AP Sports Writer
DENVER (AP) -- The player nicknamed The Machine for his relentless energy on the court was nearly shut down, his basketball career finished.
Denver guard Chase Hallam fractured a vertebra and herniated a disk in his back simply by rolling over in his sleep late last season. Doctors feared he might never play again.
Through rehab and rest, though, the lone senior for Denver returned at the start the season and is leading the squad with his tenacity. Even more, he has the Pioneers (19-8) in line for something that has never happened in school history -- earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.
They close out the regular season by hosting Louisiana Tech (26-3) on Saturday, a final test before heading into Western Athletic Conference tournament, where more than likely only the winner will earn a spot in the big show.
"The way we're playing right now, the guys that we have, I feel we can (make it)," said Hallam, who's from Mesquite, Texas. "We're capable of beating anyone."
Hallam does a little bit of everything for the Pioneers, averaging 10 points a game and grabs nearly four rebounds. But his forte is defense and he has 60 steals, which is just 11 shy of the team's single-season mark.
"He's been valuable staying the course, really adapting to his role this year, really embracing it," DU coach Joe Scott said. "That's rubbed off on the other guys. They all just play in a way where they're just going to do what they need to do to help the team. That has a lot to do with Chase."
He's playing like, well, The Machine, a moniker he picked as a freshman, when an assistant coach saw him working on his shot long after everyone else had gone home for the night. He remarked that Hallam was "a machine."
It stuck. And this only enhanced his nickname: When Hallam tried to give blood one day, trainers couldn't find a vein.
One of his teammates quickly quipped, "He takes oil to keep his engine going."
Hallam certainly has this squad operating like a well-oiled machine, winning eight straight games.
To think, he nearly didn't take the floor this season.
He was bothered by a balky back last season, but didn't give it much thought until he rolled over in his sleep at 4 a.m. to searing pain. He couldn't even move for two hours.
"Hurt so bad," said Hallam, who missed the final three games last season -- the only contests he's sat out in his career.
For six weeks, Hallam had to wear a back brace that restricted all movement.
And then for six months, he couldn't shoot or run the floor, with doctors warning him there was a chance his career might be done.
He knew better, though. It's difficult to keep The Machine offline for long.
"Just had to go in and get a little repair," chuckled Hallam, whose older brother, Travis, played alongside him at DU last season. "Just needed a little maintenance."
He eschewed surgery in favor of rehab. So all summer he worked on core exercises to strengthen his back. Occasionally, he slipped in some free throws, just to keep his touch.
Finally feeling good at the end of the summer, Hallam returned to the doctor, hoping to receive clearance.
But they soon discovered he had a stress fracture in a vertebra, meaning three more weeks of no running and no shooting. It was a blow since the season was just around the corner.
However, just before the start of practice, Hallam was cleared to play.
"There was a little rust," he said. "I couldn't even finish a layup. I was like, 'Oh man, this is going to be a long road back.'"
In typical fashion, The Machine went to work, staying late after practice.
Soon, his timing returned.
And within no time, he was back to his customary form.
"Pretty impressive -- not picking up a ball for five months, not playing competitively for six months, not running up and down the court with a guard guarding you, because that's what he did," Scott said. "When the season started, he had to round into playing and it took probably six, seven games. But since that time, he's been really consistent in terms of his mental approach, which is most important to me."
He's simply enjoying the moment. No longer does he take games for granted, not after his back injury.
"I was like, 'I might never play basketball again,'" said Hallam, who has a standing offer with an accounting firm once he graduates (he has a 3.9 grade point average), but wants to try playing overseas. "I was to the point where I couldn't even walk. It hurt that much. If I sat down too long in one spot and got up, I was in pain for about 30 minutes. I stuck it out and rehab got me here.
"This is my senior season, the last time I get to play with my best friends. That means a lot to me."
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