Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Weather Outside May Be Frightful, But the College Basketball Inside is So Delightful

Neither snow blizzard, nor canceled babysitter as a result of such, could keep Tieff and me from our appointed duties of seeing college basketball today. First a very huge thank you to my real true love, my wife, Chelle, who was kind enough to bring the kids with her to work today. Apparently where she works at an assisted living home (where she is the recreation director), they have a nice movie theater and the kids were able to watch their favorite DVDs.

Now speaking of the big kid, I was now able to go to the Foot Locker Holiday Festival. It used to be hosted by Aeropostale, who now would rather sponsor the Holiday Classic featuring teams like Duke and Gonzaga. But that's ok, we got to see three very solid mid major teams and an up and coming St John's team. Tieff had to shovel himself out and picked me up late (I had been up since 5:30 am shoveling, so I was all done by 9:00 am, with a little help from my neighbor and his snowblower). Thus we got there for the Cornell-Davidson game in the second half with 10 minutes left.

The Big Red and the Wildcats made up for our lateness over the next 15 minutes (I just gave away partly what happened here). The Wildcats had just made their way back from a thirteen point halftime deficit within the first few minutes we got there, in large part due to the play of freshman forward Jake Cohen. Cohen, J.P Kuhlman (4 of 5 from beyond the arc) and Brendan McKillop combined to score 52 of the Wildcats 88 points.

The Wildcats would take the lead for the first time in the game it turns out at 63-61 with 6:23 left. And the rabid Davidson fans, who made up most of the nearly 6,000 paid attendance (but it seemed less than that, say 4,000 due to the weather), let their Wildcats know their appreciation. After the lead changed hands several times, Kuhlman nailed a three to give Davidson the lead 74-73 with a little over a minute left. Davidson held Cornell on the next possession but Cohen would only hit one of two to give the Wildcats a two point lead. After the Big Red threw away the ball, again Cohen was fouled. This time he missed BOTH free throws and Cornell made him pay with as Louis Dale hit a layup with less than a second left to tie up the game at 75 and force overtime.

It was all you could ask for in a game - dueling three pointers, seemingly crushing turnovers, equally as crushing missed free throws and then again big shots. Then things got even crazier in the overtime. Cornell jumped out to a 86-82 as Cornell's leading scorer Ryan Wittman (and yes, that is former Indiana Hoosier star Randy Wittman's son) nailed a three pointer to put up Cornell by four with 1:25 left.

But Davidson came back on a Kuhlman three to cut it to one. Then it was Cornell's turn to miss free throws. Dale missed both free throws and Kuhlman only made of two on the ensuing possession to tie the game at 88. Then when it seemed we were headed to a second overtime, Wittman got the ball from Big Red Center Jeff Foote and buried a 30 footer at the buzzer, to set off the Big Red frenzy shown above. Cornell wins 91-88.

Davidson shot 50 percent from the field, 35 of 70, but only 8 of 15 from the line, which ultimately doomed them. Cornell shot 33 of 72, but 12 of 15 from the line. Both teams shot well from three - Davidson shot 10 of 22 while Cornell shot 13 of 29. Wittman led all scorers with a game high 29 and he is almost as good a shooter as his dad was. Seven footer Foote added 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Big Red.

I always find it funny that after the first game is over in a tournament, fans from both teams, whether the winning team or the losing team decide to leave. Yes, I know we're in New York City and if you're from western North Carolina or upstate New York, you might want to be a tourist, especially around the Christmas season. But wouldn't some of you want to watch the next game, just to see what your opponent is like. I guess that's just me.

Anyway, the remaining fans got to see another good game in the second half of the Festival as Hofstra took on St John's. The Pride had won the last four games from the Red Storm, including their last meeting in the Holiday Festival in 2006. Hofstra had also won five of the seven games in the decade vs. St John's, which shows how much Hofstra has improved and to be honest, how much the Johnies have declined.

Now one of the things you can clearly see when watching mid major teams vs. power conference teams is the difference in size. And I am not talking about height, especially since Cornell has a seven footer in Foote and Hofstra has 6-10 Greg Washington. I am talking about more muscular, bigger, stronger players. And this was very evident in the difference between St John's and Hofstra. Washington is 6-10 but 200 pounds while St John's Dele Coker is 6 -10 but 253 pounds. The Pride's Halil Kanacevic is 6-8 and 245 pounds (seems less to me) while the Red Storm's Sean Evans is 6-8 and 256 pounds (seems more to me).

This size differential would come into play immediately as St John's jumped out to a 10-2 lead, as the Pride simply could not keep the Johnies off the glass. The Pride would come back thanks to juniors Charles Jenkins and Greg Washington and freshmen Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams. Hofstra cut the lead to 12-11 and the game would be very close for the rest of the first half, as the teams traded runs - St John's would go on a 7-0 run, Hofstra would respond in kind. This was due in large part to the Jonnies woeful free throw shooting (3 of 8 from the line) offsetting their clear advantage on the boards (29-20 rebounding advantage).

Dwight Hardy had a very solid first half for St John's scoring 11 points. D. J. Kennedy had 8 points and Evans had 7. Hofstra was surprisingly very balanced. Jenkins had 13 points on 6 of 11 shooting (including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc), Washington had 9 points on 4 of 9 shooting and Williams had 8 points (including 2 of 2 from the three point line) and 5 assists.

So with the score 37-36 at halftime, Hofstra came out with the lineup I have been wanting to see starting all season - Williams, Jenkins and Nathaniel Lester at the guards, Washington and Kanacevic at the forwards (perhaps coach Tom Pecora has finally tired of Miklos Szabo's ineffective play). And the lineup came through with an 8-0 run and Hofstra was up seven, 44-36.

