If you aren't a basketball fan, specifically a NCAA March Madness enthralled, bracket obsessed, round-ball fixated groupie, just move on. Innkeeper Dave is infected. Fortunately like the heros in the Twilight saga the curse is not fatal and he will come back to some kind of "normal" just in time for the heart break of new Red Sox season. Today's post is his description of his day at the first round of the Eastern playoffs held on Thursday at the Dunk in nearby Providence.
Out of the House at 9:30, giving me three hours to get to Providence, find a free parking spot and stand on line or chase a scalper for a ticket. Gorgeous day, temps in the 60s, no traffic. I'm on the Broadway off ramp by 10:10 and miraculously Seely's parking pass for the Johnson & Wales faculty lot is still working. I knew there'd be a fringe benefit to sleeping with a professor somewhere down the line. Since all the garages are charging at least $20 for all day spaces, I'm already ahead of the game. The hike across downtown takes 14 minutes and I notice as I approach the Dunkin Donuts Center that there are least four outdoor vendors hawking beer within a block of the arena. Thanks, NCAA for banning beer sales on site.
At the box office by 10:35 and there is no line to speak of. Five will call windows: one for each team in the afternoon session, one for locals and one actually selling. I have two ducats (afternoon and evening session) in my hand by 10:45 at a cost of $150. They will be worth every penny. With two hours until tipoff I decide on a quick road trip over to Providence Place mall. I have to work upstream against a torrent of people with Philly accents wearing all manner of Villanova gear. I hit the CVS on level three for a package of throat lozenges (honey lemon) a roll of tums (stadium food protection) and a heat pack in case my leg swells from the cramped seating and ups and downs. (When your age reaches the speed limit you learn to anticipate disaster).
In my seat by 11:55 and I immediately take a liking to the Robert Morris (15 seed) rooting section in Secs. 105-106. Bare-chested male students with Red Rs and blue Ms painted on their chests. Females with faces painted in school colors. Middle aged folks who should know better sporting tri-cornered hats like the Colonial mascot. They were loud and they were proud. And their team gave them something to shout about. Villanova star Scottie Reynolds did not start (disciplinary issues) and the Cats looked out of synch. The Bobs maintained a small lead right up till halftime 28-22. When the stats came up on the big board I couldn't decide which was worse, that Nova had 7 field goals or just 6 rebounds. With fans filing in for the second game, the building was nearly 3/4 full, not bad for Thursday afternoon session in the Northeast.
Normally in these situations the power school gets a stern lecture at halftime, comes back on the court breathing fire and takes over the game. Nova did its part, but Bob Morris refused to fold. When their freshman point guard completed a four-point play to make it 42-34, I thought an orgy might break out in Sec. 106. I texted brother Sam: "This could happen!" But just as Villanova began to look desperate, the officials took over the game. In the final 3:57 Reynolds, who couldn't hit the water from the Riverwalk (2-for-13 from the floor) was sent to the line on FOUR straight possessions. And then things careened out of control and for the first time in 25 years I nearly got in a fist fight. The scene:
0.9 seconds to play score tied, Nova inbounding under its own basket with a chance to win. And as the ref is handing the ball to the inbounder, the Richmond fan three seats to my left decides to take a walk. I was so intent on watching the players line up and trying to anticipate the play that I didn't notice him. "Move your fat ass, buddy." I lurched to my feet and snarled "Excuse me for watching the game!" He then gave me a two-handed shove that sent me staggering into the aisle and stomped down the steps. I looked up just in time to see the inbounds lob pass glance off the fingers of an open Wildcat. Overtime!
Unfortunately Bob Morris is out of gas and Nova scores the first six to take control. With less than two minutes to go the Richmond fans returns with two hot dogs. I see him coming and am in the aisle before he gets to my seat.
"I see you learned some manners," he smirks.
"Too bad you haven't learned respect for the game," I snapped.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"No real fans goes for a dog with a team inbounding under it's own basket with .9 seconds left to win the game."
"I don't give a crap about either of these teams."
"Exactly my point."
"I ought to punch your lights out."
Whereupon a guy behind us shouts "Sit down you morons!" Richmond fan's friend grabbed his elbow and dragged him back to his seat averting further ugliness. The Bobs fought back and got the ball with 9 second to play, down three, but a desperation trifecta clanked off the back rim. Three games to go.
As I stretched my legs between games, I ran into several of the young Bob Morris fans in the halls. They were sporting a glassy-eyed stare that fell somewhere between the "my dog died" face and the "Bernie Madoff ruined my life" face. "You deserved better," I said. "The zebras stampeded you." They nodded acknowledgement, but the wound was too fresh to be salved. I made a snap decision to buy a Robert Morris T-shirt in solidarity. I always take at least one souvenir home from these things and the valiant Colonials were definitely worth a tribute. After a hot dog and a throat lozenge I was ready for Game 2: St. Mary's vs Richmond.
