As Teyvion Kirk walked back to his seat on the bench after his fifth foul — the one he was supposed to commit — he smacked his chair in frustration.
Thirty seconds earlier, Kirk was playing the best game of his young career. He scored 18 points, 15 of which came in the second half, and grabbed 10 rebounds in Ohio's 73-66 loss to Buffalo on Friday. He did everything nobody expected of a freshman against reigning Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year Dontay Caruthers.
But with 1:10 remaining, he committed a mistake only a freshman could make. Jordan Dartis committed Ohio’s sixth team foul intentionally one second earlier, so Ohio could send Buffalo to the free throw line immediately if needed.
Trailing 68-63, Kirk thought he heard coach Saul Phillips tell him to foul. Phillips joked that Kirk was too busy talking trash to hear him.
Whatever the reason, he didn’t know that foul meant sending Buffalo guard Wes Clark to the free throw line.
“I've got to be aware of what coach wants me to do,” Kirk said. “A bad mistake on me.”
That’s all it was, really: one mistake. It happened to be a fatal one, but that’s the struggle of grooming a freshman point guard. No matter how much progress they make, they’ll always run into a situation they’ve never seen.
But Kirk impressed Buffalo coach Nate Oats enough to earn the title of “best player on the court” Friday night. After his performance, Oats isn’t looking forward to coaching against him in the future.
“That’s not good,” Oats said about Kirk’s three remaining years of eligibility.
Therein lies the conundrum. For every three steps Kirk takes forward, he’s bound to take a step back. But his own coach is willing to stay along for the ride.
“Ride the lightning, baby,” Phillips said. “Someday, he’ll be a sophomore. I wouldn’t trade him.”
Of course he wouldn’t. Kirk was the biggest reason Ohio was close enough for his mistake to matter.
He drove inside repeatedly against Buffalo and finished over, not around Buffalo defenders. He converted two 3-point plays and created lanes that don’t exist for most players.
With 4:38 remaining and his team trailing by 13, Kirk took an off-the-dribble 3-pointer after Buffalo ducked under the Doug Taylor screen, and he swished it.
He followed every basket with a brash remark, or by pumping up The Convo crowd, or by throwing a side eye at the Buffalo bench. Not even the opposing coach was safe, as both Kirk and Oats admitted Kirk said something to Oats after his first 3-pointer.
Neither admitted what was said, but it suffices to say Kirk was not the least bit shy about introducing himself to the best team in the MAC.
“He outplayed our guards,” Oats said. “That’s the first time I can say that all season.”
Kirk’s progress this season has been both tantalizing and deflating. He can be the best player on the floor and the player that makes the mistake that ruins a comeback.
He's the trash talking dynamo that still has a lot of development ahead. And it’s his coach’s job to help him find the right balance.
“That spirit that he has,” Phillips said. “I don’t want to take that from him. We’ll have failed if he doesn’t get better at (managing it) as time goes along.”