2003-04 Season Not What The Golden Grizzlies Expected

Going into the 2003-04 season all of the indicators seemed to point in the direction of success for Oakland’s men’s basketball team. The squad was returning all of its starters from a 17-win team the year before, three all-Mid-Continent Conference players and was the overwhelming choice to win the conference title and make its first trip to the NCAA Tournament. But somewhere along the way the Golden Grizzly express was derailed.

Mike Helms finished among the nation's leading scorers for a second straight year.

Senior Mike Helms returned for his final season as Oakland’s first Division I men’s basketball All-American and the nation’s leading returning scorer, but it was offense that proved to be one of the team’s troubles as Oakland struggled with its shooting percentages all season long. The result was a disappointing 13-17 record and a 6-10 mark in the Mid-Con, good for a tie for seventh place in the final conference standings.

Things started on a positive note for Oakland as it started the season at the prestigious Dell BCA Classic tournament hosted by Xavier University. In a field of eight strong mid-major programs that had produced five post season teams the previous season, Oakland kicked off its year with an impressive second place finish.

Helms got things started by picking up where he left off from his junior season as he scored 31 points in the Golden Grizzlies’ opening 93-68 win over San Diego. In a meeting of the two preseason picks in the Mid-Con and Horizon leagues, OU came out on top as Helms led the way again with 27 points in a 79-66 win over Illinois-Chicago that put the Golden Grizzlies in the championship game. Playing against host Xavier on the Musketeer’s home court, Oakland had the game tied at the half before falling 76-66. Helms, who averaged over 24 points during the three games was named to the all-tournament team.

A highlight going into the season was the schedule, which featured five opponents in the non-conference portion that were from major conferences, including a home contest with Missouri. The first of those games was a contest at Michigan, and with the Wolverines playing their first game and OU having three under its belt, hopes were high that the Golden Grizzlies could pull off their second upset against the team from Ann Arbor. Instead signs of the team’s shooting woes cropped up as Oakland shot only 34 percent and fell to Michigan 84-58.

With the offense suddenly struggling, Oakland wound up dropping five straight, including back-to-back games against nationally ranked Cincinnati and Missouri. The game against the Tigers was the home opener for OU. In front of a sold-out, record crowd, the Golden Grizzlies gave then fifth ranked Mizzou all it could handle before falling 90-85. Rawle Marshall led Oakland with 27 points and the Golden Grizzlies were within a point in the final minutes, but the Tigers sank five of six free throws in the final minute to escape with the win.

Rawle Marshall earned All-Mid-Con honors in 2003-04, finishing among the league leaders in four categories.

Facing another Big XII team, Texas A&M, in its next home game, Oakland snapped out of its funk for a resounding 90-58 win over the Aggies behind Marshall’s 21 points. It was the largest margin of victory ever for Oakland against a Division I team and its first win against a Big XII team. Ten different players scored for OU in the contest, led my Marshall's 21 points, as the Golden Grizzlies shot 59 percent in one of their biggest wins of the season.

That win propelled Oakland on a four-game win streak that pushed it back over the .500 mark and included the first road win of the season. The Golden Grizzlies got wins over former GLIAC foes Northern Michigan and Saginaw Valley State in its next two outings, with Helms netting 32 against the Wildcats and Cortney Scott coming up with a career performance of 36 points and 21 rebounds in the win over the Cardinals, earning him Mid-Con Player of the Week honors.

After picking up its first road win at Youngstown State, Oakland traveled to Memphis for its final tune-up before the start of Mid-Con play. Once again it was close but no cigar against a team from a major conference. Much like the Missouri game, Oakland found itself in a two-point game in the final minute only to see the Tigers hit free throws down the stretch to seal the win.

With the pre-conference portion of the schedule behind them, Oakland began its quest to take home a Mid-Con title with a home game against one of its top rivals, Valparaiso. Unfortunately for the Golden Grizzlies, problems at the free throw line cropped up against the Crusaders. Leading most of the game, Oakland missed 11 freebies in the second half, allowing Valpo to get back in the game. With the game tied in the final minute Valpo escaped with a 79-76 win by hitting four free throws and watching as Helms’ three-point shot at the buzzer fell short.

The close loss to Valpo started a streak of five straight games that all came down to the final minute. In the next outing Marshall hit a trey at the buzzer at Western Illinois to lift Oakland to the win, 74-73, but in the next five games, two of which were overtime affairs, it was the Golden Grizzlies who came up short, losing the four of the games by a combined eight points.

A highlight during this stretch of the season was Helms’ game at Centenary. Despite OU losing the contest, Helms had one of his best nights of the season on the Gents home court, pouring in 39 points and setting a school and Gold Dome record by hitting 20 of 21 attempts from the free throw line.

Oakland broke the streak of losses and close games with an 82-67 win over UMKC, but then saw a come from behind attempt at Valpo fall just short despite 29 points from Helms as OU started the second swing through the conference schedule with a 77-72 loss.

Oakland avenged its earlier loss to Chicago State in front of a regional TV audience in the O’Rena, getting 23 points from Marshall and 21 from Helms to down the Cougars 77-60.

Kelly Williams had a solid senior season, setting a new season-high in points.

Playing away from home still proved to be troublesome for the Golden Grizzlies, as the team dropped both ends of a road trip to Southern Utah and UMKC. Coming home to face Centenary, Oakland turned up the defensive heat against the Gents, coming up with 17 steals in a 76-64 win.

Finally it was Oakland’s turn to get one of the close ones, as the Golden Grizzlies scored a 76-73 upset win at IUPUI in their next outing. Helms had 23 points and OU held the Jaguars to just 38 percent shooting to walk away with its second conference road win of the season. Oakland then moved on to Oral Roberts for its second Mid-Con TV game of the season and held a 10-point lead late in the second half. Unfortunately it was Oral Roberts that go hot in the final minutes, as the Golden Eagles pulled out an 84-75 win.

Oakland moved out of conference in its next game, getting an 88-77 win over IPFW that saw Marshall become the 22nd OU player to reach the 1,000-point plateau. The Golden Grizzlies finished off the season with an 88-59 win over Western Illinois, giving OU four wins in its final five games, but with the Southern Utah taking both games from OU during the regular season, Oakland went into the Mid-Con Tournament as the No. 8 seed with a date against top seeded Valparaiso.

Coming into the tournament on a bit of a roll, Oakland had primed itself to gain its first win at the Mid-Con tourney, but poor shooting came back to haunt the Golden Grizzlies one last time as the Crusaders broke open a close game in the second half to take a 73-64 win and end the OU season.

Helms finished the season with a 23.2 scoring average, again landing him in the top-10 of the nation and earning him first team All-Mid-Con honors for a third straight season. He wound up his career with 2,314 points, second in both the Oakland and Mid-Con record books. He also finished as OU’s all-time leader in free throws and free throw attempts as well as finishing among the school’s leaders in three-point shooting and steals.

Marshall, who scored his 1,000th point during the season, again finished among the league leaders in scoring, steals and blocked shots and earned second team all-conference accolades.

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