Wednesday, March 28, 2012

UMass Falls Short at "Home" (Recap of UMass - Stanford NIT Semifinal)

Last week I was at the DAC to see UMass face Drexel in the NIT Quarterfinals.  With about sixteen minutes left in the game and the Dragons up seventeen, it seemed pretty certain there would be a little bit of Philly flavor at Madison Square Garden for the NIT Semifinals.  But the Minutemen went into a half court trap, shot seventy percent from the field in the second half and used a 26-7 run to go on and defeat the Dragons 72-70.

Considering the other NIT final four teams were Washington, Minnesota and UMass' opponent on Tuesday night, Stanford, it kind of figured from a geographical sense that the Minutemen would have the largest contingent at the World's Most Famous Arena.  But I wasn't prepared for the sea of maroon that made up most of the Garden crowd as I entered my seat in Section 118.

It was kind of fitting that MSG was transformed into a UMass home game, given the fact their first three NIT games were all on the road.  They first knocked off Mississippi State in overtime in the first round, then "upset" number one seed Seton Hall in the second round, then finally the stunning rally at Drexel last week.   But despite having the home crowd, the Minutemen still wore the road maroon uniforms since Stanford was the higher seed.

Now in the first of three ironic twists of fate for me on the evening, our seats ended up being in the only Stanford section at the Garden Tuesday night.  When I got to my seat along with my friends Tieff and Mal, the game was tied at nine as Chaz Williams hit all three of his free throws after being fouled on a three point attempt.  However, it would be a long while before I would see UMass tie the game again.

Stanford would take the lead on a jumper by Dwight Powell, who entered the game for Andrew Zimmerman, who, I'll be honest, models his appearance after the Geico Caveman spokesman.  After Terrell Vinson hit a three pointer to cut Stanford's lead to two, 16-14, the Cardinal went on a 10-0 run, thanks to a couple of threes and a couple of turnovers by the Minutemen.  Stanford was up 26-14 and the Cardinal fans in my section were, needless to say, quite happy.

This wasn't the same UMass team that I saw rally against Drexel the week before.  Instead of getting it inside to their bigs, like the terrific Vinson, they seemed too happy to either have Chaz Williams drive the lane or chuck up three pointers.  Nearly half of their thirty two shots in the first half, fifteen were three pointers.  They only hit on four of those.

One player in particular, reserve forward Freddie Riley, was firing up shots from all over the place.  It seemed like there was never a shot that Freddie didn't like to take. The problem was he wasn't hitting many of them.  Riley was two of seven from the field in the first half and one of five from beyond the arc.  Part of me was hoping that UMass Head Coach Derek Kellogg would go out and literally pull Riley off the court.

Down 28-19, the Minutemen did go on a 10-3 spurt to cut the lead to two, 31-29 with about four minutes left. In the second ironic twist of the night, Riley accounted for five of those points, as he hit his only two shots of the first half in that spurt.  UMass would enter the half only down three 36-33.  It seemed that momentum was on the side of the "home" team.

Both teams were mirror images of each other in the first twenty minutes.  UMass and Stanford had very long players.  In particular, the Minutemen's Raphaiel Putney seemed to have a nine foot wing span and he again showed a nice touch from the outside, burying two three pointers in the first half. Neither team shot the ball well.  UMass shot thirty seven percent while Stanford shot thirty three percent.  Thus there were a ton of rebounds in the first half.  UMass had twenty five rebounds and Stanford had twenty four.

At halftime, the three of us went out into the newly renovated MSG concourse.  I have to say the Garden folks did a magnificent job.  The concourse and the hallways are much, much wider.  In fact, they are so wide, they are wider than most of the concourse at Met Life Stadium.  Yes, a 20,000 seat basketball arena has a much wider concourse than an 82,000 seat football stadium.   

The food selection is also much better now at MSG.  Yes you have the standard hot dog, hamburger and fries fare.  But there is now now a lobster and shrimp roll stand (though closed), a sausage concession that sells cheese bratwurst and Carnegie Deli, which was my choice on the evening.  A turkey sandwich, piled high with meat, a warm knish and a large lemonade was my dinner.   Yes, it was about twenty five bucks.  But a Carnegie Deli turkey sandwich was much more filling than your standard small hot dog.

The second half was mostly a nip and tuck affair.  For the first sixteen minutes of the half, Stanford's largest lead was five points.   UMass would keep it close, mainly due to Williams, who scored twelve second half points, six more than any other Minutemen player.  However, UMass would only have the lead once, when Riley hit his only field goal of the second half, a three pointer that put the Minutemen up 50-49.

But Anthony Brown, who had thirteen of his career high eighteen points in the second half, drilled a three pointer to put Stanford up 52-50.  The Cardinal would not trail the rest of the way, despite committing ten second half turnovers.   This was due to UMass breaking out their half court trap midway through the second half, the same trap that helped rally them against Drexel last week.

