Dan Weisse pushed Harrison Cleary back onto the court.
Twenty-eight seconds earlier, Cleary had become the top scorer in NSIC history, and the Minnesota Crookston crowd wanted another chance to show its appreciation.
As Cleary walked back towards center court, it almost seemed that he was being pulled by the crowd’s gravity, instead of guiding himself there. When he raised his left hand in salute, his head cast down ever so slightly, that, too, felt almost outside his control.
For as much as Cleary believes that he’s the best player in the country, as jaw-dropping as his stepbacks are, he carries himself with minimal pomp or pretense. The vast majority of his baskets are accompanied only by a stride back down the court. He’ll pump his fist or grimace slightly, but only when the moment calls for it.
Cleary isn’t a showman. He’s a worker, a scorer — and a damn good one.
“He really is second-to-none,” said Weisse, his head coach. “He lives in the gym, goes to class, gets his rest, takes care of his body. He is your ideal student-athlete.”
Of course Harrison Cleary knew how many points he needed to score against Southwest Minnesota State on Friday night — 29 — to break the conference’s all-time scoring record of 1,933 set by St. Cloud State’s Gage Davis just last year. These aren’t things you can just ignore, especially when you’re at the center of them.
But he tried his best.
“I wouldn't say (I focused on it) at all,” he said. “I just come into every night trying to get wins. … Everybody knew what the record was, but at the end of the day, I would have took zero points tonight if it meant a win.”
That’s useful information for later. In the beginning, Cleary was doing something both Cleary-like and un-Cleary-like at the same time — putting on a show.
He spent most of the first half driving to the lane with gusto. The Mustangs spiked multiple shots of his out of bounds and he scored only once in the first nine minutes, but he kept plugging away. A 3-pointer with 1:28 before halftime gave him 14 points and put him back on record pace.
On the Golden Eagles’ last posession, Cleary rocked the ball softly from one hand to the other, 40 feet from the hoop. No question he was taking this shot — he did, and he drilled it with a hand in his face.
Just this once, Cleary allowed himself to indulge in the moment: backpedaling across the Golden Eagle logo with his arms spread straight out to face a crowd he would later call “electric.” His 17th point put UMC up 39-34 going into the half, and everything seemed to be in place for a dream evening.
But Southwest Minnesota State chipped away at the plan, jumper after jumper, steal after steal, and the life began to drain out of Lysaker Gymnasium. The Golden Eagles’ lead had been replaced by a 57-42 Mustang lead before Cleary scored again.
And as the second half ticked down, it became ever more clear that Cleary’s record night wouldn’t coincide with a win.
With 54 seconds to play, Cleary scored his 27th and 28th points on a layup, and the referee blew his whistle. He walked to the free throw line — a place where he’s missed just 14 times in 178 attempts this season — untouched by the anticipation.
“My mind never races too much during a game,” he said. “I'm pretty calm out there, the game kinda slows down for me. So just after I got the and-1, going to the line was just another day at the office, knock down the free throw, that was that.”
And what became apparent in the seconds and minutes following, as the clock hit zeroes on a 76-63 SMSU win, was that this night wasn’t about a number.
If it were, surely Cleary might have taken the night off once the game got out of hand, saved the climactic points for a more joyous occasion?
“I was hoping to do it off a win,” Weisse said. “So it stings a little bit to not, and I feel bad for him in that regard. However, I'm so darn proud of him at the same time. The loss is not going to take away from that, because this is a culmination of all the work he's put in.”
Harrison Cleary became the NSIC’s all-time leading scorer in almost anti-climactic fashion, as the night progressed and a once-likely victory slipped away.
His place in conference history wasn’t sealed with sentimentality or heroics — that’s not really him. It’s a testament to an athlete who simply does his thing every night and does it well.
“He goes about his business,” Weisse said. “We do have to shake this (loss) off — and we're gonna ask him to do it all over again.”
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