By MIKE SMITH
If there was a silver lining to Miami head coach Coles’ collapse, it was that it occurred at a place where medical help was immediately available. He was taken to Bronson Methodist Hospital and joined by his wife and family members who were at the contest.
After some positive feedback on his condition, Miami players agreed to continue under assistant Ray Martin, and the tournament game was resumed after a delay. Both Frierson and Szczerbiak were allowed in to join family with the coach afterward. Unable to speak at the moment, Coles handed the players a handwritten note: “You guys better have won.”
It got a chuckle from the pair, who were able to tell their coach they had, indeed, upset the eight-point favorite Broncos, who owned a 20-6 record at the time. “It was a scary time . . .
With the 67-63 win, Miami advanced and defeated Kent State 64-59 before losing to a very good Eastern Michigan team 92-77 in the MAC Championship game. Earl Boykins, a diminutive but lightning-quick guard who finished second in NCAA scoring (26.8 ppg) that season, shined in the tourney. He went on play over 650 games in the NBA and also played in Italy.
Miami, which posted a 17-12 record while enduring its various challenges in ’97-‘98, was restocked by the following season. Coles was back as head coach. Mestas was back to handle the point and Szczerbiak was healthy. It was the last chance for Frierson and his talented class.
“We knew that we were going to be good. We just had to put it all together,” he said.
Miami quickly ripped off four straight wins to start the season – the first at Notre Dame, followed by a 68-62 victory over No. 18 Tennessee on the home court in Oxford. “Going in, we knew we could beat them, because the year before, we felt like we should have won that game.”
Local rival Xavier, ranked No. 23 at the time, broke the streak and a loss to Green Bay followed. But MU then got on a roll, winning 15 of the next 17 outings. The only conference loss in that stretch was a 68-62 loss at Kent State.
Back-to-back road losses at Toledo and Bowling Green late put a temporary damper on things, but Miami nailed down the regular season title with a 73-60 win at home against Kent State.
After pummeling Ball State in the first round of conference action, MU met Bowling Green at Toledo’s SeaGate Convention Center, site of the MAC Tourney at that time. In what might have been one of the most important games of the season, MU pulled out a 60-56 overtime victory.
The win was particularly important because Miami fell to Kent State 49-43 in the finals. “It was always a physical, ugly game with them,” Frierson recalled of meetings against KSU. “They had great team defense (and) especially against us, they played extremely hard.”
While Kent State got the automatic conference bid to the NCAA tourney, Miami (22-7 at the time) was given an at-large berth. Asked if his team might have missed the NCAA berth had it fallen against Bowling Green, Frierson said.”Looking back now, I don’t think we would have … had we lost that game. … It would have been really shocking and heartbreaking if we didn’t get (there).”
Despite the loss in the finals, Frierson was personally confidence MU would make the field. “It was just a matter of what seed and where we were going to go.”
When Miami (10-seed) drew Washington (7-seed) in Midwest Regional field at St. Louis, optimism prevailed. “We felt that we matched up pretty good, and that if we played our game, we could beat them.”
With Szczerbiak (43) and Frierson (12) scoring 55 points between them, Miami was able to pull out a 59-58 win. Todd McCullough, a 7-0 center for Washington, was limited to 11 points -- an important piece of work considering Miami started 6-7 John Estick at center.
Utah, a No. 6 seed led by 1999 AP All-American and future NBA veteran Andre Miller, was next up. “We felt like it would be a big challenge for us, but we were really a confident team.”
Frierson said. “We got off to a good start and once we were into the game, we realized that we could play with these guys, and that we could beat them, as well.”
Szczerbiak scored 24, Estick 18 and Jason Stewart 12 as MU knocked off No. 6 Utah 66-58. Miller had 20 to lead the Utes.
Life was sweet indeed as Miami joined the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in its long history. Szerbiak, who became a Second Team Consensus All-American, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated; media loved the loquacious Coles and underdog Miami story. Students, of course, also embraced their conquering heros. “It was awesome coming back to Oxford and seeing the fans waiting for us,” Frierson recalled.
A pep rally was organized to help send off MU for its third tourney game – a matchup against No. 8 Kentucky. But there was no upsets in the cards this time as UK handled Miami easily, 58-43.
“Their size just killed us,” Frierson said. “We didn’t have anything to match up with their size. They played a zone, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Their back three guys were like 6-9, 6-10 (and) a 7-footer. … Inside they just dominated.”
And so closed a remarkable season. Would Miami have even been in the “Dance,” were it not for that semi-final win over Bowling Green in the MAC tournament?
It’s an interesting question, but one that need not be answered. Miami did win that game, and it did go to the Dance. It also knew what to do once it got there.
After playing some professional ball in Europe and seeing minor league action in the states, Frierson has settled into Pharmaceuticals in the Columbus, Ohio area. He was back at Miami in December to be inducted into the schools Hall of Fame. It’s the kind of moment which brings back a flood of memories.
Some, no doubt, were of tournaments past. Some were of the journey itself and those with whom he shared it. To this day, Frierson said, he thinks often of Coles.
“He had a tremendous impact (on my life),” Frierson said. “I think about him every day – sometimes a couple times: the faces he would make, some things he would say. He was one of the funniest guys I ever met and a great all-around guy. I miss him a ton, and it was great for me to have played for him. … He just had the smile, the charisma, the personality. Everybody loved him. It was just an ‘It’ factor.”
Teams typically enter March Madness ready to battle for their basketball lives – especially seniors. That often makes for great games and great entertainment.
It can also make great memories. But so does the journey!