When Tiffin University's men's basketball team defeated Findlay Thursday night, it certainly qualified as an upset. When Karl Finley hit two 3's in the span of 28 seconds Saturday to beat No. 23 Hillsdale, that too, was jolting.
But it wasn't a shock. Despite the Dragons' sub-.500 record, and despite the fact that Findlay and Hillsdale are two of the best teams in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Tiffin has shown an ability to play with just about any team it faces.
Put it this way: Did I expect Tiffin to win those games? No. But was I almost numb leaving the arena, half convinced it was a dream?
No. That happened two years ago.
It was the last week of February, 2010. Tiffin was closing its season - coach John Hill's first - by hosting Findlay, which at that time was the defending national champion. While not quite as good as they had been the year before (when they went undefeated), the Oilers still were among the country's best, with a 20-6 record.
The Dragons came into the finale 2-24. While Tiffin had played some close games that year, it was ripped in Findlay earlier that season by 25 points. TU had won only one conference game in 2009-'10, and only one the year before. In its last three games with Findlay, TU had been outscored by 97 points.
A couple things about the 2010 finale with Findlay: Earlier that week I had invited my parents, my brother and my sister-in-law to the game, thinking they might be interested in seeing the defending national champions. Plus, they could see how I'd spent almost every winter Saturday for the past six years.
My family turned down the offer. I was disappointed, but figured the game would be a blowout, so I couldn't blame them.
OK, "figured" is not the right word. I was certain the Oilers would have the game won by halftime, I could write up a quick recap, throw in some quotes and head back to the office.
My friend and then co-worker Mike Genet and I even agreed the game wasn't worth shooting. We had a photographer at the Gillmor Center for the women's game, which was before the men's game.
There's another part to this story. A few blocks away from the Gillmor Center, Mike was covering a Seneca East at Calvert boys basketball game. Calvert was (and still is) coached by Ted Willman, a Tiffin University graduate.
When the men's game tipped off, it didn't really seem like a Dragons' home game. TU had a nice crowd on hand, but Findlay traveled well, and its fans made plenty of noise.
Tiffin's team two years ago was not exactly like the team now talent-wise. There was no Finley or Joe Graessle, current TU players who could start on any GLIAC team. The 2010 Dragons had two talented juniors left over from the Rodney Martin era in Brian Scott, a quick, strong outside shooting guard who stands 5-foot-6, and Rafael Cuellar, a gritty post player who would go on to play football for TU last fall. Three players - Keenan Barlow, Brandon Harris and Travis Spahr - played that day and are still in the program.
The game started how everyone expected. Findlay jumped out to leads of 10-3, 13-5 and 19-11 and 24-16.
I was already planning the "Oilers too much for Dragons" story when Tiffin started to make some plays.
Spahr - who joined the team in the middle of the season and hadn't really shown what he could do yet - scored all of TU's points on a 8-1 run that brought the Dragons within a point of Findlay.
The TU fans started to get excited. I figured this was a nice burst that the Oilers would eventually get through on their way to winning by 20. But in my in-game blog, I did note that in seven years in the business "no score surprises me as much as this one."
And then something strange happened: The Dragons took the lead and held it for the rest of the half. Harris had a dunk right before the break that put Tiffin up five. The Dragon fans were delirious. And it was starting to hit all the so called "realists" like myself that this game - and my story - might not go according to plan.
The second half came, but Tiffin didn't fade. Instead, behind Scott, who had the game of his life, it appeared to only get stronger. Scott hit a 3 to put the Dragons up eight with 13 minutes left. It was around this time that I called Mike.
"Mike," I said, "something's going on here."
Mike relayed that information to Willman during their postgame interview. Calvert had just beaten Seneca East. Willman finished the interview and bolted for the Gillmor Center.
It wasn't until Spahr hit a pair of free throws to put Tiffin up 14 with 7 1/2 minutes left that I allowed myself to think the Dragons might just pull this off. And if they did, how on earth do I start the story?
I had just thought of my "In an interesting turn of events, hell froze over Saturday" opening when Findlay unleashed reality. A 16-2 run over the next five minutes that tied the game at 61.
Thanks to a layup from Scott, who finished with 27 points, TU was able to get the game to overtime.
The Dragons kept pushing, despite losing three players to foul outs, and despite Findlay shooting 23 more free throws.
In the final seconds of overtime, down a point, TU's Austin Smith missed a 3. The game, the upset bid, the season - it all ended.
I interviewed then-Findlay coach Ron Niekamp, who talked about "escaping with our skins intact."
In his interview, Hill was remarkably composed. A few minutes earlier, he had told a reserve "these are the three biggest minutes of your life right here."
I talked to Willman, who arrived late in the second half. I wondered how I could sum all this up.
Walking out of the building, all was quiet. I grabbed my cell and called my parents.
"Remember when I told you this would be a blowout?"
Tiffin lost, and yet, things had changed.
Findlay and Tiffin may be only about 26 miles apart, but for several years, their men's basketball teams had existed on different planets. On that day, though, Tiffin played like it does now. It can beat anyone.
There was, of course, the chance that what happened that day was all a fluke.
Then TU lost in overtime to Findlay again last season.
And then Thursday. Maybe some wondered why the Dragons stormed the court after a regular season win and why many of their fans joined in.
But anyone at that game two years ago would have to understand.
For Hill's players, Thursday wasn't about one game. It was a step in a journey that guys like Barlow, Spahr and Harris have been on, and have stayed on, even when many of their teammates weren't able to.
For those three, all seniors, the first glimmer of hope came two years ago.
With Tiffin's last two games, hope has come closer and closer to reality.