MOUNT VERNON — Jack Taylor had his night, and lingering national fame because of it. It was six weeks ago, and it stood millions of sports fans on their ears.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James talked about it the next day. Jimmy Kimmel gave Taylor the business via Skype on his ABC talk-show the next night. Sports Illustrated featured the 5-foot-10 sophomore from Black River Falls, Wis., in its “Moments of 2012” issue.
On Nov. 20, Taylor scored 138 points for Grinnell in its 179-104 victory over Faith Baptist Bible College of Ankeny. That topped Bevo Francis’ NCAA 58-year-old NCAA mark by 25 points. Jack Taylor, a common name, became a bit of a household name.
But you can go from trending nationally on Twitter for a full day to being a face in the crowd of a hospital’s waiting room six weeks later. Wednesday night, Taylor’s dad, also named Jack Taylor drove his son from Cornell College in Mount Vernon to University Hospitals in Iowa City. Little Jack, as he is known in his family, had a radial fracture in his wrist. His basketball season is done.
But back in Cornell’s gym at the same time Taylor was on the road to the hospital? The Grinnell Pioneers had their night.
“This isn’t our best product,” 26-year-old Grinnell associate head coach Dave Arseneault said a few minutes before Wednesday’s game, “but we’ll give it a shot, anyway.”
That was with a healthy Taylor, who would have been averaging an NCAA-best 28.7 points per game even if you removed his night of 138. But it was without eight other players, six of whom were in Arseneault’s 15-player — yes, 15-player — rotation, and three of whom were among his top six scorers. It also was minus Grinnell’s three other coaches, including head coach David M. Arseneault, Dave’s dad.
The team was swamped by the flu, and those who were sick were kept off the bus from Grinnell to Mount Vernon and away from those who weren’t ill. Dave Arseneault, 26, has been the team’s de facto head coach for the last two seasons, so coaching wasn’t a concern. Being without so many ballplayers, though, was.
Especially in “The System,” which stresses shooting the ball every 12 seconds, using a full-court press (Grinnell is a darn good defensive team for one that allows over 102 points per game), firing 3-point shots by the dozens, and running, running, running. Substitutions are done in 5-player shifts every 30 or 35 seconds.
Grinnell entered this Midwest Conference game with a 5-2 league record and an overall mark of 8-3. It was averaging 122.5 points and allowing 102.7. Which didn’t make it much different than in most seasons since the elder Arseneault got to Grinnell almost a quarter-century ago.
But the team clearly wasn’t itself Wednesday. After jumping to an 11-2 lead, the Pioneers surrendered 10 straight points and then slipped further and further from the lead.
Then, with 6:02 left in the first half and his team down 45-34, Taylor’s season ended with a literal thud..
After driving for a contested shot, he took a spill. The weight of much of his 170-pound body landed on his right wrist. He writhed in pain on the court in moments that were difficult to watch. He eventually walked off the floor. He watched the rest of the first-half on the bench with his wrist wrapped with ice. His overall demeanor was as down as you might expect, but he did show one moment of happiness shortly before halftime.
The stunned Pioneers went from 11 to 21 points down in Taylor’s absence, but they rallied in the final two minutes of the half to shave the deficit to 12. And Taylor’s left arm shot in the air when a teammate hit a shot to help with the whittling of Cornell’s lead.
“It’s easy for people to say Jack’s selfish,” Arseneault said, “but he’s the ultimate team guy.”
“I kicked him out at halftime. I told him to get some X-rays.”
While Taylor left with his father for Iowa City, Arseneault was left to worry about the health of his healthy players. He didn’t have the depth or the talent to play go-go-go-go ball for another 20 minutes, or so he thought.
“We talked at halftime about maybe pulling the plug on our system,” Arseneault said. “We didn’t want to risk injury for any our guys. I know it’s meant to be played with 15 guys, and we only had 13 in uniform. And a couple of them at the end — not that they’re not nice kids, but they’re just not that great at basketball.
“I decided to give the guys five minutes. They earned at least a five-minute stretch to really just get after it, see if we could cut the lead in half from 12 to six. Sure enough, they did. So then we’ll give them another five-minute stretch. And all of a sudden, they’re in a one-possession game.
The game stayed tight for the final 10 minutes. Cornell’s players, though commiting 32 turnovers (Grinnell forces 33 per game), seemed to enjoy the racehorse style and had lots of answers when the Pioneers threatened to wrest the lead.
Senior Griffin Lentsch made two free throws for the last of his 48 points to give Grinnell a 117-115 lead with 15.8 seconds left, but Cornell’s Alex Miller hit two foul shots of his own nine seconds later to re-tie the game.
Grinnell called time and set up a play for Lentsch, who scored 89 points in a November 2011 game for the then-NCAA Division III record. But sophomore Luke Yeager of Westport, Conn., handled matters himself.
“After I got the inbounds pass, I kind of saw that Cornell’s defense was a little unorganized,” Yeager said. “After I went around the first guy there wasn’t really anyone stepping up, so I just thought going for it would be a better shot.”
Yeager zipped all the way down court, cut through an uncluttered foul lane, and flipped the ball over the front of the rim and through the net with 1.7 seconds left. Cornell’s final fling fell nowhere near the basket, and the Pioneers had a 119-117 victory that was unorthodox even for them.
Grinnell’s players mobbed each on the court, hollered all the way down the steps to their dressing room in the basement of the Cornell gym, and pounded on some lockers in joy. Arseneault stood alone outside that room for a few moments, looking overwhelmed by the moment. But he found some fitting words once he rejoined his guys.
“As incredible as that last play was and as good as it was,” he told his team, “it wasn’t as good as your collective effort for the full 20 minutes of that second-half. Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
“We knew coming in, being short-handed,” he said later, “we’d have to come up with something spectacular.”
Yeager had a 10.3-point average. He scored 35, the last two of which he’ll probably remember as long as Taylor recalls the night he dropped in 138.
“We just never backed down,” Yeager said.
On the 85-mile bus ride back to Grinnell Wednesday, the sobering realization they would play on without Taylor probably hit the Pioneers.
“It will certainly be a big loss for us,” Arseneault said. “But as you saw tonight, we have some special kids who will be willing to step up.”
Still, the Pioneers can wish something they never thought they would: That Jack Taylor would have come down with the flu before a ballgame.