On Saturday morning, Chris Sheehan, whom you surely have never heard of, dropped by Coach Kohn Smith's office to find out exactly what it was he needed to do to earn some playing time. He had, after all, been killing time on the end of Utah State's bench for most of the season - and most of last season, for that matter.
Little did Sheehan know that he would get his big break later that night. In a heated battle with previously unbeaten UC-Santa Barbara, it was none other than Sheehan - the man with the .3 scoring average - who delivered the knockout blows.After trailing by as many as 19 points in the first half, the Gauchos cut the Aggies' lead to under 10 points several times late in the game, but they could never get any closer. Sheehan calmly sank four free throws in as many tries and buried a hurried three-point shot under pressure, all in the final five minutes of play, to help USU upset Santa Barbara 78-65.
"Chris is going to get some minutes now, I'll tell you that," said Smith after the game.
Sheehan was an unlikely hero on an unlikely night. Who could have foreseen the way USU would handle Santa Barbara? The Aggies were 4-9 and 2-2 in league games and suffering from terminal butter fingers; the Gauchos were 11-0 and about to secure a national ranking (21st in the CNN poll).
And then the Aggies stuffed old UC-Skateboard. They shot 50 percent from the field, harrassed the Gauchos into 34 percent shooting, and, what's more, finally took care of the ball (15 turnovers, compared to their usual 22).
Reid Newey, the streak shooting senior guard, scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half, then suffered through the predictable cold spell in the second half before delivering a clutch three-pointer late in the game. At the other end of the court he limited Carrick DeHart to 13 points - 7 under his average - most of them in the second half (10).
"I'd like to have Reid Newey," said UCSB coach Jerry Pimm. "He's my kind of player."
And what about forward Darrel White? He had 18 points, hitting 6 of 8 from the field. And then there was swingman Scooter Grant, who had 13 points and 9 boards.
Still, the Man of the Hour was Sheehan, whose playing time has been so nil this year that fans have wildly cheered his rare appearances on the court. Before Saturday's game, Sheehan had played a grand total of 14 minutes in 13 games - and didn't play a single minute in three of the four conference games. His season totals: 2 points, 3 rebounds.
"When I talked to Coach Smith this morning he said I need to work on my ballhandling," said Sheehan. Which is understandable. Sheehan, 6-foot-5, was a center in high school. In college he has moved to guard, where he has been stuck behind Newey.
And that's where he was when Saturday's game began. Newey hit three three-pointers to help USU take a quick 19-4 lead. That lead eventually grew to 36-17 late in the half, which, with USU's guards in foul trouble, allowed Smith to make an unusual move: He sent Sheehan into the game - the first time he has seen action in the first half during his collegiate career. Sheehan did little but pass the ball, and at halftime USU led 44-29.
The Gauchos made several runs at the Aggies before finally cutting their lead to 53-45 with 9 minutes remaining. But USU ran off seven straight points, three of them on a three-pointer from Newey. The Gauchos made another run to close within 10.
Enter Sheehan, again. Albert Chappel and Kendall Youngblood fouled out, and Sheehan got the call, knowing exactly where things stood. "I knew I had to make the best of this chance," he said.
With 4:51 remaining and the score 60-50, Sheehan stepped to the foul line and swished two foul shots. And again, with the score 66-55 and 2:54 remaining, Sheehan buried two more foul shots. And finally, with 2:04 remaining, time running out on the shot clock and USU's lead cut to 10 again, he swished a long (28 feet, officially) three-point shot.
"I know I was pretty deep," he would say. "I practice three-point shots, but not from that far out."
"To see him go in and have that kind of success is one of the great things that can happen to a coach," said Smith.
The other is USU's turnaround. Saturday's game marked the fourth consecutive time that USU has beaten UCSB. More significantly, since its 1-6 start, USU has won four of its last seven games. The Ags are on the move, and they've found some new help on the bench.