This time, the Minutemen couldn't capitalize on those turnovers.  Williams hit two free throws to tie the game at fifty two with 7:18 left.  But after that, Stanford went on a 15-4 run over the next five plus minutes.   Duiring that span, UMass went ice cold from the field, missing eight of their nine field goal attempts.  Williams seemed out of control, missing on all three of his attempts in that span.

Stanford was up eleven, 67-56 with less than two minutes left.  The realization then finally hit me, the third ironic twist of fate. Based on the Mid Majority's criteria,  I was about to see my last game involving a mid major this season.  Fifty eight Division I games I had seen in person this season to this point. All of them had involved at least one mid major team (again based on Mid Majority's Criteria).  The other NIT semifinal pitted two Power Six conference teams.  My fifty eight game mid major streak was about to end.  The fifty ninth and last Division I game I would see live this season would be my only non mid major game.

Williams did his best to try to keep the Minutemen and the Mid Majority's last hope in the NIT alive by scoring six of his team's last eight points.   But it wasn't enough, Stanford went on to win 74-64.   The Cardinal had another thirty rebounds in the second half as they held UMass to thirty percent shooting from the field in the last twenty minutes.

Before the game had ended, a Stanford fan in the row in front of us, turned around and said "How many New Yorkers do you think will walk in to see a Stanford -Washington Championship game on Thursday?"  We all started laughing, knowing the answer.   The NCAA and the Garden's hopeful championship game cash cow, UMass, was being shown the exit door.

Stanford showed nice balance, with four scorers in double figures, led by Brown's eighteen. Josh Owens had fifteen points, Aaron Bright had thirteen and Chasson Randle had twelve points.  Meanwhile, for UMass, only Williams with nineteen points and Riley with ten had double figure.  Williams and Riley combined to shoot ten of twenty eight from the field.  Vinson, who was terrific against Drexel, only had eight points, ten less than he had against the Dragons.

Shortly after the buzzer had sounded, there was a mass exodus from the Garden seats of the folks in maroon. As Tieff, Mal and I went out to the concourse in search of ice cream, the ultimate comfort food, there seemed to be a Minuteman fan clad in team colors every two feet.   You saw the occasional Stanford, Minnesota or even the rare Washington fan.  They were though few and far between in a sea of UMass faithful.

So most of the 7500 in attendance were leaving unhappy.  It was a shame given the terrific turnout of support for their school.  Having attended many NIT games over the years at the Garden, it was definitely one of the best fan bases I ever saw for one team.

In the end though, it didn't matter.  When you shoot not even thirty four percent from the field on the game, it's hard to win, even at "home".

And last night, UMass didn't win at "home".

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Drexel's Wonderful Season Ends (Recap of UMass vs. Drexel)

When Drexel defeated Northern Iowa on Sunday in the second round of the NIT, it gave the Dragons another home game. This was assured when UMass upset Seton Hall on their home court on Saturday.  It also gave me the opportunity to purchase three tickets for the Tuesday night game at the DAC.

It also meant that Dragons' Head Coach Bruiser Flint was going to face for the first time his former pupil, Derek Kellogg, head coach of the Minutemen.  Flint was an assistant coach at UMass when Kellogg was the point guard under John Calipari.  It's a fascinating story that was described here on

I left work early on Tuesday Afternoon (cue the Moody Blues song) and picked up my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew from school.  Then my friend Tieff met up at our house and we went on our way to Philadelphia.  The trip lasted about two and half hours due to traffic on the Staten Island Expressway and the New Jersey Turnpike (a New Jersey State Trooper had to clear downed road signs from the left lane due to an accident).

When we drove down Market Street, a spot opened up literally in front of the DAC.   I parallel parked the car into the spot, then paid six bucks for three hours at the kiosk.  Needless to say, we were quite happy with our good fortune.

For Tieff and I, this was the fourth game we had seen at the DAC.  As were about to walk into the entrance, Tieff commented that the gym might be very warm tonight.  In our previous trips, the gym had been pretty warm.

But Tieff had been the harbinger of doom on Tuesday night.  When we entered the gym, it was the warmest it had ever been.  It turns out that the oppressive heat at the DAC would play an integral part of the second half.  All that was missing was Matthew Broderick commenting that the gym was "Africa hot".

Matthew was dressed for the "Africa hot" gym wearing a Drexel Dragons T-shirt.  When I was in Philly last year for the Hofstra-Drexel game, I signed him up for the Drexel Dragons Youth Club and I got him the t-shirt for free.  Matthew was excited to see his new favorite player, Samme Givens, who he watched have a terrific game vs. Northern Iowa on Sunday morning.

This was my second NIT quarterfinal that I have witnessed in person.  Back in 2006, when Hofstra "made the NIT", thanks to another NCAA Selection Committee snub, the Pride hosted a quarterfinal against Old Dominion.  Due to that NIT Quarterfinal in 2006, I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach about this.   But I did my best not to show it and hoped that Drexel would continue their run with another win on Tuesday night.

