The quest Till greatness

Published by Karl Ludwig, Date: February 17, 2020
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Senior forward Micah Till walks onto the court during pre-game against Edinboro on Jan. 25. Till leads SRU in scoring this season.

Standing with his father just outside the home locker rooms, a young boy watched eagerly as Slippery Rock star forward Micah Till walked over toward them for a picture.

“What’s your name?” Till asked the boy, smiling down at him, still drenched in sweat from his 33-point performance just 10 minutes ago.

“Edward,” the boy told him, staring up at the hulking figure with wide eyes.

Draping a long arm around Edward, Till instructed him to hold up his index finger.

A wide smile crossed Edward’s face as he held up his index finger, holding it up next to Till’s outstretched finger. Put together, the two fingers formed an 11, Till’s number.

The father snapped the picture, capturing his son’s beaming smile with one of his favorite players, and thanked Till for the picture.

As the father walked out with his son, chatting animatedly about the encounter, Till watched for a second before dashing back into the locker room.

After a dominant performance against Clarion over the previous two hours where he dunked on defenders, buried 3-pointers in their faces and just imposed his will against men standing nearly seven feet tall, seeing Till interact so tenderly with a kid was a complete 180.

For the first time in 364 days, exactly one day to the year before he sustained a knee injury that ended his season prematurely, Till said he finally felt like his old self.

On Feb. 6, 2019, Slippery Rock traveled to Indiana, Pa. for a crucial Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division game. Winners of 13 of the last 14 games, including an upset win over No. 3 IUP at home, Till spearheaded an SRU team that had surged to the top of the division standings.

Averaging 21.5 points, 10.2 rebounds per game and 2.5 assists per game, Till was well on his way to fulfilling his preseason All-American team nomination on a team with legitimate PSAC Championship aspirations.

That made his unspecified knee injury in the first half of the IUP game that much more devastating.

“It was heartbreaking because I wanted to finish out the season,” Till said. “We had the two seed, had a bye and it was just looking promising. It hurt to have to cheer on my teammates and not be able to be out there with them.”

Despite struggling mightily against Indiana without Till, Slippery Rock would go on to pick up wins in its next four games — with Till often noticeable in his large knee bracing, limping around the court.

Slippery Rock head coach Ian Grady called the injury “upsetting” at the time, but he stressed the team’s “next man up” mentality.

Having clinched a first-round bye in the conference tournament, Slippery Rock was matched up with Mercyhurst at home in the second round. A 73-68 loss to the Lakers ended SRU’s season.

The second-round exit in a once-promising season only served as more inspiration for Till, who attacked the offseason with a vigorous return from injury.

“I just came into this year to rehab the best that I could, so I could come back full strength,” Till said.

While the road back from injury was an up and down experience, Till said the slow progression in recovery was the most frustrating part.

“I had a little bit of worry, not too much,” Till said. “But just when the doctor said it should feel better, and it didn’t feel better, it kinda worried me a little bit. I’m a God-fearing man, so I just kept praying, and I started to feel better.”

But while Till’s injury might have healed, due to NCAA rules, Till was unable to compete for Slippery Rock during the fall semester. Having exhausted nine of 10 semesters, Till was forced to sit out in order to preserve his eligibility in the spring.

Grady noted the difference between an injury holding him out of games down the stretch last season and the NCAA policy which forced him out of all organized SRU basketball.

“This year was a little different because he couldn’t really be around the team per NCAA rules, but I think that he’s done a pretty good job of trying to organize different things,” Grady said. “Since he’s been back, there’s been some ups and downs, with everybody, but he’s taking that next step to a leadership role.”

Picked to finish second in the PSAC by the media, Slippery Rock entered the season without Till anywhere. Not on the court but not on the bench either.

“I was unable to be around the team at all,” Till said. “I couldn’t be at practices or anything, so I would just stay communicating with my coaches and my teammates and just trying to stay in the loop as much as possible.”

Unable to debut until Dec. 15, Till watched from afar as his teammates jumped out to a 4-4 start. Unexpectedly, the team struggled to find an identity without its star, but Till’s roommate, transfer forward Will Robinson Jr., found himself as the focal point of the offense.

Watching Robinson put up 25-point, 17-rebound and 35-point, 12-rebound performances reminiscent of Till’s first two seasons at Slippery Rock, Till would go through drill after drill without the team just to try to stay in shape for his eventual return.

