Bobby Hurley knows something about putting the offense into the uncertain hands of a freshman, so he wasn’t about to panic early in the second half Saturday. Rewind the clock nearly a quarter century when Mike Krzyzewski handed him the keys to the Duke attack on his first day of practice in 1989.
You might say that worked out.
Hurley guided the Blue Devils to the Final Four three times in his four seasons and won two national championships. Twenty-one years after he graduated, he still holds the NCAA record for career assists. He’s considered one of the best, if not the best, point guards in the history of college basketball.
It wasn’t as if Hurley was throwing freshman Shannon Evans into the Final Four and hoping for the best Saturday. UB was having trouble breaking down St. Bonaventure’s defense when senior Jarod Oldham dragged himself to the bench with his fourth foul less than two minutes into the second half.
Evans didn’t just check into the game. He checked into his career in Buffalo. Three years from now, the 6-foot-1 guard and his coach may look back at the St. Bonaventure game as their unofficial starting point. His performance proved he belonged and was certain to go a long way in gaining confidence from his coach.
“I encourage him to be a playmaker,” Hurley said. “He’s a playmaker on both ends of the floor. He’s got such an electric personality. People like watching him play. He excites his teammates. He plays with great passion. When he’s doing that, we’re a better team. Shannon is going to be on the floor, Jarod’s foul issues aside.”
Evans showed, in the sixth game of his career, that he was capable of running the operation if necessary. He was fearless but smart with his shot selection. He kept his composure against a good defender in Charlon Kloof and made intelligent decisions. Evans was resourceful in his 24 minutes and didn’t have a turnover in the second half.
He scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half and led UB to a 78-73 victory over Bona in Alumni Arena. For a while, it was shaping into a battle between him and Kloof, a senior who took command of his offense with senior guard Matthew Wright on the bench with an ankle injury.
The freshman scored 12 points in one seven-minute stretch to keep the Bulls in the game at a time in which the Bonnies threatened to pull away. He showed up while Oldham watched helplessly from the bench. He led when Javon McCrea struggled to get involved in the offense. He emerged after Will Regan fell mostly silent.
UB didn’t just win with him. It won because of him.
Hurley could sense the performance was coming. Evans was shaky while making three of the first 17 shots of his career in the first three games. He played better in a win over Robert Morris and had 13 points in the victory over Delaware State. But he had never been given the responsibility of running the offense in a tight game.
You never know how a player will respond until he does. If anyone understood as much, it was Hurley. They’re different people with different styles and personalities, but they’re connected by the position. Both were new on campus. Evans spent much of his first semester picking the brain from a mastermind.
“I go into his office a lot,” Evans said. “He tells me about how he played against Michael Jordan and the Dream Team, the things he went through at Duke and all the adversity he faced. This isn’t as big. He was at Duke, and I’m here. But I still face some of the same things he did. He’s guiding me through this and making it easier for me.”
Evans made it look easy Saturday.
He gained confidence with each possession while Oldham was on the bench. Of course, it always helps to make a few shots. Evans made a three-pointer midway through the half to bring UB within a bucket. He came with a reverse lay-up, and he buried another from long range to tie the game, 69-69.
The better he played, the more time he bought UB. Kloof was prepared to take over for Bona when he made a three-pointer with 3½ minutes left, but Evans reassured UB when he answered with one from the top of the key. It was the third of four consecutive long-range bombs UB converted, the other three from along the baseline, to pull away.
Evans fouled out with 30 seconds left. By then, Oldham had returned. The senior made four critical free throws down the stretch, but Evans made the difference.
“He does it at both ends of the court, and he’s been doing it since Day One,” Hurley said. “I trust him. He’s going to be a great player in this program. He’s had two great games, back-to-back, for us. Jarod getting his fourth foul early in the second half put Shannon in a position where he needed to have a great second half. And he delivered.”
You would think Evans, who was recruited by former coach Reggie Witherspoon, had a stroke of luck when Hurley arrived. It was an opportunity to learn from the best. Evans considered leaving when Witherspoon was fired because he worried that Hurley would bring his own players. Hurley flew to Virginia to meet Evans and his father.
Hurley refused to make any promises he couldn’t keep. He told Evans he would get a fair shake but would need to earn his playing time. It was all Evans wanted. Rather than leave for Appalachian State or Tennessee State, both of which were offering him scholarships, he decided he would remain at UB.
“He didn’t hand me anything,” Evans said. “He told me straightforward I would have to work for everything I have. That made me want to come more.”
Evans spent much of his first semester sitting in Hurley’s office and picking the brain of a mastermind. The two are building a bond for the coming years. If Hurley is going to be successful in Buffalo, he’ll need Evans to become an extension of him on the floor. Saturday could be the start of a special relationship, like Hurley had with Coach K.
It should work out.