When Hofstra plays well, it's often due to good ball movement, initiated by Williams. He is incredibly quick, sees the court extremely well and passes very effectively. Williams had seven assists in the game and only one turnover. That's his most impressive stat, his assists to turnover ratio is 3.2 to 1, which is terrific for a freshman.

However, there was a key point in yesterday's game that changed the face of the game. Williams picked up his fourth foul with about seven minutes left and headed to the bench. The Pride then became one dimensional with Jenkins running the point and the team seemed like it did often last year, no one moving around and waiting for Jenkins to do something. And thus the Pride's 59-54 lead with less than six minutes left would eventually disappear.

And give the Johnies credit, they took advantage. Not that they shot any better from the field in the second half (38 percent in the first half, 38 in the second half) but they drove the lane and worked it inside and drew fouls. Lots of fouls. Greg Washington, who had no fouls in the first half, had five in the second half alone. The Red Storm shot 15 of 21 from the free throw line, as opposed to Hofstra who only shot 3 of 8 from the line in the second half.

The bigger Johnies simply wore down the Pride in the second half. The Red Storm guards and forward Justin Brownlee swarmed over Jenkins, who only shot 3 of 11 in the second half and had several shots blocked by Brownlee (5 blocks) and Kennedy (3 blocks). When Williams did come back into the game with four minutes left, he too found himself swarmed by St John's defense.

Combine the rebounding advantage (53-41), swarming defense and the solid free throw shooting and you had the makings of a St John's run. A big run. Try an 18-1 run to end the game as the Johnies won 72-60. Yes, the Pride scored one point over the last five plus minutes. Now I know why St John's is 9-1 and has beaten Siena, Temple and now Hofstra (with their only loss a respectable nine point defeat at Duke). It's due to great defense. St John's will be very competitive in the Big East.

Kennedy led the Red Storm with 19 points and 15 rebounds. Hardy added 17 and Brownlee also had a double double with 10 points and 13 rebounds (Sean Evans also had double figures in rebounds with 10). Jenkins would have 24 points but down the stretch he was shut down. Williams had 14 points but again, he too was shut down at the end. Kanacevic would only have 4 points on 2 of 12 shooting but he did hold his own on the glass with 11 rebounds.

So, Monday's Holiday Festival action will have Davidson vs. Hofstra at 7 pm and the championship game will be a very festive color - The Big Red of Cornell vs. the Red Storm of St John's at 9:30.

So we left MSG but our trip was not done yet. We were heading to Storrs to supposedly see our friend Tony Bozzella's Lady Gaels vs the #1 ranked Lady Huskies of UConn. Our trip to Storrs started later than we thought thanks to the Cornell-Davidson overtime game running over. We both thought the game was a 7:00 pm start. As we were at least 30 minutes outside of Storrs at around 6:45 pm, for some reason I decided to check the Iona web site on my cell phone, where I had stored it as a favorite. I saw the link for the game and it said 19:55 left in the first half with no score.

Huh? I refreshed it again. Still same thing. Then I checked it a third time.

UConn 43 Iona 18 with less than two minutes left in the first half. Uh Oh.

Then we found out. The game started at 6:00 pm. Why a game starts at 6:00 pm is beyond me? But that's what it was, a 6:00 pm start. The game was probably at half time now. We would be lucky to see the end of the game after finally getting there, then parking and walking to the arena. We decided to turn back. I texted Bo and told him what happened. I felt horrible.

It had been a day of disappointments. First Hofstra led most of the second half until a combination of St John's defense and bad offensive execution resulted in a St John's win. Second, the Jets, the girl that always breaks my heart, leads most of the game against the Falcons, only to see the Falcons finally score a touchdown on their last possession beating the Jets 10-7 and ending any chance Gang Green has of going to the playoffs. Now this.

How do you make up for a day of disappointments? Well, it so happens we were near New Haven, which happens to be the home of the original Frank Pepe's Pizza Place on Wooster Street in the Little Italy section of New Haven. Frank Pepe's is the BEST pizza I ever had. We went to the Frank Pepe's in Bridgeport in February before the Hofstra-Fairfield Bracketbusters game. As noted in that article, it was first recommended to me by my friend Bob Sugar, the equipment manager at Post through Hofstra Sports Information Officer Jeremy Kniffin. Again, we had the chicken and pepperoni large pie. And we were so stuffed, we wrapped the rest of ours up to take home.

But being the good husbands that we are, we each got another small mozzarella pie for our wives. Our way of saying thanks for letting us go to the games today. Since we both married italian girls, it should be interesting to see what they think of Frank Pepe's.

But we weren't done yet. If you are a dedicated reader of this site, you know that there is a tradition with Tieff and me. Whenever we are on the road, we try to find either a Waffle House or a Dairy Queen. Tonight, we decided to search for the latter. Thanks to Tieff's built in navigation system on the Durango (known otherwise as "The Big Red Machine"), we found two Dairy Queens in New Haven. Unfortunately, the first one was out of business. Then we had hope for the second one since it was near I95. Alas, it was closed too.

So we had to settle for McFlurries at the next door Mickey D's. Acceptable, but nowhere near as good as a Blizzard (a DQ Blizzard that is). Then I noticed something out the car door window and I took this picture.

I don't know if you will be able to see in the picture, but the sign below the DQ says "Closed. See you in March." See you in March? You know, March is our favorite month of the year here at the College Hardwood. It just goes to show you that despite a day of disappointments, hope always springs eternal. Isn't that what it's all about?

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