Averaging 19.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game prior to Till’s return, just a shade off Till’s career average of 21.2 points and 11 rebounds, he served as the resident “Micah Till” on the team.

Since Till has come back against Salem on Dec. 15, Grady said the offense has been tailored to fit Till and Robinson.

The duo has emerged as one of the highest-scoring duos in the PSAC this season, with Till averaging 18.4 points per game and Robinson averaging 17.8 points per game this season.

Currently seventh in the PSAC in scoring, Till has done it all while still working back from injury and nearly 10 months off from collegiate basketball.

Averaging 18.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists while shooting 47% from the field, 38% from 3-point range and 77% from the free-throw line, in addition to his highlight-reel dunks, no-look passes and chase-down blocks, Till looks like he doesn’t belong at the Division II level.

And in truth, he doesn’t.

If not for an initial dream to pursue the NFL at North Carolina State as a 3-star tight end, spurning the likes of Duke, Maryland, South Carolina and Missouri, Till might have found himself on the hardwood at Rutgers.

Then Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan approached Till at an AAU basketball tournament in the summer of 2013 with a full-ride offer to the basketball program.

“I told him, like, ‘I’m already going [to N.C. State] for football’ and he told me, ‘Well, if you ever change your mind, you have a full ride to Rutgers’,” Till said to The Rocket in 2018. “It was kind of an informal offer, but he still offered me.”

Despite losing his love of the game of football, Till found a renewed love for the game of basketball.

And with the physicality of football ingrained in his mind, he’s been able to use that football mentality to his benefit on the basketball court.

“I think the football side does help me with my rebounding and going up to shoot the ball at the highest point,” Till said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018, “I do a lot of practice with high pointing the ball in football, so that does come into effect on the court. I guess you can say football has some sort of influence on basketball.”

While Till’s journey through collegiate sports has been anything but conventional, how many Division I football player-turned JUCO basketball player-turned Division II basketball All-Americans can be named off the top of the head, his quest Till greatness has never been derailed.

Sitting at 11-12 on the season, holding the sixth seed in the PSAC-West, Slippery Rock has not enjoyed the magical season it did a year ago.

That doesn’t quell Till’s excitement for another shot in the conference playoffs, however, as he said his team just needs to stack up a few more wins to get the momentum rolling before the playoffs.

While Slippery Rock is capable of playing nearly unstoppable basketball times, the team is often prone to lapses in team play. Till said the team just needs to keep its eyes on the grand prize.

“We just have to continue to play hard,” Till said. “Sometimes we get a little lackadaisical, and we just need to remember that we all have a common goal in wanting to win a championship.”

Having spent nearly three seasons at Slippery Rock, a rollercoaster of highs and lows, much like this season alone, Till has sights set on a pair of goals before he’s taken his last shot: the PSAC championship and the NCAA championship.

Five regular-season games remain on the schedule and holding a four game lead in the race for the last playoff berth, Slippery Rock faces three teams that have already clinched and two that are chasing.

Till knows that if his team can just get to the playoffs, they’ll have a chance to do some damage.

With a couple of championship trophies, if everything goes to Till’s plan, he’ll look to take the step to the next level, through whatever means necessary.

“[I want to] find a pro team,” Till said. “Whether that’s the G-League or overseas, that’s what I plan on doing. Find a team that fits me.”

Slippery Rock has only sent former guard Myron Brown to the NBA in 1991, but under former coach Kevin Reynolds, 16 former players have gone on to play professional basketball, with most going overseas. A feat that Grady was directly involved in.

If nothing else, Till will leave Slippery Rock as the only player in school history with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 100 assists, 100 steals and 100 blocks.

While Grady was bashful in his estimation of Till’s all-time rank among past players, Grady said he’d have to sit down and think about it, but he’s near the top.

Till’s next chance to push for his goal, and climb Grady’s list, is Saturday afternoon at the Morrow Field House against Seton Hill. Tipoff is scheduled for 3:00 p.m.

Karl is a senior sport management major and communication minor entering his second year on The Rocket staff. He will serve as the sports editor after previously serving as the assistant sports editor. During his time with The Rocket, he has covered a majority of sports on campus, and he hopes to cover them all by the time his time with the paper is over. After graduation, he hopes to work in the sports writing field.

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