Oto Osenieks had a senior moment.
This senior moment was not about forgetting, but about remembering something for the rest of his life.
“Nobody can ever take this away from me,” he said.
Sunday, the Gophers beat Penn State 81-63 to keep them in contention for an NCAA tournament bid. It was Senior Day, meaning coach Richard Pitino honored senior players and their families before the game, and asked them to speak to the crowd after.
Three of the players honored — Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Malik Smith — were playing in their last scheduled game at Williams Arena. The fourth — Osenieks — is a senior in terms of classwork but a junior in terms of athletic eligibility.
Osenieks began the season as a starting forward looking forward to two seasons under Pitino. Then his left knee, twice repaired when he was a youngster, started bothering him. He discovered that his knee joint had become little more than bones rubbing together.
Six weeks ago he realized he could no longer compete. “I couldn’t jump off of that knee, couldn’t play defense, couldn’t play this game at a high level,” he said. “I’ve been trying to play through it. Then we did an MRI and they said there was a cartilage breakdown and all kinds of other stuff in there. The doctors said they can’t really fix it.
“There’s no surgery for it. I talked to people who said, ‘Well, if you want to walk when you’re older you probably shouldn’t play basketball at a high level.’ ”
Pitino announced last week that Osenieks would not be a scholarship player next season, but would stay with the program as a coach. “The reason we announced that … was I wanted to honor him tonight,” Pitino said. “If we didn’t have that opportunity, I would have waited and we would have worked on it in the offseason. But I just wanted him … he’s such a good kid and representative of the university that I wanted him to have this opportunity to get a jersey, speak to the crowd, and I got him in.
“I didn’t want to show up Penn State. I wanted to find a way to get him on the court, somehow. I was struggling to figure it out.”
Late in the game, PItino inserted Osenieks to inbound the ball, then removed him from the game a few seconds later. Osenieks received an ovation, and a dozen handshakes and hugs. In the boxscore, he is credited with “0+” minutes of playing time.
“I got really sad,” Osenieks said. “I was almost crying.”
Osenieks said this after dressing in the Gophers locker room. Behind him, in his locker, was a hand-scrawled sign reading “Oto-Matic.” All around him, players were joking, relaxing, conducting interviews in the satisfied glow of victory. Osenieks knows he’ll miss that.
He grew up in Latvia. At 17, he was waking up in the middle of the night to watch college and pro basketball from the U.S. “I decided, ‘I want to do that,’ ” he said. “And when I did that, it was my dream come true. It was really, really fun, with the fans here and the atmosphere.
“It’s been wonderful. I made a lot of new friends, had great teammates. I met my fiancée here. It really has been wonderful.”
As Pitino introduced Osenieks to the crowd after the game, the coach asked if anyone had a summer job for Osenieks. Osenieks wants to stay in town this summer and prepare for his new career, but he is not ready to turn the page, even after the most poignant “0+” minutes of his career.
“I’m still in the process,” he said. “The doctor put a shot in my knee, something like a gel. Right now, it still hurts bad, but the doctor said it might help.
“I’m still trying to practice with the team, through the pain. I’m trying to tough it out this year and stick with the team until the end.
“And if coach will let me in, I’ll play.”
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org