Drew Charles’ mind began to race as UT Arlington’s first-round NIT matchup at BYU approached.
The guard was looking at a sickly Jorge Bilbao, who was suffering for a sixth day from a stomach virus and was unable to participate in the pregame shootaround. Charles wondered, “Could Kevin [Hervey] slide over and play the five?” or “Could [backup center] Link [Kabadyundi] step in and give us those extra minutes?”
He looked like death.
UTA guard Drew Charles on Jorge Bilbao before the BYU game
Bilbao, listed at 245 pounds, was down about 20 at the time due to severe dehydration that had taken him to three different doctors from DFW to Provo, Utah, from the time he started experiencing symptoms March 10 — right before the Mavericks’ Sun Belt quarterfinal win over Coastal Carolina.
He was pale, and after one to two minutes of activity as he tried to convince himself and his coaches that he could give it a go, he was panting.
“He looked like death,” Charles said.
But something else had happened against Coastal Carolina that Bilbao couldn’t get out of his mind. Fellow senior Jalen Jones was fouled hard at the rim on a meaningless three-point play with the game’s outcome already decided. Jones came down hard on his right hand and suffered a season-ending injury.
“As soon as [Jones] came out, I knew something was really wrong with his hand,” Bilbao said. “He was not able to finish his career the way he wanted; he didn’t get that choice. But as sick as I felt, I felt I still had one.
Even if I was going to play a bad game, or only at 50 percent, I still had the choice to go out there for what could be my last game in a UTA jersey.
UTA forward Jorge Bilbao
“Even if I was going to play a bad game, or only at 50 percent, I still had the choice to go out there for what could be my last game in a UTA jersey, and it gave me more motivation and maybe it gave the team a little more energy.”
So, of course, the ball came to him on the game’s first possession. Hervey won the opening tip, which Charles said “never happens.” Point guard Erick Neal got a ball screen and saw Bilbao with a little space on the left side of the lane. Instinctively, Neal got the ball to the open man, and Bilbao went up with his left hand.
Despite his frailty, it was the first of three field goals and eight points in 19 minutes for the forward, who coach Scott Cross called “the toughest player I’ve ever coached.” Bilbao endured short stints on the court, often ending up with his head between his knees on the bench, as he had been unable to keep much food or drink down for the previous five days.
“I’d say he was at best 50 percent at BYU, and there was nothing I could do to keep him out of the starting lineup that night,” Cross said. “I’m definitely not going to take that away from him if he feels any better at all for Akron.”
Bilbao said Saturday he would grade himself at 60-70 percent health. He was feeling better after a light weight-lifting session Friday had sent him back to the doctor for another round of IV fluids and prescriptions.
I’d say he was at best 50 percent at BYU, and there was nothing I could do to keep him out of the starting lineup that night.
UTA coach Scott Cross
Both Bilbao and Cross know, even down a few pounds, the senior is going to be a big part of the effort to contain Akron center Isaiah Johnson (6-10, 290). Bilbao, who could be playing at around 80 percent health, said he and the rest of the team will be playing for Jones on Monday. Tipoff at College Park Center is scheduled for 7 p.m. (ESPNU).
“Jorge is a great defender who’s going to fight his butt off. We’ve got 7-foot-1 in [Kabadyundi], who’s huge as well,” Cross said. “And then we have [6-5 forward Julian Harris], who’s really quick, so we have three very different guys that we can put on him at different times to maybe make it difficult. We’ll have to defend him as a team.”
No. 6 UTA (26-8) and No. 7 Akron (27-8) both advanced to the NIT’s second round with their efficient offenses. Akron gets it done by surrounding Johnson with four shooters and comes in averaging 77.2 points per game to the Mavericks’ 78.1.
Neither team is shy about hoisting the 3-pointer, either. Akron is tied for seventh in the nation with 10.2 3-pointers per game, while UTA averages 8.5 makes beyond the arc.
In Akron’s 78-75 first-round win at Houston, the region’s No. 2 seed, the Zips largely stuck to their blueprint with Johnson’s 21 points inside supplemented by nine 3-pointers.
“We’ve got two of the best offensive mid-major teams in the country colliding,” Cross said. “It should be a fun one to watch.”
And Bilbao’s teammates are certainly glad they’re on his side.
“If I was going to war, I’d want Jorge by my side,” Charles said. “We didn’t expect much from him against BYU but we knew he’d give it all he had. His heart, his passion for the game — I’ve never met anybody like him.”
Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817
UT Arlington men vs. Akron
7 p.m. Monday, ESPNU