As others were celebrating the new year, the Portland Pilots were seeing 'the face of death,' coach Michael Holton says.
At about 11:50 p.m. Dec. 31, on a desolate stretch of freeway from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Ariz., a car going in the wrong direction smashed head-on into a car traveling several feet in front of the UP bus.
The Pilots' bus driver hit the brakes and skidded into the vehicles. 'We look up and see two smoldering cars,' Holton says. When the players and coaches exited the bus Ñ all unharmed Ñ they saw the grim results: The driver of each car was killed.
'We looked in both cars and saw the face of death,' Holton says. 'We were all shook up.'
One driver apparently had traveled about 4 miles on the wrong side of the road before the accident. Authorities say alcohol was a factor, Holton says.
'It was a potentially life-changing experience for our players,' he adds. 'The bus driver was such a professional. If he would have swerved, we would have tumbled into a ditch. As it was, the bus didn't have a scratch on it.'
The Pilots went on to beat Northern Arizona, but not before praying for the accident victims. When the team returned to Portland, the players received counseling. And Holton personally called the parents of every player to reassure them.
The Pilots (8-9 overall, 2-2 West Coast Conference) play nationally ranked Gonzaga at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Chiles Center. In their last meeting, UP beat the Bulldogs in Spokane.
'They are a Final Four team, in my opinion,' Holton says. 'They have the ability to run away from our league. We need them to shoot perimeter shots and hope they don't shoot a magical number. We need to limit them to one shot. And we need to score some buckets in transition.'
The Pilots beat San Francisco 77-63 Saturday after St. Mary's handled them two days earlier. They shot 57 percent from the field.
Point guard Eugene Jeter continues to lead the way for the Pilots. ESPN magazine recently tabbed him as one of the small-school players to watch this season. 'It's a matter of time before he's recognized on the national stage,' Holton says.
And his running mate, Donald Wilson, has emerged from a slump. 'He hit a stretch where the (opponents') scouting caught up with his game and teams stopped him at the rim,' Holton says. 'It stunned him. But we've freed him up to take any shot he can get. He needs to get back in the groove, because we need him.'
Portland State (8-9, 2-2 Big Sky Conference) plays its next three games at home, starting with league-leading Eastern Washington on Saturday.