Redshirt freshman Obi Toppin made the most of a surprise start, and led the UD Flyers to an opening night win over the North Florida Ospreys at the ‘new’ UD Arena.
Oh, but there was, indeed, a dill moment when it looked as if the Flyers would find themselves in a pickle for tall players.
Toppin started the game against North Florida only because senior Josh Cunningham injured his wrist in practice this week.
And Toppin, a 6-foot-7 tower of power from Ossining, N.Y. was having a poppin’ good time en route to a double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds as the Flyers won their opener, 78-70.
But when Toppin snagged his 10th rebound and passed to a teammate with 12 1/2 minutes left in the game, he suddenly grabbed his right leg and slithered to the floor in agony.
The hush from 12,522 fans was palpable, as if suddenly somebody put a gag in each and every mouth.
Toppin was helped off the floor and taken up the ramp by UD athletic trainer Mike Mulcahey. With 10 minutes left in the game Toppin returned and a few minutes later he was back in the game.
So what was the injury and what was Mulcahey’s miracle medicine.
It was cramps and the cure was pickles.
“He fed me pickles,” said Toppin. “And I love pickles. I ate every one he had.”
And what happened on the floor?
“I jumped up for that rebound and I immediately felt a cramp in my thigh,” he said. “I knew it was a cramp. I felt it coming on and I told Mike during a timeout before it happened. He said, ‘Drink water.’ But when I went back out it hit me.”
Toppin discovered he was starting shortly after Cunningham hurt his wrist in practice and they told him, “You have to step up.” Toppin’s response was, “Yes sir, I was definitely ready. I had a lot of dreams last night, but I got through it.”
Indeed, he did. His teammates found him early and often, roaming near the rim, and fed him for some rim-rattling dunks — three in the first half. He started festivities with a windmill dunk off a pass from Jalen Crutcher. He stuffed home another shortly thereafter on a pass from Trey Landers to give the Flyers an 8-3 lead.
And he had eight of UD’s first 13 points and by halftime he owned 12 points and three rebounds as the Flyers led the Ospreys, 41-35.
“The team was finding me in the low post and it was wide open,” he said. “I took advantage of it. I knew I had to fill Josh Cunningham’s spot and I was ready for it.”
Before slapping Obi’s behind and sending him into battle, UD coach Anthony Grant told him, “Play your game. You’ve been working for a long time for this moment. Just go out and have fun.”
Toppin sat out all of last season to get his academics in order, but attended every home game, sat on the bench and rooted hard for his teammates. He was so much a part of the team, wearing civilian clothes, that after the season he was rewarded with the team’s Spirit Award, which usually goes to a player who actually played.
It is obvious that Toppin is a crowd-pleaser, not only for his perma-press smile, but for his dunks that demoralizes the opposition and earns the loudest roars from the crowd.
But he never dunked until he was a senior in high school. Why not?
“I couldn’t,” he said. “I didn’t do it until my senior year in high school. First it was in practice. Even though I was 6-foot-6. I just couldn’t, really couldn’t. I tried my junior year in high school and missed. Then I did it my first game my senior year.”
There were other contributors on this night, too, against North Florida, which returned all five starters from last season and is the only Division I team in country with five returning starters and not one is a senior.
And North Florida arrived with a glowing reputation as three-point shooters, so much that they added to the Ospreys nickname with the phrase, “Birds of Trey.”
The Ospreys hung around and were within four points, 49-45, with 17 minutes left. That’s when 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Jordan Davis, from the small burg of Irmo, S.C. buried back-to-back three-pointers, pushing the lead to 55-45.
The Ospreys hit 6 of 15 threes in the first 20 minutes, but only tried six in the second half and made two, both late in the game when the game was decided in UD’s favor.
After Davis hit his two threes, the Flyers sprinted out to a 64-48 lead and that’s when the cramps took out Toppin. The Ospreys closed within 10 with four minutes left, but the Flyers kept them at a long arm’s length.
Davis finished with 16 points and St. Henry’s Ryan Mikesell contributed 12 in his first game after sitting out last season due to double hip surgery.
Mikesell, a 6-foot-7 red shirt junior, drilled a couple of big baskets at contentious moments. His three-pointer with five minutes left in the first half gave the Flyers a 34-25 lead, their widest margin of the first half. And he hit a ‘three’ with 35 seconds left in the half to push a three-point lead to six at 41-35.
But it was Toppin’s night, which was apropos because he was the cover boy on the game program.
And he is the kind of guy who enjoys the moment, constantly talking. He talked to some fans in the stands before the game, he talked to fans near the team bench while he was riding the stationary bike to help allieviate the cramps.
And he talked to North Florida’s Noah Horchler during the game as Horchler led all scorers in the game with 19 points and led all rebounders with 12.
“I didn’t remember him but he said, ‘Hey, I remember you,’” said Toppin. “When I played at Melbourne Central Catholic in Florida, he said he went to Melbourne High and we played them and we were really cool with them.”
And UD’s coach Grant was really cool with Toppin on this night.
“Early in the game, Obi was the beneficiary of his team making some outstanding plays and passes to help him be effective,” he said. “He was really active on the glass and the pace he played with, that’s what we’re really accustomed to seeing out of him on a daily basis in practice.
“It’s a game of habits and we have to build good habits and I thought Obi played tonight like we see him play in practice, the energy and the effort.”
And what does Toppin plans to do to make sure cramps don’t become a habit?
“I’m going to drink more water, a lot more water,” he said. And just to make sure, he might want to pack a jar of Claussen Kosher Dills in his back pack.