We got our tickets from Will Call and sat in one of the upper rows behind the Drexel bench.  The DACPack, the great Drexel student section, was already in their seats raring to go, chanting loudly before the tipoff.  One of those students sitting behind the UMass basket held a sign that said "Kellogg's Frosted Minutemen".  Give the kid an A for humorous originality.

Drexel did not seem fazed by the oppressive heat and stormed out to a 9-0 lead.  Samme Givens scored five of the first nine points with his usual display of post moves.  What had already been a loud gym was now way above raucous.

The Minutemen would finally score behind a very familiar face to Tieff and me. Chaz Williams, who played his freshman year at Hofstra, would score the first five points for UMass on a layup, then a three point play to cut the lead to 11-5.  Williams, who is definitely not the five foot nine he is listed at, was a member of the CAA All Rookie Team for the Pride two years ago before he transferred to the Minutemen.  When he saw Williams for the first time, my color analyst commented to me "Number three is so small".

But Drexel continued to score at will in the paint and they jumped out to a 17-5 lead. UMass would come back and cut the lead to 23-17.  But the Dragons responded and stretched the lead back to ten, where it would stay for the rest of the first half.

As I had previously noted, the Dragons kept doing most of their damage in the paint, where they scored thirty four of their forty one first half points.  Most of the damage was being done by Givens and Dartaye Ruffin, who was a member of the CAA All Rookie Team last season.  Givens had ten points, but it was Ruffin that was the most impressive.  He hit eight of his nine field goal attempts and had seventeen first half points.

Drexel was up 41-31 at the half.  Despite shooting forty seven percent, UMass was down ten points because the Dragons shot fifty one percent from the field.  It was an impressive feat by both teams considering neither team had a three pointer in the first half. The Minutemen missed both of their three point attempts while the Dragons missed all seven of their shots from beyond the arc.

Thanks to the oppressive heat, it seemed like the entire crowd was waiting on the concession line during the halftime intermission.  The concessions stand ran out of water.  Thus Matthew and I had to purchase lemonade instead.  Now this wasn't an issue for me, but for my six year old son who only drinks water, it was a big problem.  He begrudgingly and slowly drank some of his lemonade, just enough to keep him hydrated.

There was no halftime show at the DAC.  I guess the wonderful folks at ESPN, who were televising the NIT, didn't want to have any terrific performers like the Bucks County Bungee Jumpers, who we saw at the halftime of this year's Hofstra vs. Drexel game.   Considering the great atmosphere of a sold out gym and a more than lively student section, the Bungee Jumpers this time might have brought the place down.

The Dragons picked up right where they left off in the first half.   Derrick Thomas scored the first four points on layups and Drexel now had a 45-31 lead.  Kellogg immediately called timeout to wisely slow down the Dragons' momentum.  But Drexel continued to score in the paint and a Frantz Massenat three point play put the Dragons up by their biggest margin, seventeen, 53-36 with not even four minutes gone by in the second half.

It looked like the Dragons were about to punch their ticket to the World's Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden.  It seemed that Drexel was about to have the chance to show on a national stage how the Selection Committee had wrongly left them out of the NCAA Tournament.   All that stood between them and a bus trip to New York City was sixteen minutes.

That and the Massachusetts Minutemen.

UMass switched to a half court trap and that started to bother Drexel.  The Minutemen would score nine straight points and cut the lead to eight, 53-45.   Another Thomas layup briefly stemmed the tide and put the Dragons back up by ten, 55-45.  But UMass' Jesse Morgan then scored the next five points and the lead was down to five, 55-50 with eleven and a half minutes left.

In the span of four and a half minutes, the Minutemen had outscored the Dragons 14-2. During this period of time, the Dragons were one of ten from the field and turned the ball over four times.  When they weren't turning the ball over and broke the UMass press, instead of being aggressive and trying to score, Drexel just settled  into their half court offense.  Perhaps it was the heat that made them tired, but the Dragons didn't seem to have their legs.

As a result, the Minutemen continued their rally.  Terrell Vinson was doing most of the damage, along with Williams and Morgan.  Vinson scored seven of UMass' next twelve points, but it was Morgan's three that gave the Minutemen their first lead of the game, 62-60 with a little over seven minutes left.

Bruiser called timeout, perhaps a little too late.  But the damage was done.  UMass had completed a 26-7 run and left the DAC crowd stunned in silence.  The points that Drexel had scored at will in the paint in the first half had dried up due to the Minutemen converging on any Dragon in the lane.  Meanwhile, Chris Fouch had been rendered useless by the UMass' defense, as he hit on only one shot for the entire game, a three pointer early in the second half.

Out of the timeout, Givens scored to tie the game at sixty two.  But Vinson had the hot hand and scored the next six points to put the Minutemen up by six, 68-62.  The Drexel fans by me now were very anxious as they saw their season start to slip away.

But the Dragons rallied.  After Massenat hit two free throws with 1:23 left, Drexel was only down two, 72-70.  The crowd, especially the DACPack was now incredibly loud.   Vinson missed his next shot and Drexel had a chance to tie.  But McCoy missed a short open jumper and Givens just missed on a tip shot.  The Dragons were forced to foul Williams, one of UMass' best free throw shooters.

