Monday, February 18, 2013

Friday Night Flight Hoops

My house closing is on February 21st. Shortly thereafter, my family will finally join me in South Carolina. It's been exactly six months since I accepted a position at the University of South Carolina School of Law. I've been home at least once a month since I went down to Columbia. But most of my nights were spent at home in Columbia talking to my two sons and my wife via Facetime or Skype.

Last Friday night, I took what should be my last flight from Charlotte to New York with a New York residence. It was my usual gate, Jet Blue terminal at Gate D4 at Charlotte International airport. It's the same 7:14 pm Friday night flight that I have taken for the last six months. But for once the flight was delayed nearly an hour and a half. That allowed me to watch the Vermont - Stony Brook game on my IPad.

Vermont and Stony Brook are easily the two best teams in the America East and they were battling for first place. Unlike most other conference tournaments, the America East holds the Tournament championship game on the highest remaining seed's home court. So Friday night's game was particularly important for both teams. If Stony Brook won, they would home a two game lead on Vermont in the loss column. If the Catamounts won, they would be tied with the Seawolves for first place but would hold the tiebreaker, having swept the season series. Vermont won the earlier game vs. Stony Brook at home.

The Catamounts and Seawolves played a very entertaining first half. Vermont jumped out to an 8-6 lead. But Marcus Rouse came off the bench to spark a Seawolves' 14-5 run with three 3 pointers to put Stony Brook out in front 20-13. Trey Blue would hit two consecutive three pointers to get Vermont back within one 20-19. But the Seawolves would go into the half up six, 35-29.

With a few minutes left before I had to board my flight, I lamented the fact that I wouldn't see what I thought would be a close second half of the game since it was only being shown on ESPN3. But Stony Brook ended that lament by starting out with a 13-5 spurt before I had to get on line for the plane. Jameel Warney, the best freshman in the America East, scored eight points in that spurt. The Seawolves actually extended that spurt to 20-5 over the first eight minutes after Carson Puriefoy's jumper made the score 55-34. Stony Brook eventually would win 65-48.

Before my flight, I put $2 in the Jet Blue headphone bin and grabbed a pair of headphones. The wonderful thing about Jet Blue is the Direct TV on the flights. There was a game on ESPNU (which you can't get on Watch ESPN on your IPad, don't get me started), that I had to see. As I boarded the plane and got my seat, immediately, I plugged in the headphones and switched on the second half of the Iona - Manhattan game.

I had made a wise decision as it turned out to be a terrific game, as Manhattan rallied to force overtime on an Emmy Andujar layup. The game went to a second overtime before the Jaspers' Rhamel Brown grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw by Michael Alvarado and Andujar again burned the Gaels, this time hitting a game ending layup. Manhattan got a hard earned 74-73 win.

The game stood out for three reasons. One, Andujar again was a thorn in Iona's side. It was Andujar who buried the three pointer last season at the buzzer to beat the Gaels at the Hynes Center. Two, Brown was truly dominant against Iona. He had twenty one points, seventeen rebounds, ten of which were offensive rebounds, and seven blocks. It was also Brown who came out and defended against Momo Jones at the end of regulation and at the end of the first overtime, denying Jones both times of game winning shots.

The third and final reason the game stood out, and not for a good reason, was the broadcast crew for the game. The Friday night MAAC broadcasts are usually done by Doug Sherman and Rob Kennedy who have been wonderfully doing MAAC men's basketball telecasts together for years.

Well the wonderful folks at the World Wide Leader decided that Sherman should do the broadcast with the two co hosts of their ESPN UNITE show, Danny Kanell and Reese Waters. Neither Kanell or Waters have a basketball background and this was their first time being analysts for a basketball game. Kanell and Waters ended up making a complete travesty of the broadcast as they showed up on TV dressed in hoodies and did their usual comic routine instead of giving insightful commentary of the game. Rob Kennedy, you were sorely missed.

And with that, my plane landed and I was back on Long Island for one last time as a New York resident. Of course, it was college basketball that helped welcome me home.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Carrera is Not Enough As Tennessee Overcomes South Carolina

"The State" is the main newspaper for Columbia, South Carolina. In their Sunday edition, they ran a feature story by Patrick Obley on South Carolina freshman Michael Carrera. It didn't take very long into the season for Carrera to become a fan favorite. As the State article notes, the freshman from Venezuela was not highly recruited. And yet, twenty two games in the season, he is the Gamecocks best player, averaging eleven points and seven rebounds per game.

