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Sunday, January 22,2012

'Shaq of the MAC' returns to grateful alma mater

By Adam Flango
Photo Credits: Photo by Alex Goodlett/Ohio University Athletic Department
Photo Caption: Gary Trent signs a autograph for a fan Jan. 21 before the Miami basketball game in the Convocation Center.

Hand-written signs showed in storefronts on ice-covered Court Street. "Welcome Back Gary Trent!" one read. "Thank You, Gary. The 'Shaq of the MAC'," another said. They were preparing for the return of maybe Ohio University's greatest basketball player ever.

With less than an hour before tip-off in the annual Battle of the Bricks rivalry between Ohio and hated rival Miami, Trent, 37, entered the press conference room clad in a gray, lightly pinstriped suit with a white shirt and purple and black-striped tie.

He had to look good. After all, it was the day he would be recognized for all he contributed to Ohio University during his three years in Athens. All the points, the rebounds, the trash talking and, most importantly for Trent, the wins will be remembered every time someone looks high up in the rafters of the Convo and sees Trent's No. 20 jersey.

During his career at OU in the early '90s, Trent totaled 2,108 points and 1,050 rebounds. According to the university, he's the only basketball player in MAC history to be voted Player of the Year his first three years.

"I'm usually not a person that's at a loss for words, but I'm honored that the university would give me this honor," Trent said during Saturday's press conference. "I never really thought about getting my jersey retired or anything of that nature; I just wanted to compete, win."

It was an honest, humble message from a player whose game was marked by brash intimidation throughout his college career. It was also a message that Trent imparted to the Bobcats when he spoke with the team before Saturday's game against Miami.

The message hit home.

The Bobcats (15-4, 3-2 MAC) overcame a sharp-shooting Miami squad in front of a sold-out crowd that did not have any Miami red in sight. The Bobcats won 69-65. They didn't shoot particularly well from the field, they were not getting lucky bounces, and Miami could not seem to miss in the first half, especially from three.

But the Bobcats never wavered in their hustle or effort. It would have been easy to get frustrated and maybe take a few plays off.

But for every one of the 40 minutes, they competed, just like Trent did during his time at Ohio.

"He's just a phenomenal speaker and really motivated us with his speech," said junior forward Ivo Baltic. Baltic led the team with 20 points and, combined with fellow big man Reggie Keely, delivered a performance for Trent to be proud of.

After a first half in which the Bobcats managed to shoot only 2-10 from three-point range, Ohio made a concerted effort to attack the rim with their bigs. Baltic and Keely combined for 31 points, many of which came against Miami's Julian Mavunga, the leading scorer in the MAC. Baltic, in particular, was much too quick for Mavunga, who seemed much more interested in scoring than defending the paint.

Keely, meanwhile, ignited the crowd with a whopping four three-point play opportunities, converting three of the four free throws.

But when Ohio was down eight with just over four minutes left, the team looked to its leader, D.J. Cooper. Up until that point, Cooper hadn't made a shot. That didn't stop the team's leading scorer from hitting a tough runner in the lane, followed by a three-pointer in the face of a RedHawk.

A Walter Offutt steal and layup put the Bobcats up for good.

The win showed exactly the kind of competitive drive that can carry Ohio to a MAC championship.

And it was the kind of drive that fueled Gary Trent, a drive that is still very much inside Trent, who now works as an intervention specialist in a St. Paul area elementary school. (He spent nine years in the NBA after being drafted 11th in the 1995 draft, ending up with the Minnesota Timberwolves before his bad knees led to an early retirement.)

After his jersey was retired at halftime, Trent addressed the crowd. He politely thanked all the people he needed to. But he couldn't resist one more chance to inject his competitive, trash-talking spirit.

"Hey O-Zone," he said. "Let's finish kicking Miami's ass."

Mission accomplished.

Editor's note: The Columbus Dispatch carried a lengthy feature on Trent's career in Saturday's issue, telling his story from his troubled youth, to playing at OU, and into the NBA.


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