Willams though missed the front end of the one and one attempt and Drexel had a chance to tie.  Flint called timeout to setup a play.  As Drexel came out on to the court, Kellogg looked over the Dragons' offensive formation and immediately called timeout.   The chess match was on for the last sixteen seconds of the game.

As I recorded the last fifteen seconds of the game, Drexel inbounded the ball to Givens, who handed the ball to Massenat, with Williams guarding him.  Massenat dribbled back and forth at the top of the key, then got a pick from Givens.  Vinson, who had been guarding Givens, switched off and guarded Massenat, who then drove the lane.  The taller Vinson forced Massenat's shot attempt to fall short and hit off the front rim.  The ball was tapped out to center court and Fouch's desperation heave was off as the buzzer sounded.

UMass had held onto the 72-70 win.  The Drexel fans were numb, stunned by what had happened.  It was the Dragons' first home loss of the season.  In the second half, the Minutemen torched one of the best defensive teams in the CAA, shooting seventy percent (17 of 24) from the field.

Vinson scored fourteen of his eighteen points in the second half.  Williams led all scorers with twenty points, as he shot eight of thirteen from the field.  The Minutemen as a whole shot a blistering fifty nine percent for the game.

Massenat scored ten of his sixteen points in the second half, but was only six of twelve from the free throw line.   The team that had led the CAA in free throw shooting during the season at over seventy four percent only shot sixty five percent on the night, sixty percent in the second half.  Ruffin led all Dragons with eighteen, but none of those points came in the second half.  In his last game in a Drexel uniform, Givens scored twelve points, but only two in the second half.

What had I thought had been a little familiar about this game, compared to what happened to Hofstra six years ago, really now had become very similar in its outcome.  Six years ago, Hofstra, the third seed in their bracket, had won their first two games in the NIT before hosting Old Dominion in the Quarterfinals.  This included a win over second seeded St Joseph's, who just happened to be the two seed in the three seed Drexel's bracket as well this season (St Joe's lost to UNI  in the first round).

The Pride would end up losing to the Monarchs after having an early second half lead, just like the Dragons (Hofstra was up by eight compared to Drexel's seventeen point lead).  Both Hofstra against ODU and Drexel against UMass on Tuesday night seemed very tired in the second half.   In Hofstra's case, the Monarchs' physical play and deep bench wore the Pride's seven man rotation down.  On Tuesday night, the Minutemen's trap and the heat of the gym wore the Dragons' seven man rotation down.  In Josh Verlin's terrific recap of the game, Bruiser noted that they "ran out of gas at the end".

Still, even with the loss, Drexel, like Hofstra, deserved to have made the NCAA Tournament.  The Dragons had won nineteen games in a row before losing to VCU in the CAA Championship Game, then won another two games in the NIT.  Drexel won twenty nine games this season, a team record.   Unlike two of the other NCAA bubble teams; Seton Hall and Mississippi State, Drexel made it to the NIT Quarterfinals.

With the win, UMass had its third NIT road win in a row.  They had previously knocked off Mississippi State and Seton Hall.  Now they added Drexel to their impressive resume of wins.  The Minutemen head to MSG for a date with Stanford.  I get to see them one more time next week.

As for Drexel, outside of Givens, their entire team returns next season.  However, Givens will be a huge loss.  After the game was over, many people in the stands called out Samme, thanking him for his contributions over the four years.  He consoled Massenat, who was distraught from missing the potential game tying shot.

For one last time, Givens was again the consummate teammate.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Get Ready For VCU Today

As VCU prepares to play Wichita State tonight in a second round NCAA Tournament game/BracketBuster rematch from last season, prepare yourself with a little bit of background on the Rams.  Here are links to four of my game stories on VCU, including two games from the exciting CAA Tournament.  Enjoy and good luck to VCU.

Mason's Valiant Comeback Falls Short (Recap of George Mason-VCU CAA Semifinal)

The George Mason-VCU semifinal was the fifty sixth Division I game I had covered live this season.  It perhaps might be the most memorable one from start to finish.  I can probably say beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one expected the first nine minutes of the game.  But given the first nine minutes of the game, I can also say that likely no one expected the last thirty one minutes of the game either.

After Drexel had soundly defeated ODU in the warmup act, the headliner was a matchup between two CAA rivals with a long rivalry.  The Rams had knocked the Patriots out of the CAA Tournament the last two years.  Last year was the most memorable as VCU upset George Mason, the regular season champion, in the semifinals.  It's quite likely that win helped the Rams make the First Four. We all know what happened from there.

Now with a sold out crowd made up mostly of VCU fans, but with a large contingent of Mason fans as well, there was this third act. The Richmond Coliseum was loud.  And to add the cherry on top of an amazing atmosphere, the two best pep bands in the Colonial were taking turns getting their fans in a frenzy.

