Friday, November 26, 2010

Train Delays, The Party Night of the Year and VCU Falls Short at MSG

I was eagerly awaiting these next four days off from work.  It's been a really busy last several months and it's going to only get even busier starting next week.   My plan for Wednesday was simple - race out of work, make a clothing change in the car that would make Clark Kent proud, take the 5:24 express from Hicksville into Penn Station and meet up with my friends Mal and Tieff for the NIT Season Tip-off.

The first two parts of the mission were accomplished and I got to the Hicksville train station in time...to see the 5:24 Ronkonkoma express branch train was delayed 35 minutes due to signal trouble.   The next train, a 5:27 local from Port Jefferson was delayed 14 minutes due to a "medical emergency on board the train."   So a whole lot of city goers were standing on the platform on a cold November evening wondering when the next LIRR train would appear.

The day before Thanksgiving is known as either the biggest party night of the year or as the single biggest day of drinking of the year.  As I drove home from Hicksville Train station Wednesday night, there was a news story on this on the midnight national CBS radio report.  A Detroit club owner noted he made as much money on the night before Thanksgiving as he did for a typical week.

And that usually means lots of young twenty somethings trekking to New York City for fun, festivities and alcohol.  Wednesday was no exception.   As I waited for the train, I noticed a pretty young girl in her twenties wearing only a long purple blouse, black pants and stilletto heels that were so long, they should be registered as lethal weapons.

A man next to me in a beige hooded sweatjacket and I had been conversing about the train delays.  He noticed her and told her to stand by us in front of a large billboard to cut down on the wind.  I then decided to take off my jacket and put it over her.  She at first resisted, looking at me like "what do you want in return for this?"  But after I insisted saying "It's ok really" and hopefully giving her the look that I really didn't want anything in return, she allowed me to put the jacket over her.  She then noted to us something like "I rushed to get to the train, I didn't think it was going to be delayed", followed with an appreciative thank you.  Having waited outside of clubs in my mid 20's with no jacket due to not wanting my leather jacket to wreak of cigarette smoke,  I could weather several minutes with just a long sleeve mock turtleneck.

The 5:27 finally showed 16 minutes late and packed.  The pretty girl in the purple blouse handed me my jacket and again gave me an appreciative thanks.  I said "Happy Thanksgiving" to both her and the beige sweatshirt samaritan and went up the platform to a less crowded train car.   Apparently everyone was taking advantage of the Party Night of the Year and the train from Port Jefferson to New York resembled one giant sardine can.

As I stood on the train holding one of the rails by the entrance to the car, it was apparent that the train was going to get more crowded as the train went to each of its next stops - Westbury, Carle Place and the always crowded Mineola.   Each time there was a stop, more and more people shoehorned into already jammed pack train cars.   The train conductor over the PA system kept imploring people to move in and make way for others getting on the train,

Finally at the Merillon Avenue stop, the conductor announced on the platform that the train was too packed and for those on the platform to wait for the Ronkonkoma express behind this train.  The Ronkonkoma express had become a local to handle the crowd.

Once the train got into Jamaica station, people started getting off for transfers.  A little more breathing room for us in our car.  But that was short lived.   Once we got to Kew Gardens, a ton of people got on there.  So many people that a man in a Kevin Boss Giants jersey who had escorted his young daughter to the bathroom on our end of the car was now unable to get back to his seat on the opposite end of our car.  Finally as we got into Penn Station, the conductor on the PA system exclaimed "WE MADE IT!"  Everyone our car got a good laugh as the conductor continued apologizing for the rough conditions and wished us all a Happy Thanksgiving.

I raced off the train, went up the stairs, then made my way through the Amtrak waiting area with all the riders waiting to head to various parts of the east coast for the holidays.  I walked my way up another flight of the stairs and made the all too familiar quick cross over to Madison Square Garden.  To me, I was home for the holidays.  Another NIT Season Tip-Off at the Garden.

Quickly I got a dog, a pretzel and a drink and headed for where Tieff was in the World's Most Famous Arena.  He had called me to tell me that he moved down from our section 110 seats to an even better view.   This was due to the fact that not a lot of people were there for the first game, VCU vs. Tennessee (we would find out later that this was a late arriving Villanova crowd).