Carrera is always hustling, relentless on the boards and occasionally will do the work of the towel boys and wipe the Colonial Life Arena court during a stoppage in play. He also has developed his game as the season has progressed. In his two previous games vs. Kentucky and Georgia, Carrera hit three of four 3 point field goal attempts. Prior to those two games, he had attempted four three pointers for the entire season.

Despite Carrera's emergence, the Gamecocks have struggled in conference. Entering Sunday's game, South Carolina was 2-7 in SEC play. The frustrating part for Gamecocks' fans was that outside of their road losses to Florida and Kentucky, South Carolina has been in every other SEC contest. They had a chance to rebound Sunday at home against a Tennessee team that was only a game in front of the Gamecocks in the standings.

Sunday was also a doubleheader day as the nationally ranked South Carolina women's team was hosting another nationally ranked team in Texas A&M. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay for the second game due to my son's first baseball league practice. Since I am an assistant coach, I had to be there, even if my family won't be down to South Carolina for another couple of weeks.

Having gone to most of the Gamecocks' home games this season, with the exception of Clemson, the visiting teams have not had much of a contingent of fans. On Sunday, Tennessee had perhaps the second best contingent I had seen on the season. And you can't miss Volunteer fans as they are dressed in the school's burnt orange color.

The USC pep band did their best to get the home fans pumped up before the game starting with "Jungle Boogie", "Holiday" and Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4". The last song is played by a lot of bands, but the USC band does a really good job and it helps that I love the song as well.

The game started out similar to South Carolina's battle with Georgia a week, as one player on each team did the bulk of the scoring early. In this case, it was Jarnell Stokes for Tennessee, who scored five of the Volunteers' first ten points. And once again, Carrera did the early heavy lifting for the Gamecocks, scoring seven of the team's first nine points.

The Gamecocks went out to a 19-16 lead on a free throw by Lakeem Jackson, who missed his second free throw. A couple of Tennessee fans were behind me and hadn't seen Jackson shoot his one handed free throws before. One fan thought Jackson had hurt his right hand, but I quickly noted that this is how Jackson shoots his free throws now and that 1 out of 2 is a very good percentage for him.

In a game where there was multiple lead changes and the score was close throughout, the Volunteers went on one of the few runs in the game. Over the next four plus minutes, Tennessee outscored South Carolina 12-2 run. Stokes capped the run with a tip in and the Volunteers led 28-21 with a little less than four minutes left in the half.

The Gamecocks' Eric Smith responded with his own 5-0 mini spurt with a jumper and a three pointer to make the score 28-26. But Stokes responded with two more baskets and the Volunteers went to halftime leading 32-29. Stokes had twelve first half points. Meanwhile Carrera kept the Gamecocks in the game with nine first half points.

The start of the second half continued with the Stokes and Carrera version of "Crossfire". Stokes scored the Volunteers first two second half points with a pair of free throws. Meanwhile Carrera scored four of the first six Gamecocks' points. His slam dunk off a nice dish from Bruce Ellington put South Carolina up 34-33 lead with about sixteen and a half minutes left in the game. This resulted in Tennessee Head Coach Cuonzo Martin to call timeout.

A Carrera jumper gave the Gamecocks a 39-36 lead. But the Volunteers responded with an 8-0 run. Stokes started it with two free throws and Trae Golden followed with two three point plays. Tennesee went up 44-39 with thirteen minutes left.

South Carolina responded with a 10-2 run over three plus minutes that brought the 10,000 fans in attendance to life. Brian Richardson picked up the scoring slack for the Gamecocks, with six points during the spurt. South Carolina went back up 49-46 with a little less than nine minutes left in the game.

However, South Carolina had no answer all game for Stokes, who just dominated the Gamecocks' frontcourt. Once again, Stokes was part of Tennessee's response, scoring three of the Volunteers' next four points to put them up 51-49.

Carrera and Richardson would combine for six of the next eight South Carolina points. Two Damien Leonard free throws put the Gamecocks up 57-55 with 3:46 left in the game. Once again, the fans at Colonial Life Arena were watching another close SEC game hoping their home team would hold on to the lead this time.