Mason won the tip, but immediately turned the ball over as Darius Theus stole the ball and hit a layup to put VCU up 2-0. This would become the common theme for the first nine minutes.  Another steal, another layup. 4-0 Rams. Then Troy Daniels buried a three to make it 7-0.  Another steal by Rob Brandenberg leads to his dunk. 9-0.  Burgess with three straight three pointers, the third resulting in him shaking his head down the court.  18-0 VCU.

After Mike Morrison turned the ball over again, which was George Mason's seventh turnover in not even six minutes, Daniels buried another three pointer.  Six minutes gone by, Rams up 21-0.  Timeout, Patriots.

The VCU fans in attendance that had been loud already, were now at the point of reaching all time record decibal levels of noise.  It was deafening.  Those of us that were sitting on press row, we were stunned.  VCU hit all five of their three point attempts.  Mason couldn't even get the ball down the court.

After the timeout, Brandenberg hit one of two free throws to put the Rams up 22-0.  The Patriots finally got their first two points on free throws by Sherrod Wright.  The twenty two point run had ended.  But VCU wasn't quite finished yet.

A Reddic layup was followed by another three pointer by Brandenberg.  Jonathan Arledge finally got Mason's first basket on a dunk. However, Treveon Graham followed with a three pointer for the Rams.  Two Theus free throws made the score 32-4 with a little more than nine minutes left.

That wasn't a misprint.  VCU was leading a twenty four win George Mason team 32-4 after nine minutes of action.  To put that in perspective, I had seen Iona score thirty one straight points against St Peter's exactly seven days before that.  As impressive as that was, this was more impressive. St Peter's was the ninth place team in the MAAC.  George Mason was the third place team in the CAA and basically the same team that made it to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament last season.

Only one word described how I felt sitting in my seat: Surreal.

It looked quite likely that VCU was going to break Georgia State's tournament setting record from Friday night for largest margin of victory in a CAA Tournament game, thirty five points (Georgia State defeated Hofstra 85-50 in the first round of the CAA Tournament that Friday).  The situation was desperate for George Mason and Patriots' coach Paul Hewitt desperately tried hockey line substitution changes to get his team into a groove.  It looked like the story had been set by the first nine minutes.

But someone forgot to tell George Mason that.

The Patriots' comeback started slowly.  Though they still committed a few more turnovers, Mason for the most part was able to get the ball up the court finally and hit some shots.  VCU though kept pace with them for the next six minutes and the lead was still twenty six, 46-20 with five minutes left in the half.

Then the Rams went cold from beyond the arc, missing their last five three point attempts.  This allowed the Patriots, led by Morrison and Arledge, to go on a 12-2 run to end the half.   It was now a "respectable" sixteen point deficit at the half, 48-32.

If George Mason was going to cut the lead further, they had to cut out the turnovers.  They had twelve turnovers in the first half, which led to seventeen points for VCU, which had only one turnover.  Thus the points off turnovers was in favor of the Rams 17-0.

The second half started out with Mason and VCU basically holding serve.  After six minutes, the Rams' lead was fifteen, 55-40.  The Patriots had not helped themselves, committing three more turnovers in that span.

But Hewitt made a change that ultimately helped Mason.  He had Andre Cornelius now lead the point, which brought them needed quickness against VCU.  Cornelius and Morrison combined to score all of Mason's points during their 12-4 run which cut the VCU deficit into half, 59-52 with about seven a half minutes left.  The George Mason fans roared in approval.

The Patriots' cut the lead a little further. After Morrison, who was dominant the last twenty five minutes of the game, hit two free throws, the Rams were now only ahead 64-58 with three minutes left. What had been a twenty eight point lead had whittled down to six. A lot of credit was due to the Patriots' second half defense, which held the Rams to twenty six percent shooting in the second half.

Mason had a chance to cut the lead further, but they missed four consecutive shots over two possessions. They couldn't cut the lead any further.  VCU scored eight of their last ten points on free throws.   The Rams would hold onto a 74-64 win.

Big Shot Burgess led VCU with twenty points, whild Daniels added seventeen.  They combined to shoot nine of seventeen from beyond the arc.  Brandenberg added fourteen points while Juvonte Reddic scored twelve points.  Morrison and Arledge each had doubles for George Mason.  Morrison had twenty points and eleven rebounds while Arledge had ten points and eleve rebounds. Cornelius added fifteen points.

After watching two terrific games in front of a raucous, sold out crowd over eleven thousand people, I was convinced that there would be a great championship game with what I thought was two definite NCAA tournament teams.   I wasn't able to stay for the championship game, because I had to get back to New York.  But I got to see it the next night.  It lived up to the billing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Want to Know About Iona Before Tonight's Game?

I had the privilege of covering many Iona men's basketball games this season.  If you want to know all about the Gaels, here are my twelve game stories on them.  Learn all about Scott Machado, Mike Glover, Momo Jones and Sean Armand below.  

