By HAL McCOY
Charles Cooke took the University of Dayton Arena floor Friday night with one thought in mind: “Burn the house down.”
It was his stated objective, “To bring the heat,” a scorched earth policy designed to leave Austin Peay State University with fourth degree burns.
And that’s what Cooke did, especially in the first half, when he was as hot as a crock pot, a pressure cooker, a microwave oven and a barbecue pit combined.
In other words, Cooke cooked Austin Peay, fried them to a crisp with 24 points in the first half en route to 31 in helping the University of Dayton to a 96-68 annihilation of Austin Peay in the team’s 2016-17 regular season debut in UD Arena.
COOKE WAS PROMPTED BY the knowledge that many times last year the Flyers were glaciers at the beginning of games, slow to move, slow to start, slow on defense, slow to run the offense. And it was the same in an exhibition last Friday against Division II Findlay. The Flyers fell behind Findlay, 20-6, at the game’s beginning before they caught up midway through the second half and eventually won, 76-69.
Cooke was having none of that on this night.
“We’ve been starting real sluggishly late last year and against Findlay,” said Cooke. “I just wanted to do what I could to give my team a boost. And we took over early and applied the pressure.”
WHAT DID HE DO? HE began the game by blocking AP’s first shot of the game. He quickly converted a three-point play, the old-fashioned way — a basket and a free throw.
He finished a fast break off a steal by Scoochie Smith, rattling the rafters with a rim-rattling, backboard-bouncing dunk.
That gave the Flyers a 14-4 lead five minutes into the game. From there, Cooke became Mr. Outside, making four three pointers the rest of the half and when the buzzer sounded UD owned a 44-27 lead — and they owned Austin Peay (pronounced as pee).
THIS GAME MIGHT JUST as well have been a one-on-one playground game pitting Cookie against Austin Peay’s Josh Robinson.
Cooke nearly outscored the Governors (Austin Peay was a Tennessee governor) in the first half with his 24 to AP’s 27. And Robinson had 15 of the 27 points.
At game’s end Cooke had 31 and Robinson 26. Cooke received help from Darrell Davis, off the bench with 17 on four of seven from beyond the three-point marker.
“My mindset was just to come out and play hard,” said Cooke. “Bring everything I’ve got and if I played horrible, I played horrible.”
THE ONLY PERSON WHO believed there was anything horrible about it was AP Coach Dave Loos, in his 27th season at the Clarksville, Tenn. School.
Cooke’s first-half heat must have reminded Loos of a long ago Austin Peay player named James “Fly” Williams, who twice in 1972 scored 51 points games. The AP student body used to chant, “The Fly is open, let’s go Peay.”
At halftime, Cooke was 8 for 11 from the field, 4 for 5 from the foul line, had two assists, two blocked shots and zero turnovers.
“Charles was fantastic the whole first half and carried us,” said UD coach Archie Miller. “Our half court offense sputtered and we’re not running it, the ball is not moving enough. But Charlies carried us.”
FOR COOKE, THE FIRST GAME was the culmination of a summer of diligence on the court, practicing shot after shot after shot until exhaustion stopped him.
“For the people up close and personal with basketball, they understand the grind,” he said. “You apply more pressure on yourself and you give yourself extra time. You put yourself through a lot and it’s hell to play, doesn’t feel good at all. But you put yourself through it for games like this.”
As a senior, Cooke is accepting a leadership role, mostly trying to set examples by playing hard every second he is on the court.
“I’m just giving it everything I’ve got and not thinking about anything else too much,” he said. “Just do everything I can to help my team win games. Do my job and bring the heat.”
THE FLYERS ARE WEARING a black ‘5’ on their jerseys, near their hearts, to honor Steve McElvene, the teammate who died in May of an enlarged heart.
Before the game, the Flyers honored his parents, presenting them with Steve’s Atlantic 10 championship ring. The entire team took the floor to present Steve’s mother with flowers. And there was an inspirational video played for the fans, who applauded non-stop through the entire proceedings.
“It’s a blessing that we’re still here and I thank God to be able to play basketball,” said Cooke. “That was icing on the cake for me because you realize a lot of people can’t do it.
“He meant everything to us,” Cooke added. “Honestly, the grind is tough, it’s hard to bring the heat. Your body is tired, you have bumps and bruises. Steve would come in and put a smile on everybody’s face. He’d say something to get us going. His spirit was never down. That was huge, especially for me.”
Asked if any part of the game was for McElvene, Cooke said, “Most definitely. It was the first real game without him. Just to not have him here and see him on that (video) tribute was like, ‘Wow.’ It was kind of crazy.”
Said Miller, “It was big and it was emotional. It was the first time we’ve seen Steve’s family since the funeral. The guys handled it well, with a lot of maturity. It is not an easy thing to watch on the video. But it was very well done.”
And so were the Flyers, especially Cooke. Well done.