FLORENCE, S.C. – The memories, the emotions. They all hit Francis Marion University men’s basketball coach Gary Edwards at once.
They weren’t from the court, but from the interview room. That’s where he enjoyed years of interviews, humor and camaraderie with Morning News assistant sports editor Mark Haselden.
Not long after his team’s 110-63 victory Thursday against Methodist, Edwards was not as much for talking about his team’s victory as he was talking about Haselden, who died earlier in the day as a result of cancer.
“This is a sad day, a sad night – particularly in this room,” Edwards said of Haselden, a 991 FMU graduate. “When I walk in, I see this background and everything. This is where my friend, Mark Haselden, would be and do the interview, and we’d have some jokes, and we’d have some laughs and just have fun after a game – whether it was a win or a loss.”
As for this victory, the Patriots’ home opener, the Patriots held a pregame moment of silence in Haselden’s memory and dedicated the victory to him.
“Everybody felt it. Everybody felt the emptiness, the loss,” Edwards said. “It was a little melancholy for some of us, because the younger guys like the freshmen didn’t know Mark.
“But we’re telling them about him,” he added. “And it didn’t hit me until after the game. A couple of times, I would look over to the little press table – and I’d say to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s where he’d usually be.’”
What Haselden would have seen Thursday was a dominant effort by the FMU defense. The Patriots scored 30 points off of turnovers and 45 via fast breaks.
“It’s nice that we played a little defense at times,” said Edwards, whose team is 2-1. “We still have a ways to go, defensively. I think we’re going to score some points. But we’ve got to continue to keep working on defense and keep getting better there.”
For a team that has 14 freshmen, it was fitting that one of them led the Patriots in scoring. Kailex Stephens dunked four times and finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds. His first dunk accounted for FMU’s first points, and his third gave the Patriots a 31-8 lead.
“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive,” Stephens said. “In practice, the coaches got on to me about just laying the ball up. They want me to be aggressive at the rim. And, I just carried that over to the game.”
Just when it appeared Stephens might get that fourth dunk before halftime, a one-handed attempt clanked.
“I mean, on that play the ball was wet and it slipped out of my hands,” Stephens said. “If the ball wasn’t wet, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Thursday’s most impressive dunk, however, belonged to Winston Hill, who thrust a two-handed dunk past a defender for a 106-61 lead.
But Stephens was not done.
Off the break, he took a pass from Julian Smith with 4.2 seconds left and converted on his final dunk – with two hands, this time – to account for the final score.
Teammate Je’Quan Perry had 18 points, followed by Brandon Parker with 17 points and seven rebounds, Ryan Davis (10 points, 10 rebounds) and Kendall Wall (12 points).
FMU also finished with 27 assists.
“Our first game, we had eight assists and lost. That’s not us,” Edwards said. “We share the ball very well. We made 27 assists against Newberry (a win), and we had 27 assists tonight. That’s what we have to do.”
Edwards’ analysis might have been about the game. But his heart was about Haselden.
“He battled with uncommon grace,” Edwards said. “There’s going to be a lot of people who miss him. And certainly there’s going to be people who miss him here at Francis Marion and all over, because he touched a lot of people.”
Then, Edwards joked about Haselden’s enthusiasm for baseball.
“He was a BASEBALL guy, now, and he tolerated basketball,” Edwards said with a laugh and a smile. “He tolerated basketball, and I knew that. He was a baseball guy through and through. He tolerated basketball, and he tolerated me.”
And then Edwards paid tribute to Haselden’s demeanor as a sports writer.
“He probably was more kind to me than he should have been just from a coaching standpoint, because I had some stinky years” Edwards said. “Some sports writers would maybe rip a coach or that kind of thing. But he had so much humanity and was a good guy, he never really ripped me when he could have ripped me.”
Then, Edwards bid farewell to Haselden.
“It’s the passing of an era in some ways, but the memories will always be there,” Edwards said. “He was a Francis Marion guy, and he loved Francis Marion.
“And, we loved him, too.”