In this hot matchup, everyone was a winner

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And there was nary a ball to be found.

By Steve Doyle

This was a scene worthy of every clichéyou’ve ever read. Every trite phrase to define tension, intensity and personal fortitude was pulsing through the atmosphere. Every syllable of coach-speak echoed silently from the corners.

Two teams confronted one another over the scant space of a yard or two, coaches tensely watching nearby, fans crammed into the standing-room-only swelter of a small venue.

It was halftime, and the team favored to prevail – based on the day’s performance if not some oddsmaker in Las Vegas – was leading by only a couple of points against a very talented group it was trying to defeat for a second time in just a few hours.

As the second half unfolded, the underdogs made a move, surging into the lead as the witnesses munched on their cuticles.

The favorites’ coach calmly called timeout to make a substitution, trying to find a spark, looking for an edge, hoping to stem the tide (couldn’t resist).

You can picture this. You’ve seen this before, maybe been at the precipice of your seat trying to generate body English that somehow would power your team, sending telepathic signals of encouragement and information you hoped would help. Sometimes you may even have prayed.

But this coach was not bowing a head or anything else, simply going to the bench in hopes that a different skill set would mesh into a new impetus for the final moments.

It worked, and the favorites overcame a 3-point deficit – without the availability of a 2-point conversion or a long-range basket, it should be said – to power back into the lead. Counterstrategy, however, was not going to die with the methodically downward tick of the clock on the wall.

With the team now trailing, the underdogs’ coach also called timeout. But instead of going to the bench or giving a pep talk, the coach went for relaxation, trying to draw tension out of the players’ bodies and minds with some stretching exercises, deep breaths and shoulder slaps.

Where was Cawood Ledford’s description when we needed it?

Now they returned face to face, these teams, ready for the final moments, one hoping to protect a slim lead, the other intent on stealing victory from, as it were, the jaws of defeat. Yes, the clichés were intense.

But this stunning story did not unfold. There was no Hoosiersfinish, no Miracle On Iceor anywhere else, no One Shining Momentfor the underdogs.

The team that had stormed unimpeded through the bracket led by a single point when the clock struck 0:00.

But even then there was no eruption in celebration.

Officials went to the monitor to verify the score, and when they were done, the champions’ margin had grown to two, the celebration a deep exhale of relief rather than  jumping jubilance.

Then the competitors lined up, as they should, for the firm exchange of handshakes, bumps, fists and fives, letting sportsmanship be the period at the end of this sentence.

You could apply this scenario to Kentucky’s scary ride against Vanderbilt or Louisville’s last-grasp triumph over Pitt, couldn’t you?

Maybe you Collins fans were a little scared at the end of the boys’ district final victory over Anderson County. Or perhaps some of you were pulling for the NBA West all-stars against the East (as if anyone really gave a hopper’s hind leg).

But this scene wasn’t even sports, as strictly defined, because there was no ball, no court, and athleticism had much less to do with the outcome than it would among marching bands.

We also anticipate – and certainly pray – that among the assembled stars there were no one-and-dones, no losers among all the winners. The sweat equity was no less well-invested.

Would you be surprised if I told you that the jam-packed and body-heated venue was an elementary school classroom rather than a gymnasium, stadium, court or diamond?

Would you be surprised if I said that the players were 10 or 11 years old, by and large, and that they wanted to win very, very badly?

Would you be surprised to know that practice, coaching and teamwork were reverenced as devoutly as if they were preparing for the Final Four, World Series or Super Bowl?

Would you be surprised if I told you this was the final of the Quick Recall aspect in the district Governor’s Cup competition among academic stars from some of the county’s elementary schools?
But that’s what it was, a heavy-stakes set-to at Southside Elementary, where the team from Simpsonville prevailed and moved along to the regional, which will be held in its friendly confines (to enact a Cawood-ism) on March 17.

Wow. Did this take me back and teach me a few lessons in a short amount of time.

Back to the days of the GE College Bowl. Back to rounds of Trivia Pursuit. Back to the play-alongs with Art Fleming and Alex Trebek on Jeopardy.

Back to a match of intellect and inanity against an opponent and a buzzer, lessons in life wedged neatly into the framework of the moment.

As we have reveled at successes in those competitions, I was no less impressed at the adroit management of information and the deft delivery of facts that these young competitors employed.

They had talent and skill that showed a command of fundamentals that are missing woefully in many corners of society, especially too often in those where height, weight, speed and coordination are the factors that determine success.

This taught me that our fascination with those accomplishments, however wonderful and entertaining, outweigh the development of our greatest “muscle,” that odd-shaped gray mechanism in our cranium.

This taught me that teams don’t necessarily need numbers and spotters and that coaches don’t have to scream to be heard.

And it also taught one more thing that no other event ever could accomplish:

I’m definitely not smarter than a fifth-grader.