By Mr. Tim Hipps (FMWRC)August 25, 2010
JOINT BASE FORT MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - Members of the All-Army men's basketball team nearly came to blows before they came together to win the silver medal at the 2010 Armed Forces Basketball Championships.
After losing four consecutive games by scores of 96-73 to All-Navy, 84-82 to All-Marine Corps in overtime, 68-66 to All-Air Force, and 80-49 to the Marines, the Soldiers were one game away from elimination and implosion.
"We were jawing and scratching to fight each other," said Sgt. Ron Bartley, 34, of Fort Lee, Va., a five-time All-Army guard who was named to the All-Armed Forces Team. "We were at wits' end. We had worked so hard and this was our home gym, and for us to be 0-4, I mean, we were ready to throw blows. ... We said everything we had to say, ate breakfast, and coach gave a speech that kind of put some tears in our eyes, and we said: 'What have we got to lose''"
"We went through every emotion imaginable," added Cpl. Llewellyn Smalley, 37, of Fort Meade, Md., who was named All-Tournament and All-Armed Forces. "At that point, we were extremely low. We were so quiet. We weren't communicating with each other. But our coaches kept having faith in us, kept having belief in us, kept telling us 'to just keep playing, it's going to click, it's going to click.' Coach [1st Sgt. Marcus] Hall and Coach Smith, they kept us together when things were about to fall apart."
The Armed Forces Tournament format, however, provided All-Army with two more chances to walk away as champions. The first three days of pool play determined the seeds for a double-elimination format that began on Thursday, when All-Army got thrashed by All-Marines.
All-Army head coach Capt. David Smith sensed that his team had enough talent to reach the finals if the Soldiers would come together.
"We just had to refocus and talk about being a family and making defense our number-one priority and it's not about any individual, it's about all 15 of us in that locker room," Smith said. "And if we believe in ourselves, no matter if anybody else does, we can do it. We had a turnaround where we looked each other in the face and said: 'We have to play with heart and we have to play defense.' And that's what we did."
Smith told his troops they had to do five things to win the championship: sweat, bleed, overcome conflict, fail and succeed.
"We did all of that in a very short period of time - about four days' worth," Smith said. "We had 12 guys that wherever they've been, they've been the man, and it's hard to mesh that sometimes."
Facing elimination on Friday, Smalley had 33 points and nine rebounds to lead All-Army to an 85-77 victory over All-Navy. CW2 Aaron Stuart of Fort Polk, La., had 14 points and seven rebounds. Bartley added 13 points and seven assists.
"We got that one win and it was like an avalanche, like a snowball effect," Smalley said. "We kept rolling, and bam, next thing you know we're in the championship game. We just played with nothing to lose. I still can't believe it."
Facing elimination again on Saturday, Smalley scored 27 points to lead All-Army to a 79-66 victory over All-Marine Corps. Pfc. Roy Binion of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, had 14 points and 16 rebounds. Second Lt. Paul Nelson of Taylor, Mich., added 14 points off the bench. Spc. Will Lewis of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., chipped in with 10 points and eight rebounds. Bartley tallied 11 points and seven assists.
In Sunday's championship game, All-Air Force soared to a 44-24 halftime lead on the strength of suffocating defense and a barrage of uncontested dunks. The Airmen clung to a 60-40 lead on 2nd Lt. Matt Holland's dunk with 12:46 remaining, but the Soldiers refused to back down.
"Our coaches and our players just believed in each other," Smalley said. "We knew it was going to be tough from Jump Street because Air Force is a really good team, they have a really good coach over there in John Bailey, and they're a very well-disciplined team. We didn't anticipate being down 20, but that's how it went, and we fought hard and fought back."
Binion's 3-pointer from the corner tied the score at 66 with 5:11 remaining, and Bartley's 3-pointer pulled All-Army to 70-69 with 3:42 left. And the Army-partisan crowd roared.
"I thought that we were going to pull it out," Smalley said. "I knew they were a mentally tough team and they weren't just going to roll over and hand it to us, but when we came back we had Mother Momentum and the house on our side as the underdog."
After committing two turnovers, Bartley followed his own missed shot with a layup that got All-Army within 76-73 with 1:12 remaining. All-Air Force Staff Sgt. Sedric Whitaker of Edwards Air Force Base, La., answered with a hook shot with 43 seconds left and the Sailors added three free throws to secure the gold.
"Coming back from down 20 with 10 minutes to go, that takes a lot out of you," Smith said. "Ron played his heart out and he was spent. The big fellow, Lewis, played his heart out, and Binion - they all laid it out on the floor and that got them back in it, but it was probably just a little too much. If we hadn't dug such a big hole, we probably would have been fine."
Senior Airman Jammar Major led All-Air Force with 20 points and nine rebounds. Holland added 15 points.
The Soldiers were proud to salvage silver from their frustrating week.
"We were down and out," Bartley said. "Nobody believed in us but us. It was just us against the world. For us to come out of that and win silver medals, you can't beat that. The guys came together and we preached that family thing. It was a case of blood, sweat and tears."
"At least we made it competitive," Smalley concluded. "We came up just a little bit short. I couldn't be more proud of this team."
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