But a defensive breakdown on the perimeter led to a three pointer by Jordan McRae to put Tennessee back up one, 58-57 with 3:30 left. Coach Frank Martin called timeout to regroup the Gamecocks. However, Ellington couldn't hit a three pointer and Skylar McBee buried a three pointer to put the Volunteers up four, 61-57 with two minutes left.

After both teams failed to score on their next possessions, Ellington had a chance to cut the lead to two with two free throws with fifty three seconds left. But he only made one of two and the Gamecocks were forced to foul the rest of the way. The Volunteers hit five of their last six free throws while the Gamecocks managed only a three pointer by Richardson. Tennessee would go on to win 66-61.

Stokes led all scorers with twenty points, ten rebounds and four blocks. Golden added sixteen points, including shooting eight of ten from the free throw line. Tennessee was twenty seven of thirty seven from the line, hitting nine more free throws than South Carolina on the game.

Carrera had his fourth double double on the season with eighteen points and eleven rebounds. Brian Richardson had seventeen points and five rebounds. Carrera and Richardson combined to shoot twelve of twenty four from the field. The rest of the Gamecocks shot eight of twenty seven from the field.

Tennessee moved to 4-6 in SEC play while South Carolina dropped to a tie for last place with Mississippi State at 2-8. It was the Gamecocks fifth conference loss by seven points or less. It was also the seventh conference game where they had a lead in the second half. They have lost five of those games.

In "The State" article, Carrera talked about how he hates to lose. "That's what I am. I don't like to lose. I like to win. That's what I do".

The fans know how hard Carrera plays and that he will do anything to win, even clean the Colonial Life Arena court. As Coach Martin's recruiting brings in additional talent, Carrera's performance will pay off in wins.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Night of Havoc (Recap of VCU v. Charlotte)

Some days don't go as you plan. I had made plans for quite some time for yesterday. Hofstra was playing at UNC Wilmington. I had media credentials waiting for me, plus I was going to see my friend Brian Mull, the terrific beat writer for the Wilmington Star as well as my friend Hofstra Head Coach Mo Cassara, who I haven't seen in a long time since I moved down to Columbia, South Carolina.

Wilmington, North Carolina is a three hour and fifteen minutes drive from Columbia, South Carolina. As I started driving on I-20 at 7:30 AM, my "Check Engine" light came on. Never a good thing. But perhaps it was something minor, perhaps a sign that it was time for an oil change (which I was due for). So I found the closest Jiffy Lube, which wasn't that close to the interstate.

The service manager at Jiffy Lube told me that the light indicated a temperature sensor issue, either a coolant issue or perhaps the water pump and that the light would stay on until I took it to a repair shop to have an engine diagnostic done. Turns out also my transmission fluid was badly needed to flushed out on my 126,000 mile 2001 Honda Accord. So I agreed to a quick oil change and the transmission fluid flush.

So I got back on the road around 8:45 AM. I still could make it to Wilmington on time. But it was still about three hours away. With my family still in New York until the house closes (which is soon), I couldn't risk having my car breakdown on the highway. Thus, I sadly turned back and drove to Midlands, Honda in Columbia. I got in touch with Brian and Coach Cassara to let them know I couldn't make it.

The Honda service manager quickly took the notes on the car and noted that there was also a recent recall for the passenger airbag. I had got that recall letter and knew it had to be fixed too. As I sat in the amazing waiting room with the HD 3D TV showing "The Dark Knight" while drinking hot chocolate, I briefly lamented the fact that I would not see Brian, Coach Cassara and what turned out to be Hofstra's first road win of the season, which was a terrific effort by the Pride.

However, I had known in the back of my head that Charlotte was hosting VCU at Halton Arena last night. I had brought my IPad to write my story for the Hofstra-UNC Wilmington game and Midlands Honda had free WiFI. Were tickets still available? As I went on the Charlotte 49ers ticket site, the answer was YES! Thus I got one ticket.

It turns out it was just a sensor issue. I got my car back shortly before noon and I drove home. There I watched the Hofstra-UNC Wilmington game online, where the Pride rallied from a ten point first half deficit to defeat the Seahawks 65-56. Then after quickly sweeping up the house floors and taking a nap, I made the now familiar drive up to the campus of Charlotte.

