That’s why the otherwise loud crowd of 13,455 sat in apprehensive silence for close to 10 minutes Saturday as Rotnei Clarke, Butler’s star guard, lay motionless beneath the basket and Flyers forward Matt Derenbecker stood just a few yards away watching … and fretting.
“It’s very scary when you walk out there on the court and a kid is looking up at you and says he can’t move,” said Butler trainer Ryan Galloy. “It looked like one of those textbook injuries. He hit with his head and neck and you worry about what it could be.”
With just a little over eight minutes left in the first half and Butler leading the see-saw battle by two points, Clarke stole the ball from Derenbecker and rushed back to the other end of the court for what looked to be a breakaway lay-up.
Derenbecker gave chase and as Clarke went up for the shot, the Flyers sophomore hacked him hard on the arm to prevent the basket. The impact knocked the Bulldogs senior off balance and he crashed into the padded stanchion that holds the goal upright, then crumpled onto the court.
Officials whistled a flagrant foul on Derenbecker and initially some Flyers fans gave the refs the raspberries. But then it became evident there was more to worry about than how many free throws somebody was getting.
“I saw Rotnei laying there and heard him moaning, so I ran over,” said Butler big man Andrew Smith. “He said, ‘I can’t feel my body … I can’t feel it!’ And that’s when I started calling for the trainers.”
Galloy said when he ran out, “I saw him down there wide-eyed, so I started following procedure and that’s when he moved a little. He started to get feeling back and that’s when I knew we had dodged a real disaster. This could have been so much worse. It was an extremely close call.”
No one felt any worse than Derenbecker, who admitted to intentionally fouling Clarke but said hurting him was the farthest thing from his mind: “It was an unfortunate play. I made a bad turnover, and I felt like I made a hard play on the ball. If it happened again, I’d do it again, to be honest. I made a play on the ball. I knew we couldn’t give up those two points.
“But I’d never intentionally hurt anyone. I want him to know how sorry I am for it. It’s basketball. I honestly did nothing on purpose, and he has my deepest condolences for what happened — his whole team and his family. But I want to say with all my heart I did nothing on purpose.”
Butler’s other starting guard, Alex Barlow, who grew up in Springboro, prepped at Cincinnati Moeller and played district tournament games at UD Arena three years straight, said he knew that:
“It was scary and I’m sure Derenebecker felt bad. I don’t think there was anything malicious about it. It was just a hard basketball play and it was unfortunate how Rotnei hit the basketball post underneath. But I know Dayton’s not that type of team. They’re well coached. They don’t try to hurt someone intentionally. That’s not Dayton basketball.”
And Barlow knows Flyers basketball.
“I’ve probably been to 100-plus UD games,” he said. “My family still has season tickets. My grandparents have tickets. I used to sit up in Section 302 and I’ve been to a lot of the big games here – a lot of Dayton-Xavier games over the years, and when UD beat Pitt by 25 that year and Dayton-UC.
“Growing up I was a Flyers fan. The guys I really remember are like Ryan Perryman, Keith Waleskowski, Mark Ashman, Tony Stanley. And me and Brooks Hall are still buddies. We text occasionally and still talk.
“I followed the Flyers when they made the NCAA tournament and through the NIT. In fact, today is the first time my family ever went to a UD game and rooted against the Flyers.”
And yet when Clarke went down – and stayed down – there was no rooting one way or the other. Instead of Flyers’ fans and Bulldog fans, there were just Rotnei Clarke fans.
And as his neck was wrapped in a brace and he was lifted onto a wooden back board and then placed on a gurney to be wheeled to the Arena tunnel – and an ambulance trip to Miami Valley Hospital – the crowd stood and warmly applauded him. Derenebecker took a few steps toward him and applauded him, as well.
And that’s when Clarke raised his right arm from the gurney and gave a thumbs up.
When the game resumed Butler turned into a different team.
Clarke is the leading scorer of the No. 14 Bulldogs – he averages 17 points and just had 28 the other night in a victory at Saint Joesph’s – but as Barlow said, “We knew the rest of us had to step up.”
And that’s what happened.
Within three minutes, the Bulldogs led by 11 and UD never would catch them.
At halftime the team got word Clarke had no spinal injury.
“There are no fractures,” Galloy said. “Basically, he’s got a really bad neck sprain. He’ll play again, but as far as when, there’s no cook book on that. When it comes to neck injuries, nothing is certain. Just ask Peyton Manning.”
After the game Butler coach Brad Stevens rushed to Miami Valley to check on Clarke, then called associate head coach Matt Graves back at the Arena with the good news:
“Rotnei is going to be fine,” Graves said. “Coach Stevens just called me. He’s at the hospital with him. Rotnei’s being discharged now. His first words were, ‘I want to ride the bus home with the team.’
“We usually sing the war song after every win. He was really disappointed he didn’t get the chance to sing the song in the locker room. He wants to be back on that bus and ride home with his teammates. So that’s great news.”
And on what was otherwise a bad day for UD, even Flyers fans would have to agree.