By ANDY WOLF
Austin Gardner and Alex White are two very different basketball players.
Gardner is a 6-foot-3 senior point guard who can set the tone at both ends of the court with his intensity and smarts.
White is a 6-foot-7 junior center and a presence inside that can’t be ignored.
Both are equally pivotal to the success of the University of Findlay men’s basketball team.
Yet, somehow, the Oilers managed to overcome losing both to season-ending knee injuries by the 11th game and make it all the way to the NCAA Division II Sweet 16.
To suggest they’d make it that far at the turn of January seemed improbable.
Gardner went down in game No. 6 at Ferris State while Alex White tore his ACL five games later against Trevecca Nazarene.
The good news? Both are back for the upcoming season.
“This is my last time putting a jersey on,” Gardner said. “I’m not going to go play professionally. I don’t have the longevity or skills to do that but this is the last time.
“Embrace it. I’ve been through a lot of injuries and it’s not easy just to be sitting on the sidelines. It’s something I can’t really control because I’ve been battling it for so long. Just embrace it and know God’s given you one last chance.”
Gardner’s setback came with a little extra emotion.
He had already waited 18 months to play his sophomore season (2014-15) whilst recovering from an offseason left knee surgery.
Once on the court, he flourished as one of the most efficient point guards in the league, playing all 28 games with 23 starts.
“He’s a natural leader and he works hard and takes pride in being a great leader, a great communicator,” UF coach Charlie Ernst said. “He’s an emotional leader as much as he is anything. I think he’s healthier now than he’s been in the last year or two.”
His injury last year involved a different tendon in his knee from the one he initially had surgery on.
Gardner said he feels good physically as he gets reconditioned to basketball shape. He doesn’t think about his knee when he plays after returning to the court mid-July.
“I think that’s the beauty of it because I don’t want an easy path,” Gardner “I kind of want a bumpy road. It challenges me to grow as a man.”
He’s more than embraced that challenge.
“I’m still going through some pain which is great because if anybody on the team can handle it, I can handle it because I went through it before,” Gardner said. “I hope I can continue to tolerate it.”
Meanwhile, the recovery process was completely new to White.
He’d never been seriously injured from playing basketball.
“Throughout the whole process I had to stay positive the whole time,” White said. “It was tough seeing these guys out there on the court knowing that I couldn’t play, help them out or do anything. There were other ways I can help, keep cheering them on, keep up the energy.”
White was two games removed from one of his best outings before he went down.
His 17-point, eight-rebound performance came on an 8-of-9 shooting night in a 100-56 road drubbing of Northern Michigan. He had also swatted seven shots in his last four games.
Despite shortened development in a pivotal sophomore season, White feels like he’s back to playing at 100 percent.
“I felt like I was starting to play well but at the same time there was room for improvement,” White said. “At that time there was a lot I could improve on. Even now, I’d say that the injury taught me a lot about myself, a lot about my game. It’s only going to go up.”
And while the injuries did put a short-term damper on the season, several positives brewed from it by way of junior Trey Smith and sophomore Aaron Overhiser.
Smith, a 5-10 point guard, was supposed to redshirt the season. Overhiser (6-7 center) was going to see only a few minutes in the rotation as a third option at center.
They were each thrown into the fire and routinely provided quality bench minutes.
“I thought (Smith) did a great job just coming in and accepting his role and saying this is what I’ve got to do,” Gardner said. “He’s an energy player. He hit some shots for us and I think the biggest thing is he produced that energy.”
“I think it gave Aaron a lot more confidence,” White said. “…This year it’s only going to go up for him.”
Men’s basketball: Gardner and White glad to be back
By ANDY WOLF