that role. As a junior, he sounds like he’s accepted that fully.
“I try to concentrate on rebounding and defense,” he said, after grabbing 14 boards and scoring a team-high 16 points. “There are enough guys on this team who can score. Rebounding is about heart, and I want to put my whole heart into it.
“When Shawn wasn’t hot, we needed to go to the inside game, so I was ready to score. It’s just . . . I wish we had won.”
He sighed and sipped a bottle of orange juice. He wore the backward baseball cap that is signature college student, and the flannel shirt that is signature farmer. Feick is the son of dairy farmers in Ohio, and his dream one day is to have a farm himself — a beef farm because you don’t have to get up as early to milk the cows.
“I guess I set my sights real high, huh?” he said, laughing.
On Tuesday, he did just fine. If the Spartans follow his lead, there’ll be plenty to smile about before this is all over.