I got my ticket from will call and entered the Student Center, where Halton Arena is located. After my ticket was scanned in, an usher asked if I wanted a program. I said "Yes, thank you." In return, I got this gorgeous program. It looked like a yearbook/media guide to me. It's the nicest free program I have ever received at a college basketball game. Nice work Charlotte Athletic Department.

As I made my way to my seats, it was pretty evident that Ram Nation had made the trip in full force. There was a good number of fans in the gold and black colors of VCU. But they were minus Chris "Pav" Crowley, the ultimate VCU fan who I have become friends with over the past couple of years thanks to Twitter and the CAA community that the Rams were once part of until joining the A-10 this season. I have maintained ties to those knowledgable, fun VCU folks on Twitter. Pav couldn't make it last night. It was also Chris' birthday this week, so Happy Birthday Pav!

Entering the game, Charlotte had defended it's home court perfectly on the season, eleven straight wins. That included wins over good conference teams such as LaSalle,  a game that I saw in person, Xavier and U-Mass. Still one female fan sitting next to me asked her boyfriend "Is this the largest crowd of the season. Seems like it". Turns out it was the second largest crowd of the season, 8,794 in attendance. The previous home game vs. UMass had 9,100 in attendance.

This was going to be a battle between one of the top fifty teams in the country in effective field goal percentage defense, Charlotte, and the number one team in the country in defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage, VCU. I had seen Charlotte's guard length give LaSalle fits. But the 49ers were now without two of their best players. DeMario Mayfield, their best three point shooter, has been suspended from the team and J.T. Thompson is out for the season with a torn ACL.

The Charlotte pep band and student section were ready for Ram Nation. The band started with a very good version of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" and were solid all night. The student section did their part during the VCU team introduction by drowning out Ram nation with a loud chant of "FORTY - NINERS".

Charlotte scored the first basket on a Willie Clayton offensive rebound and putback. But VCU responded with an 8-0 spurt, which included forcing two 49er turnovers. Rob Brandenburg's jumper put the Rams up 8-2 barely with 16:55 left in the first half.

Barely three minutes into the game, Charlotte senior forward Chris Braswell was already incurring the wrath of the fans in my section, 217 Row K. Braswell had missed three jumpers and committed a turnover. When they saw Braswell camped out by the three point line, which he is warranted to do sometimes, one fan yelled "Braswell, don't shoot a three pointer, because you always miss them!" The fan knew what he was talking about as Braswell attempts nearly two three point attempts per game and is shooting 22.5 percent from beyond the arc on the season.

VCU extended their lead to ten, 18-8 on a Treveon Graham three pointer. Nine minutes into the game, the Rams had forced five turnovers and hit on more than half their shots. A Juvonte Reddic jumper with about eight and a half minutes left in the half kept VCU's lead at ten, 22-12.

But Charlotte ramped up their intensity on both sides of the ball and went on a 10-0 run over the next four plus minutes. The 49ers gave the Rams a little bit of their own medicine, forcing two turnovers in the span, which led to four Charlotte points. Terrance Williams' jumper tied the game at 22 with a little more than four minutes left in the half. The 49ers' fans were the loudest I had heard them in the three Charlotte games I had attended on the season. Shaka Smart was forced to call timeout as Halton Arena was rocking.

But off the timeout, Smart got the ball in the hands of Brandenburg who calmly buried a three pointer to put VCU up three, 25-22. The next play that ensued was the craziest play on the night. Chris Braswell had an open two on one break for an easy layup. But as he awkwardly dribbled toward the basket, he fumbled the ball, much to the displeasure of the fans by me. But fortunately for Braswell, Clayton was there and put in the layup to cut the Rams lead to one, 25-24.

VCU though would end the half outscoring Charlotte 9-4. With 00.1 seconds left in the half, Theus leaned into Charlotte's Pierria Henry on a jumper. The jumper was good and the foul was called on Henry. Theus would make the free throw and the Rams would go into halftime up 34-28.

After an entertaining halftime show by a local acrobatic fitness group (Astro Fitness I believe), the 49ers had an inauspicious start to the second half. They committed turnovers on each of their first two possessions. However Charlotte maintained their striking distance to VCU, still only down six, 41-35 with fifteen and a half minutes in the game.

