TH wins Basketball Cuppers
1 June 2012
Report by Dr Martin Ruehl
This season the Trinity Hall team took home the two greatest trophies in Cambridge intramural basketball: after an undefeated run in Division I, they were crowned league champions in February 2012; three months later, they won the Cuppers tournament. Seeing that only a few years ago the TH ballers seemed stuck in Division II, achieving the Double in 2012 was an extraordinary feat and must rank as the greatest to date in the history of the franchise.
League champions (19 February 2012). Photo from left to right: James Edwards, John Miller, Martin Ruehl, Kwaku Osei, WillCavert, Steve Rosanoff, Li Peng. Kneeling: Jonathan Hollis, David Land, Uri Grodzinski.
The team that Boris “Dr J” Jardine and Jonathan Hollis had built around American swingman Jamie “Scrappy” Martin, the Chinese Twin Towers Li Peng and TC Lin as well as veteran guards Martin Ruehl and Konstantin Kastrissianakis was rejuvenated at the beginning of the season by the arrival of Chilean post-doc Alex “The A-Train” Alvarado and research fellow Will Cavert, a 6’4 lottery pick from Northwestern University with exceptional range and shot-creation ability. More than any other player, it was Cavert, a white (and slightly overweight) second coming of Jesus Shuttlesworth, who turned around the fortunes of Trinity Hall basketball this year. David Pretel and Fabian Franzen sadly never took their much-hyped talents to Kelsey Kerridge where the team started practicing on Tuesday afternoons in Michaelmas 2011 under the watchful eyes of co-captains Ruehl and David Land. Teaming up once more with Clare, THBbC had a strong, if not outstanding first half of the season, with hard-fought, ugly wins against Churchill, Darwin and Caius – just enough to gain promotion to Division I where they joined traditional basketball powerhouses Wolfson, King’s, and the two-time defending champions Hellenic Society, an artificially created super-team of former varsity players few of whom were believed to be conversant in Greek.
It was after the All-Star break and with the beginning of Lent Term that the Trinity Hall and Clare players really came together as a team whose new abbreviation – THC – soon symbolized their improved cohesion. Helped by Cavert’s stupendous outside shooting and the supreme court vision of recent free-agent acquisition James “White Chocolate” Edwards, a pass-first point guard with game-managing skills reminiscent of the young Steve Nash, the THC ballers began to gather momentum early in the second half of the regular season. Their march to the top of Division I started with a physical, low-scoring 30:28 victory over their old bug bear Fitzwilliam on 21 January. The game was decided by Kwaku “The Earthkwake” Osei (Yale) who kept backing down every defender Fitz threw at him in the low post. It still would have gone into overtime if not for the exceptional defensive efforts of Ensign John David Miller, a second-round draft pick from the U.S. Naval Academy, whose iron will and elbows (and trash-talking) added a much-needed toughness to our backcourt. The team’s first break-out game came against Wolfson on 4 February. A former champion and perennial Division I presence, Wolfson put up a decent fight, but was ultimately unable to withstand the barrage of THC’s multiple offensive weapons. Cavert was shooting lights out, going 8 of 11 from beyond the arc and scoring 35 overall. The final score (58:38) reflected THC’s dominance, but not the bitterness of the contest and Wolfson’s inability to accept defeat which resulted in numerous technical fouls and an on-court stand-off between Ensign Miller and Wolfson’s improbable leading scorer, a chubby, bearded Minnesotan sharpshooter with what seemed to be chronic anger disorder.
Next up on the menu was King’s, an old rival who had cruelly terminated our Cuppers campaign last year. That King’s was dismantled with such ease this time around – the final score read 53:33 – seemed all the more remarkable as Cavert had to miss the game and Edwards, with 8 points, 5 assists, and 1 steal, had a comparatively quiet night. The scoring load was shouldered by Peng, who chipped in 14 points (on 5 of 7 shooting), and Rory “Sleepy” Laster, who sank a series of contested mid-range jumpers in a typically cool, trance-like performance. The victory over King’s moved THC to the top of Division I, a position they had to defend against last year’s league champions, Hellenic Society, in the final match of the regular season. It turned out to be a dramatic game, with frequent lead changes, and much physicality. The Trinity Hall ballers played outstanding D, notably Ruehl who managed to shut down the opposing side’s star small forward Pjotr, aka the Polish Pocket Pistol, and IDF secret weapon Uri Grodzinski, who crashed the boards once again like a miniature Dennis Rodman, grabbing no fewer than 13 rebounds for us. Edwards and Cavert finally gelled, running the high screen pick and roll like Stockton/Malone redux and combining for 32 of the team’s 54 points. Hard-driving combo guard Steve Rosanoff (Arizona State, SUNY) added 10 crucial points, mainly off his trademark floaters and finger rolls. In the end, THC won deservedly 54:42 and left the court as league champions. The former cellar dwellers had arrived on the intracollegiate scene as Cuppers title contenders.