As I noted in my article yesterday morning, VCU had been the party crasher to what C.M. Newton and the NIT boys had tried to make a Power Six final four pairing at the Garden.   However, the athletic Rams were only three point underdogs to the #24 Volunteers of Tennessee.  So the oddsmakers wisely knew that VCU was a pretty good athletic team that would give Ole Rocky Top a good run for the money (yes that pun was on purpose).

When the game started, it was definitely clear that the Rams needed to drive the lane to score.  Layups by Jamie Skeen and Ed Nixon countered their team's woeful outside shooting, as VCU was tied with Tennessee at six with 16:23 left in the first half.   Unfortunately, the Rams would only hit one Brandon Rozzell three pointer over their next ten field goal attempts.   During this time, the Volunteers went out to a 16-9 lead and threatened to extend that lead.

However, good teams find ways to stay in ball games when other facets of their game, namely field goal shooting, are lacking.  In VCU's case, it was their press defense and relentless rebounding, especially on the offensive glass, that kept them in the game.  The Rams quickly cut the Volunteers' lead to 16-14.

Then when Tennessee went on a 7-0 mini spurt to go up 23-14, again VCU responded.  The Rams whittled the lead down as VCU used the charity stripe to its advantage, scoring ten of its next fifteen points from the free throw line, while holding down Tennessee on the offensive end.  The Rams best player on the evening, Brandon Rozzell hit two free throws that would actually give VCU its only lead of the half, 29-28 with 1:47 left. Tennessee would regain the lead on a Scotty Hopson dunk and would up at the half 33-32.

VCU was only down by one point at the half, due to the fact they had hit eleven free throws and forced eight turnovers.  This was despite shooting 3 of 16 from beyond the arc and 9 of 38 overall.  The odds were that in the second half, VCU would shoot better and that spelled trouble for Tennessee.

But for a mid major team trying to upset a power six conference team,  the team generally must be on all cylinders, meaning one of its best players can't have an off night.   In March, Tieff and I saw Stony Brook give Illinois all it could handle.  But the Seawolves' best player, Muhammad El Amin,  had a truly off night, shooting 6 of 20 from the field.  Stony Brook fell short 76-66.

Wednesday night was another example of this.  VCU's Joey Rodriguez came into the game averaging 18 points and a ridiculous 10 assists per game, while shooting nearly 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc.  Grant you, none of the teams the Rams played were any good defensively as Tennessee.  Still, Rodriguez picked a bad night to shoot 1 of 10 from the field and have only two assists on the night.  Thus it seemed VCU was playing a man down all night.

The Volunteers though deserved a lot of credit.  Their guards got VCU's guards Darius Theus and Burgess into early foul trouble.  And in the second half, they shutdown VCU's drives to the basket.  The Rams were forced to hoist shots from the outside.  And Tennessee's front line of Brian Williams, Tobias Harris, Scotty Hopson, Renaldo Woolridge and John Fields were winning the rebounding war in the second half.

Now obviously when you see the number zero on the back of the jersey, you can tell Woolridge is the son of the famous Orlando Woolridge who played many seasons in the NBA.  But for CAA fans, another name there is very familiar.  John Fields played at UNCW for one season after two years at East Carolina.   In his lone season with the Seahawks, Fields averaged nearly eleven points, nine rebounds and had averaged 2.3 blocks while shooting 53 percent from the field.  Fields got his degree and took his one remaining year of eligibility and headed south to Tennessee.  VCU got to see a familiar foe again wreaking havoc as Fields had two blocks in only 13 minutes of action.

The second half was close knit for nearly the first five minutes.  Burgess' layup tied the game for VCU at 41.  But as was the case for most of the evening, the Rams couldn't get over the hump.  Tennessee responded with a 10-0 run capped by a Brian Williams two point layup as the Volunteers were having their way now inside on the small Rams lineup.   Tennessee extended the lead to eleven 57-46 with 8:30 left in the game.

VCU only had two real forwards play the entire night, Skeen and JUCO transfer Toby Veal.  Veal ended up only playing 13 minutes and thus the Rams used a lineup of Rodriguez, Ed Nixon (one of my favorite players in the CAA), Rozzell, Burgess at the four and Skeen at center.  Eventually, the size and equal athleticism of Tennessee was becoming too much for VCU.

