The Men’s basketball Blues produced yet another impressive performance in heir 115-66 demolition of Warwick University.
Oxford headed into this crucial last-16 play-off game as heavy favourites: Warwick, although a squad with a strong reputation, play their regular season fixtures in a lower division of the BUCS league, so anything other than a home win here would have been an huge upset. Oxford now head into the quarter-finals, where sterner tests will surely await them.
Sure enough, the Blues began the contest at a lightning pace and never really stopped: their shooting was accurate, their defense was relentless and their breaks were fast and clinical. Captain Reed Doucette led his team by example, consistently getting open in the key with his excellent inside moves and cuts.
Oxford’s point guards were decisive in their distribution of the basketball, too; pass after pass opened gaping holes in Warwick’s tight zone defense, supplying plenty of unchallenged field goals for the Blues’ hot-handed shooters.
Stephen Danley was exceptional throughout the night, scoring baskets from all over the court. At times he nailed down ambitious 3-pointers, at others he drove to the hoop with unstoppable authority. His most spectacular moment came at the end of the first quarter: receiving the ball with 1.6 seconds left on the clock, the talented American heaved a buzzer-beating Hail Mary downcourt, straight into the basket: when you’re on fire, anything drops in. The Blues sideline erupted into cheers and high-fives: evidently, the whole team was massively pumped for this important game.
As the quarters wore on, Warwick’s resistance seemed to increase. After trailing 61-25 at halftime, their starting 5 re-emerged for a far more competitive third period. Warwick’s players were no untested amateurs, either. They played some efficient basketball, frequently engineering good shooting positions against a powerful Blues defense. Nonetheless, Oxford’s athletic, technical and tactical superiority was never in doubt: from the game’s very first points, the Blues’ domination was emphatic.
After the game, Warwick’s captain articulated his disappointment at losing by such a wide margin: ‘We gave our all, but against this type of opposition it simply wasn’t good enough. We boss our division, we’re the team to fear, but we’ve never faced a squad with this much talent before.’
Talent does coarse through the team: moments of incredible skill and athleticism are common fare for a club that prides itself on excellence. As Doucette later remarks, ‘We’re one of the top 4 teams in the country, no question.’
One instance of such exciting basketball was showcased by the team’s Lithuanian duo, Skomantas Pocius and Karolis Bauza: point guard Pocius produced a delightful, no-look behind-the-back pass that flew perfectly to the trailing Bauza- his swished shot completed an awesome play.
The Blues are strong on their bench, too: at the very least, there are few weak links in a squad that must be as strong as any of the country’s university basketball clubs.
Head coach Justin Hardin and his assistant Joel Harris prepare their team meticulously and intelligently; any courtside spectator can recognise the knowledge and experience with which Hardin coaches his players during a game- he reads defenses and configures adjustments faster than anyone else on the Blues’ sideline.
Coach Hardin speaks with great confidence, both about his players and about Oxford’s prospects of progressing in the tournament: ‘We played really well today; you just don’t know what to expect against a team you haven’t faced before. We’ll have a great chance in the final 8 if we keep up our intensity and make some minor improvements- fewer turnovers, taking the right shots at the right time. Just little things. This is a very talented team- I let them go out there and do their best.’
The final 8 teams will all meet in Sheffield in a few months time, where a British university champion will be crowned after 3 days of knock-out competition.
Last year, Oxford fell short of their own high-set targets: this year, says Doucette, they desperately want to go one step further- ‘We’ve been playing for this chance all season. With some fine tuning and tightening up, we’ve got a real chance. Our goal is the national championship.’
Based on displays such as this, Oxford’s basketball Blues might just achieve their lofty ambitions. Meanwhile, they still have the significant matter of Varsity to take care of. Cambridge are a much weaker team, on paper at least, but anything can happen in the one-off tie that settles this sport’s Oxbridge rivalry.
The team will face Cambridge here, at Iffley Road, on Sunday. What is for certain is that they will not enter the game complacent or without absolute focus. The Blues are assured, though, that their best performance should be enough to overpower the Tabs. Doucette makes the team’s attitude to Varsity explicitly clear: ‘We won’t take anything for granted; it’ll be a tough game for sure. But we still expect to smoke ‘em.’