Clutching my NCAA bag, I decided to move a few rows back to avoid further confrontation with angry Spider-fan. But I must admit I took a perverse joy in watching his team get eviscerated by a well-coached group of Gaels. I'm a shallow, shallow man. In the first half St. Mary's center Omar Samhan put on a low-post clinic: He scored turning to the baseline, fading away, bulling into the paint, off the Kevin McHale up and under move. When they double-teamed him, he found cutters and spot-up shooters for open looks. He had 17 points in 13 minutes before picking up his third foul and sitting out the half.
He added 10 more before getting No. 4 midway throught the second stanza with the Gaels up eight. But then St. Mary's really impressed me. With the big man sitting, they completely changed their game to an open post, motion offense with back picks for baseline shooters. They nailed three after three and had the lead up to 18 before my nemesis slunk out with his tail between his legs. Omar the hoopmaker finished with 29 points and 12 boards in 28 minutes of work. Anybody who plays the Gaels is going to have to earn a W.
Because of the OT game we had a little over an hour before the evening session. Nipped over to Murphy's Irish Pub (a dive two blocks from the Journal). I was still belching hot dog so I went light with a turkey club and passed on the fries. By now I was tired of lugging the bag, so I pulled the Bob Morris T-shirt over my rugby. My seats for Session II were on the opposite side of the court, seven rows up in the second tier across from the top of the key.
I decide five minutes into the game that there's no way these small, skinny Ohio kids could hang for 40 minutes with the beefy future pros from Georgetown. I was not moved when they built a 12-point lead late in the first half. I'd been burned in my 2.5 hour relationship with Robert Morris and I wasn't ready to commit again. I did notice, however, that Ohio did have the one thing that marks a classic tournament sleeper: spectacular guard play. Their backcourt was beating the Hoyas off the dribble at will.
We were seated right above the Ohio rooting section, which meant I got a good look at the best pep squad of this regional by far. Tennessee's cheerleaders were hotter, but the Ohio girls were cute, perky and terrific at what they do. The dance routines were simple, but flawless. Everybody on beat, no wobbly knees on the pyramids, and they cheered every second except when free throws were being shot. I'll be hearing O-H-I-O in my sleep for weeks. Even the band was outstanding. By the middle of the second half I wanted to wrap them up and take them back to the inn. Wouldn't chores be more fun with a spirit squad: "Trim that hedge . . . Fold those towels . . . Flip that pancake!"
Back at the game Georgetown made a brief run to close to within eight, but back-to-back threes from Ohio's dynamic duo opened it up. Could the Bobcats do what Bob Morris couldn't? Slay the Big East behemoth? You betcha Mrs. Palin. The Bobcat backcourt (DJ Cooper and Armond Bassett) combined for 55 points on 18-29 from the field, 10-18 from three-point land. The Final was 97-83. With Notre Dame and Marquette also losing it was tough day in the Big Least.
By the time the final game started I'd had six people congratulate on how well my team (based on the T-shirt) played and how badly were were screwed by the refs. I decided to be gracious in defeat to shed the best light possible on this school I'd barely heard of until they made the tournament last year. I had a big, hot soft pretzel between games and the salt scorched my raw throat, so it was back to the lozenges before Tennessee tipped off with San Diego State. The building was close to a sellout by now, though many folks would drift away in the second half.
The game was ragged and sloppy, which is pretty much the way the Vols play. Pump up the pace and don't worry about the turnovers and airballs. They seem to take shots based on degree of difficulty. Why go straight up and release at the apex if you can double pump, contort your body and release off your left ear. But Tennessee offered one great moment moment of low comedy. Bruce Pearl coaches the Vols and his son is on the team. He plays about four minutes a half and was by far the worst player I saw on the floor yesterday. His teammates won't pass him the ball and he loves to make the false hustle play. By the middle of the second half two guys in front of me were nudging each other when he walked to the scorer's table. "Heee's baaaack."
At halftime, I check my bracket. Not too bad considering all the upsets. I had Old Dominion over ND and Murray over Vandy, and eveybody missed GTown, so no need to crumple yet. I was pissed that Marquette blew a 16-point lead. Back in my seat I had to keep checking the scoreboard. It seemed like the Vols should be up at least 10, but SDS was only down three. Too many whistles. But Tennessee's J. P. Prince won the playing possum award after he collapsed, rolled over and feigned death after being barely bumped by an Aztec. SDS kept hanging around but couldn't get over the hump. Vols 62-59.
As I hobbled across town to the car at 12:35, I reflected on the day. I had seen the biggest upset (Ohio over Georgetown), a near miss in OT (Bob Morris), dozens of alluring cheerleaders, a low post clinic, great fans (Ohio and Bob Morris), an insufferable jerk (Spider-fan), two games that went to the final possession (Villanova and Tennessee), great guard play (Ohio) and nepotism at its funniest (Steven Pearl). Not bad for $150.
Your Hoops reporter