Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Belgian Twaffle

Kristof Ongenaet's coast-to-coast 3 point play was a momentum changer and possibly season saver.

If you didn't watch the above play or haven't watched the Syracuse this year you can't possibly understand the utter absurdity that the above photographs represent. Hanging on that rim is Belgian native and JuCo transfer Kristof Ongenaet. He of the 5 second set shot, the floor presence of a Madame Tussaud exhibit and the incomporable EuroHawk hairdo he kicks (it's like a tapered mullet in the rear cut tight on the sides with a texture that seems to lack treatment of shower product). Prior to 3 weeks ago, Ongenaet, while not a liability, didn't exactly add much to the team on either end of the floor other than a warm body and 5 fouls to give on a team that desperately needed both. In that capacity, Ongenaet was a genius. He didn't turn the ball over and he was always good for a hard foul here and there. Lately something has different has been happening.

Ongenaet had a double-double at halftime of the Seton Hall game and has grabbed 8+ boards and played 30+ minutes in almost every game down the stretch. He also gets the 2-3 zone. He is, arguably, the most consistent defender on the wing of the zone only rarely getting out of position. He is versatile enough to scare the deep threat and strong enough to defend the post. On offense he never holds the ball for longer than 2 seconds and is neither a threat to drive or shoot but he is ALWAYS moving. He occupies a defender (or two) and is really the only player who understands the soft spots in zones. Plus he kills the offensive glass. He's either tapping the ball out (or in) or grabbing an extra board in a key spot. He easily leads the team in aggressive / hustle fouls. In terms of basketball smarts, Ongenaet is light years ahead of most of his inexperienced teammates. That's why it was so frustrating to watch him play. You put his brain (and guts) in Donte Greene's body and you have the best player in the game.

For all of these great qualities, Ongenaet doesn't have the confidence to do much with his unique skillset. He can pass and he can drive and he can shoot and he can dunk, he just doesn't. And really, he doesn't even try. In Ongenaet's defense, Syracuse has enough offensive bravado to spare. He's a grinder and in that role he has probably exceeded expectations. Ongenaet is neither asked to nor is he required to provide a spark. But holy shit did he provide a spark on Saturday.

With Marquette making a run early in the second half of Saturday afternoon's game, Ongenaet got loose for the business end of an alley-oop in the halfcourt set. A showing of athleticism so out of character that I literally fell out of my seat at the bar (I was a few deep). But what happened next was the play of the year for Syracuse basketball and perhaps the spark they need to get themselves into the tournament.

With the crowd still buzzing from The Twaffle's alley-oop throwdown, Marquette quickly moved up the floor to try and catch 'Cuse snoozing. As his nature, Ongenaet was already back on D having beaten just about everyone back into position. Marquette's Lazar Hayward was flying towards the hoop when Ongenaet wrenched the ball right from his hands and started up the floor the other way. He quickly crossed over at mid-court and now there was no one between he and the hoop. But Hayward was not going to let this fly. As Ongenaet approached the lane, Hayward was right on his hip pocket and in decent position to deny the shit out of the lanky Belgian as he try and meekly lay the ball on the glass. That's when the unthinkable happened. Ongenaet was flying at the rim with reckless abandon. He rose, and rose and with Marquette's Hayward sharing the same breath, he throws down a two-handed jam while getting violently hacked from behind. His fingers grasp the rim for as long as he can must but with the shared momentum of his acceleration and the added shove of Hayward are too much and he goes flying under the rim in an awkward tumble and smacks his nose on the floor, blood everywhere. The Dome erupts. The bar is in a frenzy. Most of the people in the bar aren't even really watching the game and certainly weren't 'Cuse fans (most were early arrivals for the Duke - N.C. game) but they are screaming at the top of their lungs as the replay rolls across the screen over and over again. It was outstanding.

After that play, Marquette didn't stand a chance. They never came closer than 8 the rest of the way. The team seemed to have a new swagger and the players seemed inspired by the guts of their Euro Grinder. Their reaction was the same as ours: Where did that come from? The kid has never shown that type of athleticism and maybe he doesn't really possess it but he did at that moment and it changed the game and perhaps the season. It's not too often you get to say that about a play or a player. But the Twaffle had that moment and given his drive and his rising confidence, here's hoping he's got more in him.

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