I decided to use my links off the Mid Majority site, which are the same articles that are on this site.  So sit back, read about Sean Armand's record setting performance at MSG vs. Siena, or "Late Night with Scott Machado" or Iona's 31-0 run vs. St Peter's. Hope you enjoy and good luck to the Gaels tonight!

Drexel Dominates ODU (Recap of ODU - Drexel CAA Semifinal)

When Drexel stepped on the Richmond Coliseum court to face Old Dominion right before tipoff of the first CAA Semifinal, the Drexel Band played the theme from "Rocky".  Though they were the #1 seed in the CAA Tournament, Drexel was truly David.  Outside of their DACPack faithful, several fans behind their bench and a few fans left from the other former America East schools that were gone by Saturday night, the Dragons were clearly in the minority.  Richmond Coliseum was mostly a sea of fans from the three Virginia schools that made up the other three semifinalists.

Standing in the Dragons' way were the Monarchs, a team that had won the CAA championship the last two seasons.  Blaine Taylor and several of his veteran players; Kent Bazemore and Chris Cooper were eager to end the Dragons' eighteen game winning streak.  ODU had scored eighty eight points in their quarterfinal win over Delaware and barely lost at home by a point to Drexel at the end of the regular season.

One of the most wonderful things about the CAA Tournament is all the great pep bands.  Not only did Drexel shine with "Rocky" but ODU's band had a great version of Aha's "Take on Me".  However, the musical highlight of the day was hearing Chris "VCUPav" Crowley clear as day, belting out the national anthem in a beautiful, operatic voice.  Now I know where he got the horns he wears; it must have been a production at the New York Metropolitan Opera House.

When you have two of the better defensive teams in the CAA playing each other, chances are you're going to get a low scoring, physical slugfest.  Sure enough, neither team could score a basket in the first two and half minutes of the game.  It had all the makings of a "First to fifty wins" game, just like Drexel's win over UNCW the day before.

The Dragons broke through the scoreless drought with a 9-0 run. The Monarchs missed on their first six shot attempts as the shots that fell against the Blue Hens the day before were now hitting off the rims with clanks and thuds.  Two Chris Fouch three pointers extended Drexel's lead to 15-3.

ODU responded with a 7-0 run to cut the lead to 15-10 with a little less than seven minutes left in the half.  But the Monarchs missed their last four shots in the half, all three point attempts.  The Dragons would go into halftime up ten, 27-17.

Drexel only shot thirty three percent in the first half.  But they held ODU to twenty seven percent from the field, including two of nine from beyond the arc.  Bazemore, who lit up Delaware the day before for fifteen first half points, was held to four points, shooting one of six from the field.

Any hope that the Monarchs' fans had for a comeback quickly evaporated in the first four minutes of the second half.  The Dragons outscored the Monarchs 14-8 to build their lead to sixteen, 41-25.  During this span, Frantz Massenat, Drexel's star sophomore point guard, buried a three pointer and then later would hit three free throws after being fouled by Bazemore.  In that span of four minutes, Bazemore committed two turnovers and picked up three quick fouls, as he seemed completely thrown off by Massenat on both sides of the court.

ODU never really threatened again, though they cut the lead in half, 46-38, with Cooper scoring on a three point play.  But in the span of ninety seconds, Drexel had the lead back up to fifteen, 55-40, after Damion Lee hit his own three point play. From there, the Monarchs never got closer than ten points.  The Dragons, the best three point defensive team in the CAA held the Monarchs to one of nine shooting from beyond the arc in the second half.

Drexel extended the lead to as much as nineteen before settling for a very convincing 68-51 win over ODU in a front of a very hostile crowd. How convincing was it?  The team that had played #1 Kentucky tough before losing by ten and the team that battled #5 Missouri at home before losing by seven had been drubbed by seventeen points.  It was the largest margin of loss for the Monarchs this season.

The Dragons had four scorers in double figures as Massenat had twenty points, Lee added seventeen, Fouch had sixteen points and Givens had twelve points to go with twelve rebounds. Drexel shot forty eight percent from the field in the second half and thirteen of sixteen from the line.  Massenat made nine of ten free throws from the line.

Bazemore and Cooper were the only ODU players in double figures, as each scored twelve points. Bazemore was six of twenty from the field, including missing all five of his three point attempts.  Drexel Head Coach Bruiser Flint noted in his post game news conference that his players "stepped out a lot harder" on Bazemore in this game than they did in the regular season finale.  In that regular season finale, Bazemore had scored thirty seven points.

In his post game news conference, Taylor was thoroughly convinced that Drexel was a NCAA Tournament team.  He mentioned how his team played tough against Kentucky and Missouri. Then Taylor stated that "I really think for instance a Drexel-Missouri matchup would be a very entertaining game and I give Drexel every opportunity to have success in that game."