Seeded no. 1, they began the tournament with a victory over lowly Selwyn so one-sided (68:13) it hardly bears mentioning. In addition to the 1-2 punch of Cavert and Edwards, THC now boasted the slashing and dashing of Rosanoff and the feathery jumper (plus stingy D) of Spanish shooting guard/small forward Amalio Fernandez-Pacheco. In a recent sign-and-trade with LSBU, they had also acquired Richard “The Reading Rocket” Wellings, a 6’6 forward equally comfortable in the low post and on the perimeter. There was almost too much talent on the roster now and not enough coherence yet, so THC had surprising difficulties dealing with a relatively unknown, over-the-hill Darwin team in round 2, which was led by wiry Italian post-doc Roberto aka Mr ESPN. Down by 6 at half-time, they had to rely on Cavert’s outside shooting once more to save the day. Cavert obliged, draining 3-pointer after 3-pointer over the Darwin defense in the second half, thus ensuring the survival of what in the eyes of nearly all observers was the fitter team. Buoyed by the vocal support of their cheer leaders/assistant coaches/talismans Crystal “Baller” Eisinger and Suzy “No Messin” Moxey, THC prevailed 66:53 and found themselves in the semi finals. Mission accomplished, yes, but it was clear that GM Ruehl had to make some adjustments.
In numerous late-night practice sessions under the unforgiving neon lights of Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre, the team addressed its principal weaknesses: spreading the floor, moving the ball, and transitioning on defense. Wellings was relocated to the high post/wing, a more natural habitat for the sweet-shooting giant, and Cavert to the block where his Nowitzki-esque ability to post up and/or shoot the short fade-away jumper would create match-up problems for defenders. These pieces came together – more or less – in the semi, an emotionally charged rematch vs Wolfson, played on 5 May. After a heated initial dispute over the eligibility of Wellings (quickly settled in THC’s favor by the competent League Secretary), Edwards and Rosanoff wasted no time unleashing an up-tempo, running-and-gunning attack that translated into a quick early lead. But the Wolfson Jail Blazers fought back, and soon enough the D got stiffer, tempers started flaring, and elbows flying. Again and again Cavert was sent to the foul line where, battered and bruised and taunted by the Wolfson bench, he still managed to convert nearly all his free throws. Wellings had one of the finest games of the post-season, finishing with 21 points (on 5 of 6 shooting from the 3-point line), 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Repeatedly splitting two defenders on the fast break, co-captain Land added 3 important buckets down the stretch. After much sweat, blood and tears – the latter shed exclusively by the Wolfson players – the final score line read 59:46. THC was in the final.
There they were to meet their most formidable foe: the Hellenic Society. The “Greeks” allegedly had boosted their roster with a number of international players and at the shortest possible notice changed the date of the final – for spurious reasons – so as to make use of their best line-up. Undeterred by their mind games, Ruehl settled for 31 May, giving his players ample time to prepare for the big match and allowing himself to work around the loss of key players Peng, Osei, and Rosanoff. It was like Willis Reed emerging from the MSG tunnel in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals when in the second week of May, Israeli power forward Naaman Tammuz announced that he would play for his old team once more. Joining Edwards, Cavert, Wellings, and Fernandez-Pacheco, Tammuz completed what was probably the strongest starting 5 in Trinity Hall basketball history. With their deep, experienced bench and loyal fan base, THC, despite some doubts about their age and conditioning, went into the final as favorites.
They were not quite ready for what awaited them there. From the tip-off, the Greeks played an extremely aggressive man defense that limited THC’s scoring options. Cavert, who had been averaging 22.4 ppg in the playoffs, found himself pushed out of his comfort zones, double-teamed, bear-hugged – and held to 8 points. Edwards was a very effective floor general again, dishing out 15 dimes, but on the score board he was a non-factor for the first three quarters. Fernandez-Pacheco and Tammuz both had their hands full with their defensive tasks and were unable to contribute much offensively till very late. It was Wellings who kept THC in the game over the first 30 minutes, with a transcendent 11 of 15 performance from beyond the arc and 42 points overall. For most of the match, however, it did not seem like this was going to be enough against an incredibly high-scoring, indeed hardly-ever-missing Hellenic side that went a stunning 65% from the floor in the first half. Most of the damage was done by German philhellene power forward Max Sternberg and point guard Nikos Bamiedakis who attacked the rim like a crazed Manu Ginobili. There were frequent lead changes in the first quarter, but at the end of the second, the Greeks were up by 16 and threatening to pull away.
It was testimony to the THC fighting spirit that they did not allow this to happen. Tammuz and Fernandez-Pacheco eventually got the numbers of Sternberg and Bamiedakis, respectively, and were beginning to wear them out. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Greek lead was down to 6, and, noisily supported by their faithful bench and WAGs, THC completed an epic comeback, capped by Edwards’ driving lay-up which tied the game at 62 apiece with 2 minutes to go. Even though he had gone a little quiet in the 4th, everyone thought the game’s fate would somehow end up in Big Shot Rich’s hands. The Greeks certainly did and made the fateful decision to double team him. This created some space – just enough for Tammuz to cut to the basket and execute his trademark reverse lay-up not once, but twice in the final 90 seconds, giving his team a two-point lead which they skillfully defended till the refs blew the final whistle. As confetti rained from the ceiling, the THC players donned their championship hats and cut down the nets on the second court of Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre. May Madness was over, a new legacy had begun.