SpaceCam has arrived says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to inform you that Space Cam has landed on earth and is now ruling the planet.

At first glance, Cameron Oliver appears to be one of us. The friendly smile. The soft voice. The boyish charm and Hollywood good looks. He seems to be just like any other mild-mannered 6-foot-8 college basketball power forward. But then he picks up a basketball, the arena lights are turned on, the crowd filters in and, well, it is obvious he has super powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals.

It is at that precise moment that you realize that his kind has never before been seen in Nevada. Faster than a speeding point guard. More powerful than a muscle-bound center. Able to leap tall forwards in a single bound. Space Cam has been sent here from the planet Dunktron to fight a never-ending battle for Mountain West championships and NCAA tournament berths.

“I just hoop,” the Nevada Wolf Pack sophomore said last Saturday after a Mountain West regular season title-clinching 85-72 win over the Colorado State Rams at Lawlor Events Center. “All I do is hoop and win games.”

He modestly forgot to mention that he can also bend opposing centers in his bare hands and, oh yeah, a crowd of 11,662 last Saturday night witnessed him change the course of an entire college basketball program.

What Oliver did to Colorado State at Lawlor Events Center should make the Fort Collins, Colo., university change the name of its mascot from Cam the Ram to Little Bo Peep’s Sheep. There was only one Cam the Ram at Lawlor Events Center last Saturday and while he didn’t sport a cape, he was wearing a Wolf Pack uniform with white tights under his white shorts.

“He has another gear,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said.

Oliver showed us gears against Colorado State on Saturday that not even Indy cars can offer. With a Mountain West title on the line, going head to head against a young man (the Rams’ Emmanuel Omogbo) that was supposed to be his equal his size, strength and tenacity, Oliver turned into an honest-to-goodness Super Hero. His powers were on display from the opening tip-off through the 45-minute celebration after the game when he jumped up on the scorer’s table and let the nearly 12,000 in attendance shower him with love.

He scored eight of the Pack’s first 11 points as Colorado State jumped out to a 19-11 lead. “He carried us early in the game,” Musselman said. “We rode him in the first half.”

And Oliver rode his teammates.

“Cam was on his teammates for the first time in a while,” Musselman said. “He was telling them, ‘Come on. You’ve got to step up.’”

It was just his way to telling them to follow his lead and jump on his back.

Oliver’s 3-pointer cut Colorado State’s lead to 27-23 with 7:27 to go in the first half. He connected on another three to get the Pack to within 39-35 just 1:51 before halftime. A half-minute later he converted a 3-point play to slice the Rams’ lead to 42-38.

With Omogbo on the bench for 11 of the 20 first-half minutes because of foul trouble, Oliver smelled blood in the water. He attacked Omogbo’s replacements, the ill-equipped Braden Koelliker and Nico Carvacho, without hesitation. It was like sending in a couple antelopes to push an elephant out of the water hole.

Oliver finished the first half with 17 points, thanks to four 3-pointers, and six rebounds. But he was only beginning to rev up the engines on his space ship. What we saw in the second half from Oliver simply transcended the human basketball experience. If at any moment the roof blew off Lawlor and a beam of warm, inviting light illuminated Oliver and only Oliver from above, nobody in the arena would have been shocked.

The young man from the planet Dunktron was leading us all to the promised land. Go ahead, look at Oliver’s right forearm. The word “Blessed” is tattooed right there for all to see. It was more than fitting given what we saw on Saturday.

The moment that the roof seemingly came off Lawlor on Saturday took place with 15:11 to play in the second half. The Rams had controlled the game’s first 35 or so minutes, leading by as much as 10 late in the first half. The Pack had never enjoyed a lead the entire evening to that point.

Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Space Cam.

Oliver, standing near the free throw line on defense, promptly picked off a pass from the Rams’ J.D. Paige off an inbounds’ attempt from under the basket. He then turned his 6-foot-8, 235-pound frame around and headed up the right side of the court. This was the exact moment the basketball Gods on the planet Dunktron created him for. And he didn’t disappoint.

Oliver drove the length of the court, right to the basket. The antelopes were trampled with no mercy. He converted the layup, was fouled by Koelliker, and promptly drained the free throw to give the Pack its first lead of the game at 49-48.

The crowd exploded, stood up and still has yet to sit down.

It was simply one of the greatest and most meaningful individual plays in Wolf Pack history, given the significance of the moment. To the 11,662 in the arena, it was obvious they had just witnessed a special young man doing what he was put on this planet to do.

Electrify a basketball team, a basketball program, an arena and an entire community.

Blessed, indeed.

The Pack would never give up the lead the rest of the game. Oliver and his teammates wouldn’t allow it to happen. Oliver pulled down a defensive rebound with 14:39 to play and blocked a layup by Paige at the other end of the court just 34 seconds later.