I had seen both the ODU-Kentucky and ODU-Missouri games on television.  Drexel's performance against Old Dominion was as good or even better than Kentucky's and Missouri's performances.   I hadn't seen a Blaine Taylor team dominated like that in a very long time. The Dragons gave the Monarchs their worst loss in the CAA tournament since 2004 (VCU also defeated them in the CAA Semifinals by seventeen points). Taylor was right. Drexel deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately for Taylor and Drexel, a week later the NCAA Committee wrongly thought otherwise.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Giant Bazemore (Recap of Delaware - ODU CAA Quarterfinal)

In November 2010, I wrote an article for my web site on Old Dominion called "The Ground and Pound of College Basketball".  In that article, I talked about how Coach Blaine Taylor has a "philosophy of inside play, suffocating defense and depth that grinds opponents down".  The Monarchs are a team that usually has a nine-ten man rotation that wears opponents down over the span of forty minutes.  The games are generally low scoring, as Old Dominion has been one of the better scoring defensive teams in the CAA the past several seasons.

So when fourth seeded ODU took on fifth seeded Delaware in the second game of the afternoon quarterfinal session, most people expected a repeat of the first quarterfinal game between UNCW and Drexel, won by the Dragons 59-47.  Everyone that covers CAA basketball (otherwise known as #CAAHoops on Twitter) figured on a low scoring, physical affair.  What we all got was completely different.

In one of the funnier moments of the tournament, the Delaware pep band was playing Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" when the Blue Hens came out onto the court.  After a few seconds, the band changed to the Delaware fight song.  But the Immigrant Song sounded more ominous, so they should have stuck with it.

Unfortunately, there was no one in the Delaware student section to see it, outside of the Delaware cheerleaders, dance team and mascot.  It was incredibly disappointing to see, considering the Blue Hens had went 12-6 in conference during the season.  Since the entire starting five is back next season and as Defiantly Dutch notes "the band does killer versions of Foo Fighters' songs", one can hope that there will be a lot better student section attendance at next year's CAA Tournament.

The Old Dominion student section fans made up for the Delaware Student section fans.  First, they started a huge ODU chant three minutes before tip off.  But the creme de la creme was a giant Kent Bazemore cardboard cutout that spanned half the student section.  "Giant Bazemore" feature Kent with his two long arms and in each hand, he was palming a basketball.  It was really cool to see in person.

The first twelve minutes would be very entertaining. The Monarchs quickly went out to a 5-0 lead. But just as quickly, their starting forward Chris Cooper picked up two fouls as well. The Blue Hens responded with an 8-2 spurt to take an 8-7 lead.  Nick Wright hit a three point play to put the Monarchs back up 10-8.  Delaware's  Jamelle Hagins tied the score at ten. But ODU regained the lead 12-10 on a Donte Hill layup. The Monarchs would hold the lead, up 29-24 with just eight minutes left in the half.

Amazingly, the last eight minutes of the half would be even more exciting than the first twelve minutes.  The Blue Hens scored the next six points, including a three by Kyle Anderson, to take a 30-29 lead.  But after Chris Cooper hit one of two free throws, "Regular Size Bazemore" nailed a three pointer to put the Monarchs back up 33-30.

This would become a common theme as Delaware would tie, take the lead, only to see ODU tie and take the lead.  There were seven ties and ten lead changes in the first half.  The Monarchs would finally score eight of the last ten poinfs of the half as "Regular Size Bazemore" buried a three pointer from long beyond NBA range, then hit an old fashioned three pointer to put ODU up 47-42 at the half.

It was the most exciting first half of the tournament.  Three Monarchs were already in double figures in scoring at the half. Bazemore scored fifteen first half points.  Devon Saddler led Delaware with eleven points.  ODU was six of ten from beyond the arc while Delaware was four of eleven.  The other stats were pretty similar.   The question was, could both teams keep up this frenetic pace for another twenty minutes.

It turned out one of the two teams could.  The Monarchs picked up right where they left off as they hit five of their first six shots. Bazemore buried another three pointer in the 13-4 run that put ODU up 60-46 with fourteen minutes left in the game. All that Delaware could do during that time was for the Blue Hen mascot to put a box on his head.  They didn't have anything to compare with "Giant Bazemore" or "Regular Size Bazemore" for that matter.  The best they could do was the pep band playing the "Sanford and Son" theme song, which was quite good.

Much to their credit, the Blue Hens didn't give up.  They shot forty seven percent from the field in the second half.  Saddler scored another twelve points on five of seven shooting.  But he also committed five second half turnovers.  That helped to lead to ten points off turnovers for the Monarchs.

Despite their pep band trying to rally the team to the theme song of the "Underdog" TV show, the problem for Delaware was that as well as they shot the ball, ODU was even shooting the ball better in the second half. The Monarchs shot forty eight percent in the second half.  Cooper had twelve second half points while "Regular Size Bazemore" had nine points.   Old Dominion would go onto win the game 88-74.

The eighty eight points was their highest output since they scored nine eight points vs. Longwood in November of 2009. "Regular Size Bazemore" nearly had a double double with twenty four points and nine rebounds.  He also added four assists.  Bazemore was one of five Monarchs in double figures in scoring.

