My friend KP had a lot better reaction to the injury than I did.
When I saw Montana Tech star Caleb Bellach hit the floor, my immediate response was heartbreak. Bellach, the Frontier Conference Most Valuable Player, twisted his knee, and I just knew it was an ACL tear.
You could tell by the way he went down that it wasn’t good. When he couldn’t get up, it was devastating.
Bellach was helped to the athletic trainer’s bench, and that is what I watched as the Orediggers continued their first-round game of the NAIA National Tournament against Westmont (California) at the HPER Complex.
Tech was playing well, but I could hardly think about that. I was just hoping my diagnosis from afar was off and Bellach would return to the court like Paul Pierce did against the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals.
When Bellach, a great basketball player and a really nice person, left the gym with trainers, it was full-on depression.
Bellach returned to the bench in the second half and sat, with his knee in a big brace, and with his injured leg elevated and resting on a chair. He tried to cheer on his team, but you could see the heartbreak on his face.
The MVP had the hood of his grey hoodie pulled up, almost as if he was trying to not be seen.
Before the game ended, he left the gym again, using crutches while being assisted by an athletic trainer.
Watching tournament basketball is not always easy. The back-and-forth emotions of the game can be tough to take.
You go from being down and out to euphoria, then back to down and out again. With Bellach on the trainer’s table, there was no possibility for euphoria.
I watched the action from my seat in the bleachers across the from the Tech bench. After Bellach left the arena for the first time, and I looked to my right to see KP standing on the floor. He got to the gym a few minutes late, and he missed the injury.
“I think Bellach just tore his ACL,” I said to KP, with doom and gloom in my eyes. “On the second offensive possession of the game, Tech just lost its MVP.”
The whole “next-man-up” philosophy never sat well with me. Even if my team is winning, I have a hard time enjoying the game if their best player is injured.
I was thinking that the most anticipated game in nearly 40 years for the Montana Tech men’s basketball program had turned into a nightmare. The Frontier Conference champions were going to be one and done. They had no shot at Kansas City.
KP, though, had a better perspective.
“This team isn’t one player,” KP said. “They’ll step up and rise to the occasion.”
He specifically mentioned Camdyn LaRance, and KP was on the money.
The former Missoula Hellgate Knight came off the bench to match teammate Asa Williams with a team-high 15 points. He also grabbed five rebounds and dished three assists as Tech beat Westmont 83-69 in the packed arena.
KP might be onto something, I thought. But Tech still had to play a very good team from Thomas Moore University the next night with a trip to Kansas City and the Sweet 16 on the line.
I thought the Orediggers had a chance to win, but I would have felt a lot better if they had Bellach in the lineup.
Thomas Moore led most of the night, but the Orediggers would not go away. Eventually, Tech won a 77-72 overtime thriller.
Michael Ure scored 22 points, and Williams tossed in 18. Hayden Diekhans, a redshirt freshman who is making Montana and Montana State look silly for not signing him, posted a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
Diekhans, like always, also played lights-out defense.
Simply put, it was the most fun I had watching a basketball game in a long, long time. It was an absolute blast.
The atmosphere was electric, thanks largely to a bunch of young boys who outcheered the Oredigger students before rushing the court at the end of the game.
The Orediggers were going to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
Even Bellach was having fun. He cheered on his teammates the whole game, clapping with his arms above his head after every basket or forced turnover.
This time, his hood was pulled down.
The injury to Bellach is still devastating. The timeline for an ACL is nine months — if everything goes perfectly. Odell Beckham Jr. could not make it back in time to play at the end of this past season after tearing one of his in the previous Super Bowl.
You are looking at more than a year for your leg to be back to normal, if it is ever back to normal.
But, as KP pointed out, the Orediggers are so much more than one player.
Without Bellach last night, the Orediggers knocked of William Penn, the No. 1 seed in the Cramer Quadrant, in another overtime thriller, this time 79-78.
The Orediggers will play in the round of eight on Wednesday. They are three wins away from bringing home the national championship.
This Montana Tech team does not have a single senior on the roster, and they still will enter the 2023-24 season as the odds-on favorite to win another Frontier Conference championship. With Coach Adam Hiatt, the Orediggers are on solid ground for, hopefully, years to come.
Losing the conference MVP and then going to the Elite Eight — at least — at the National Tournament is a sign that your program is in amazingly great shape.
It might be next January, or it could even be during the 2024-25 season, but Bellach will eventually return to add a weapon to an already-potent team.
If you know anything about the former Manhattan Christian star whose parents were both standouts for the Orediggers, you know Bellach will come back better than ever.
Before the Orediggers left to Kansas City, Hiatt took to Facebook to share his thoughts about Bellach.
“We love this guy so much,” the coach said. “He is a phenomenal basketball player, but even better man. He is beloved by our kids, his teammates and the community. There is no doubt his best days are ahead of him.”
The same thing could be said about Hiatt’s Orediggers.
It just took me a little time and some great words from KP to see that.
— Bill Foley, who is too much of a basket case to watch basketball, can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.