It was as if Oliver was showing his teammates that it was OK to have fun and enjoy the moment. Oliver, who was seemingly grabbing every rebound now, pulled down a defensive board to set up a flurry of 3-pointers (by Jordan Caroline, D.J. Fenner and Marcus Marshall) in a span of just 64 seconds to give the Pack a commanding 58-49 lead.

The Pack Party, led by the kid from another planet, was now in full force. All that was left was to drop the confetti from the ceiling.

Oliver, though, still had one more religious experience to give us. It was a 16-second display that left your eyes and mouth wide open. If you saw it on YouTube you’d think it was staged and fake, like a guy who bounces a basketball off a tree, the street light, the top of a bus and his dog’s head right into the basket.

It all started when freshman Josh Hall fed Oliver for a ridiculous dunk and a 60-51 lead with 10:57 to go. Oliver then stole the ball from the Rams’ Prentiss Nixon near midcourt, flew to the basket and then generated enough electricity to power a small Nevada town with an eye-opening windmill dunk with his right hand for a 62-51 lead. He then stood proudly facing the fans behind the basket and smiled and winked at them.

Two dunks and a steal in 16 seconds. If you didn’t think the game was over before that point, well, the smile let you know that it was.

With apologies to the great Darryl Dawkins, that windmill jam was Oliver’s Cam Slam Flying, Colorado State Crying, Teeth Shaking, Lawlor Quaking, Cover-Your-Head, Look-Out-Below, In-Your-Face Disgrace, Rim Roasting, Ram Toasting, Space Cam Jam. The decibel level at Lawlor could have been heard from the Planet Dunktron.

Oliver spent the rest of the game mostly watching his teammates join in on the fun. It was like the entire cast and production crew Best Picture of the Year Oscar getting to go up to the podium and thank everyone from their mom and dad to the pets they owned in grammar school. You never saw a college basketball team have so much fun on the court as the Wolf Pack enjoyed in the last half of the second half on Saturday.

And the third largest crowd in Lawlor history stood and danced and yelled the whole time.

“We all love each other on this team,” Oliver said. “We’re brothers on this team. When you see them having fun and smiling, it makes you happy.”

Oliver then put all of his immense skills on display in another otherworldly YouTube 15-second stretch. He blocked a layup by Omogbo at one end of the court and then raced down to the other end to haul in a rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Marshall. He then missed a shot in the lane but grabbed his own rebound and laid the ball in the basket for a 71-58 lead. Omogbo, playing the role of Washington General perfectly (and finishing with just 10 points and five rebounds), fouled him on the layup. Oliver, of course, made the free throw for a 3-point play and a 72-58 lead with 6:59 to go.

Oliver was now, it seems, toying with the Rams. They were just required to be out on the court for his amusement. With 69 seconds to go, Oliver then sealed the deal with another antelope devouring dunk.

Musselman, who knows how to put on a show with the best of them, called a timeout with eight seconds left just so Oliver could walk off the floor to a huge standing ovation. Or it might have been just so the little coach could hug him.

Oliver’s final stat line read 29 points, 17 rebounds, two blocks and two steals. He only left the court for those final eight seconds. It was, without a doubt, one of the greatest performances by a player in an important moment in Wolf Pack history.

“Big players make big plays in big games,” Marshall said.

No other Pack player in the last 15 years (statistics before then are not readily available) has had as many points (29) while grabbing at least 17 rebounds in a game. The most points Nick Fazekas scored while grabbing at least 17 boards in a game was 24 on Jan. 27, 2007 when he had 18 rebounds against Utah State. Other great Pack rebounders since 2000, such as Dario Hunt, Richard Stirgus, JaVale McGee, Kevinn Pinkney, A.J. West, Corey Jackson and Luke Babbitt, also never had as many as 25 points in a game that they also had at least 17 boards. And they certainly never did it in a winner-take-all conference regular season championship game.

“He really did carry us, for sure,” Fenner said.

Oliver’s many talents just might carry the Wolf Pack to places they’ve never been before. This week the Mountain West tournament title is on the line in Las Vegas. After that it’s the NCAA tournament, followed by the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and before you know it, you are listening to One Shining Moment played as background music as the Pack cuts down the nets.

“I’m still improving,” Oliver told his hometown Sacramento Bee last spring. “The best is yet to come.”

It arrived on Saturday. Or was it just a tantalizing preview? On his Twitter account @SpaceCam, Oliver wrote recently “Future - Incredible.”

He can now write “Present - Unbelievable.” The kid from the Planet Dunktron with otherworldly skills is that good. That special. When he plays like he did on Saturday night anything is possible.

“He brings it out and once he’s going, everybody follows,” Fenner said.

All he does, after all, is hoop and win games.


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