A half-smile on Greg Gamble's face revealed an upturn in his spirits, a sign that he knows the rest of his grin is slowly but surely going to come around.
His entire sophomore season is a blur. Gamble's University at Buffalo basketball team was losing and his mother, Yvonne, battled an illness that baffled everyone, doctors included. But with his mother healthy Gamble can focus on basketball and he took a huge step in rebounding from an uneven sophomore season Wednesday, scoring a career-best 25 points to help the Bulls avoid an embarrassing upset at the hands of Division II Ohio Valley.
Led by Gamble and fifth-year senior Andrew Atman's 16 points and seven rebounds, both career highs, the Bulls advanced to the second round of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer with an 89-82 victory over the Fighting Scots (0-1). The Bulls will play Connecticut, a 69-65 winner over Morgan State, at 9 tonight (ESPNU) in Gampel Pavilion.
Gamble and Atman were the lone bright spots in an otherwise bleak season-opening win for the Bulls, who committed 26 turnovers and nearly blew a 14-point lead with under five minutes remaining. Had the Fighting Scots not committed 31 turnovers, the outcome would have been much different. Ohio Valley trailed, 84-81, with 1:44 left until UB finally pulled away by draining 5 of 6 free throws with Gamble connecting on 3 of 4.
"They played with a lot of inspiration and a lot of energy," UB coach Reggie Witherspoon said of Ohio Valley. "It's still early and we have a lot of things to improve on."
Like cutting down on turnovers and improving shot selection for starters.
Turnovers were a bugaboo all of last season when the Bulls finished a disappointing 12-19, and the nightmare reoccurred against Ohio Valley, as did poor shooting from the guards. The starting backcourt of Rodney Pierce and Andy Robinson combined to shoot 1 for 7, while Byron Mulkey and Sean Smiley didn't bring much of a stroke off the bench, either (5 for 19). That left Gamble and Atman to carry the offense.
The seldom-used Atman, who had scored a grand total of 66 career points coming into Wednesday's game, whistled in 5 of 6 from the field and didn't touch the rim on all three of his three-point attempts. Meanwhile, Gamble did his damage by attacking the rim in connecting on 8 of 12.
"God has blessed me with these abilities and I'm going to try and use them," said Gamble, whose previous career high was 15 points. "I worked on catching and shooting over the summer. I've always been a good ball handler so I've been trying to get my catch and shoot down so I can score and create for others."
And, perhaps, erase the painful memory of last season. Gamble's mother was diagnosed with shingles, pneumonia and another unknown illness that briefly left her paralyzed from the waist down. Yvonne Gamble entered Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital last January and didn't leave until April.
"He tried to carry his way through it and work his way through it," Witherspoon said. "Much of that time, no one knew what was wrong and it was tough on him. He tried to do everything he could to prevent that from affecting his play and he brought as much effort as he could on the practice floor."
But Gamble, the oldest of five children, sometimes went to the hospital several times a day and cared for his siblings in addition to attending classes and playing basketball.
He tried to use basketball as a refuge but couldn't.
"My mind was everywhere," Gamble said.
Next week, when the Bulls open at Alumni Arena against South Florida, Yvonne Gamble will be in attendance.
"That will be the first game that she's watched me play in a whole year," Gamble said. "I didn't think she would be here this year, so I feel blessed to even have a mother."