But it didn't mean the Rams would quit.  Behind two three pointers by Rozzell and a three pointer by Rodriguez, his only field goal of the night, VCU cut the lead to two 57-55 with 5:49 left.  But with a chance to take the lead, Burgess missed his three point attempt.  Tennessee would then extend the lead again to 63-55 on a layup by Hopson, then four straight free throws by Harris and Hopson.  Four minutes left and the Rams were down eight.

But VCU had one last charge in it.  Rozzell nailed a three pointer and was fouled.  His free throw and another three free throws later were part of a 10-5 mini-spurt and again the Rams were down three, 68-65 with 2:51 left.   Again, VCU had a chance to tie, but once again a failed three point attempt, this time  by Burgess, ended up dooming the Rams, as they never got as close again.

Tennessee would end up winning the game 77-72.  Hopson had a double-double 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Williams ended up with 9 points and 11 rebounds.   Rozzell had a terrific night, leading all scorers with 23 points on 6 of 11 shooting from beyond the arc.  Skeen also had a double double with 11 points and 14 rebounds (7 were offensive rebounds).  But he only shot 2 of 10 from the field as most of his points came from the line (8 of 9 from the charity stripe).

The game went two and half hours, probably due to the fact that the teams combined for fifty five free throw attempts.  Thus a needed ice cream break was in order in preparation of the second game, Nova vs. UCLA.   We had moved back to our actual seats before the end of the first game, which were pretty good to begin with.  The crowd was definitely larger now, made up of mostly Wildcat fans.

One of the most recent annoying things in Sports is that teams' fan bases are now known as "nations".  This started of course with the Red Sox and "Red Sox Nation".  Now a lot of teams fans are known as nations, and unfortunately, Villanova has fallen into that horrible vortex.  Two Nova fans in front of us had "Wildcat Nation" T shirts on.  What was really stupid about these t-shirts was the bad outline of the United States.  Alaska was represented one fifth of its actual size.  If you are going to have a "nation", make sure to have an accurate drawing of it.

OK, off the soapbox and onto the game.  I have always been partial to Jay Wright for his years at Hofstra rebuilding the Flying Dutch, er, Pride into a successful program.  And his teams whether at Hofstra or at Nova were based on good guard play.  This season's Wildcats were no exception as Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns make up a formidable trifecta of guards.

And Villanova came out smoking in front of their faithful.  The Wildcats hit five of their first six shots and were up 13-6.   UCLA stayed in the game as the smooth shooting and aptly named Lazeric Jones hit a couple of lasers from beyond the arc to make the score 14-11.  The Bruins would continue to hang in the game on a Joshua Smith layup to trail by three, 22-19 with 11:08 to play.

Joshua Smith is one of those players you end up rooting for when you first see him on the court.  Joshua is six foot ten...and 305 pounds.  And I think the 305 listing is light.   He looks like the second coming of Oliver Miller and actually that's a compliment.  He certainly is built like Miller and he has a nice soft touch similar to when Miller was good (before he sadly seemingly ate himself out of a pro career).  And Smith had a nice night with 10 points on 5 of 7 shooting from the field in 19 minutes of action.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Bruins shot 19 of 52 from the field and were no match for the Wildcats backcourt trifecta.  Nova would outscore UCLA 22-10 the rest of the half and were up 44-29 at halftime.  We decided to leave then to catch our trains back to the Island.   Villanova would never look back in a 82-70 win over UCLA as Fisher, Stokes and Wayns combined for 61 points.

As I waited for my 11:09 train at Penn Station, I was reminded that Wednesday night was the party night of the year.   Waves of pretty young females in their twenties in short minidresses kept walking by,  Some of the minidresses were so short and so tight, my actual first thought was that I was glad that both of my children were boys.   Not that I am a prude, but I just wouldn't want to be a father of girls nowadays.

I was able to get a seat this time on the train, though it ended up being pretty well packed itself.  My train car was not full of pretty young twenty somethings in cocktail dresses.  It was full of families, probably coming back from watching the Thanksgiving Parade balloons getting blown up at Central Park.  One of these days I will take my boys to see that.  But considering how cold it was Wednesday evening, I was much better off being at the Garden.  Another Thanksgiving Eve at the World's Most Famous Arena.  Another Garden Party on the party night of the year.

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