After the game, ODU coach Blaine Taylor was asked if he was concerned that his team could play at that pace.  He responded that he "actually wanted to play faster", which stunned the media in the conference room.  Most of us were used to seeing the "Ground and Pound" Monarchs.

Perhaps it was "Giant Bazemore" that inspired Taylor to have his team play that way.  It certainly worked for "Regular Size Bazemore".  He certainly played like a giant in this game.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Drexel - Rock Fight U (Recap of UNCW - Drexel - CAA Tournament Quarterfinal Game)

If you follow the CAA, what's the one thing that comes to mind when you think of Drexel? Well you might consider "Physical", considering the type of style the Dragons play.  You might also consider "Intense", becuase that's how Head Coach Bruiser Flint coaches.

Well, when I think of Drexel, I think of the CAA's likely copyrighted phrase "Rock fight".  It's a word that has often described CAA play. But when it comes to rock fights, no team does it better than the Dragons.  Low scoring, physical, close games with both teams scoring in the fifties. More often than not in its history under Bruiser, Drexel usually has come out on top thanks to its very good defense and its just good enough offense.

Then came this season.  The Dragons were 16-2 in conference, finishing first in the regular season.  Yes, they were first in the CAA in scoring defense, second in field goal percentage defense, first in three point field goal percentage defense and first in rebounding.  This season's team was Drexel defense at its finest.

But thanks in large part to the development of sophomore guard Frantz Massenat, freshman Damion Lee and returing stalwarts Chris Fouch and Samme Givens, the Dragons have had their best offense in a long time.  Drexel was first in the CAA in three point field goal percentage and third in field goal percentage.

And not only was this the first Dragons team in their CAA history to shoot above seventy percent from the foul line, they actually led the Colonial in free throw percentage at nearly seventy five percent. The Dragons actually led the CAA in scoring margin at + 9.4 points per game.  Drexel - Offensive Juggernaut.

The Dragons immediately showed off their offensive prowess against the Seahawks of UNCW, hitting their first four shots from the field to jump out to a 9-4 lead.  But UNCW responded with a 12-4 spurt to jump ahead 16-13, which allowed the Old Dominion fans in attendance for the next game to roar in approval, since ODU was Drexel's likely next opponent.  It wasn't like the Dragons were playing bad defense.  The Seahawks were just hitting tough shots like Cedrick Williams turnaround jumper that put UNCW up 12-10.

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Still the Seahawks were beating the Dragons at their own game. In the first half, UNCW outrebounded Drexel 19-11 and they got Givens, Drexel's leading rebounder in foul trouble with two fouls. The Seahawks were still up 18-17 with six minutes left in the half.

However, the Dragons rallied as they outscored the Seahawks 10-4 the rest of the first half.  Massenat came alive with several pretty passes for three assists in the final six minutes.  One of the passes was thrown through traffic with such precision that Peyton Manning would have been proud. Then came a loose ball right by the Drexel bench where it almost looked like Bruiser Flint wanted to jump into the pile.  The Dragons entered halftime up 27-22 on a driving layup, by who else, Massenat.

Interestingly, Flint left Givens on the bench to start the second half.  It didn't seem to matter as Drexel came out and outscored UNCW 24-11 in the first ten minutes.  Everyone in Drexel's rotation contributed, even Givens who finally came off the bench five minutes in the second half.  The Dragons were up 51-33 and the game was basically over.

In the nine years that I have watched the CAA Tournament, Drexel had never had as large a student section as they did for this tournament.  The DACPack was large and in charge with a resounding "D-U" chant with the Dragons' contingent of fans behind their bench.  Considering how Virginia based the Colonial Athletic Association conference is, it was a welcome thing to see.

As for the Seahawks, they didn't give up.  They cut the lead down to ten with about two minutes left in the game but they never got any closer.   The Dragons would win the game 59-47.

Drexel did an excellent job on UNCW's star player, Keith Rendleman. Rendleman only scored ten points on three of nine shooting from the field.  Often it seemed that he was literally bouncing off Drexel's mammoth Darryl McCoy (who's listed at 270 pounds, but as Shaka Smart noted the next day "That's a joke".). McCoy would foul out later after hammering Rendleman on a shot attempt, but not before the "270 pound" big man had ten rebounds on the day.

Rendleman, the fourth leading rebounder in the CAA at ten rebounds per game,  also didn't have one single rebound in the entire game.  When asked in the post game press conference if he ever had a game in his life, including the grade school level, where he didn't have at least one rebound, Rendleman replied "Never".  Drexel also limited UNCW as a whole to twenty six percent shooting in the second half. That's how good Drexel's defense was on the day.

As for the Dragons' offense, they shot forty eight percent in the second half. Four players averaged in double figures; Fouch had fourteen points, Massenat and Givens each had eleven and Lee had ten points.  Drexel outrebounded UNCW 24-13 in the second half.

As the Dragons' student section cheered in approval at the end of the game, the final score indicated one thing. Another rock fight won by Drexel.