But the turnovers kept coming for the 49ers. Their fourth and fifth turnovers on consecutive possessions led to Rams' baskets. After Henry committed a turnover, Reddic's layup put VCU up ten, 45-35 with fourteen minutes left in the game. A Brandenburg layup and two Reddic free throws extended the Rams lead to twelve, 49-37.

The 49ers chipped away at the lead with a 5-0 mini spurt over two plus minutes. A layup by Hentry made it 49-42 with 8:54 left. But Charlotte could have made the score much closer in that time frame had they not missed four free throws; two by Clayton, one by Darion Clark and one by Braswell, who was ingratiating himself with the fans more and more as the game progressed.

After Henry's layup cut the lead to seven, sensing a momentum shift, Smart again called timeout. And again off the timeout, it was Brandenburg who made the 49ers pay for their missed chances. He buried a three pointer and followed with a layup to extend the Rams lead back to twelve, 54-42 with seven a half minutes left.

Charlotte again responded with four straight points to cut the lead to eight again, 54-46. But for the third time in the game, Smart called timeout. And for the third time again, Brandenburg responded burying a three to put the Rams up eleven, 57-46 with six minutes left. A little bit later, Troy Daniels finally got into the act, hitting his first three pointer on the night to put the Rams up twelve, 62-48 with four and a half minutes left in the game.

It was at this time that the 49ers' fans had seen enough. They started leaving in droves. And even when Terrance Williams' ridiculously banked in a three pointer to make the score 66-57 with one minute left, the mass exodus from Halton Arena was well under way. The 49ers put in a meaningless last second basket to make the final VCU 68 Charlotte 61. Thus ended the 49ers undefeated streak at Halton this season.

With Graham in foul trouble for most of the game, Brandenburg and Reddic stepped up for the Rams. Brandenberg had twenty one points on seven of twelve shooting including three 3-pointers. Reddic added fourteen points on six of nine shooting and added three blocks and two steals. Graham still had twelve points for the Rams who shot nearly fifty two percent from the field against one of the better field goal defensive teams in the nation. VCU also scored twenty three points off seventeen Charlotte turnovers.

Charlotte had a good shooting night against VCU, shooting over fifty one percent themselves. But what killed the 49ers was a) The turnovers, b) Shooting one of seven from beyond the arc (Williams' lucky three was the only three pointer for Charlotte on the night), while VCU shot seven of eighteen from beyond the arc and c) an abysmal twelve of twenty two from the line. Willliams had thirteen points and Clayton added twelve. With Mayfield now gone for the rest of the season, Charlotte's other two leading scorers on the season, Braswell and Henry, combined for only sixteen points on five of nineteen shooting (the rest of Charlotte shot nineteen of twenty eight from the field.

With the win, VCU remains tied for first in the tight Atlantic-10 with Butler and Saint Louis at 7-2. With the loss, Charlotte dropped all the way to a seventh place with Temple and George Washington , two teams that have beaten them, at 5-4. The bright side for the 49ers is that UMass, LaSalle and Xavier are all tied for fourth at 6-3. Charlotte has already beaten all three of those teams.

Only two games separate the first place team from the ninth place team in the Atlantic-10. The Atlantic-10 is the perfect microcosm to the wild 2012-13 college basketball season. Perhaps it's not just a night of havoc, but a season of havoc.

That's VCU's type of season.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Never a Dull Trip to Harrisonburg (Recap of George Mason vs James Madison)

Mops have one purpose in life: keeping the court clean.

They're not intended to be used to hit a basketball, and if somehow they do touch the ball, that contact certainly should not result in the ball finding it's way into the basket. Yet that is exactly what happened last Saturday, when the James Madison Dukes hosted the George Mason Patriots.

Near the end of the first half, after taking a weird bounce off the rim of the Mason basket, the ball somehow found itself stuck among the basket supports above the backboard. One of the referees borrowed a long-handled mop from the ballboy, and attempted to poke the ball loose, but he was too short to reach the ball, and Dukes center Rayshawn Goins took over.

His first attempt sparked only some laughter, as the ball popped straight up, then nestled right back where it came from. The second attempt was far more successful, as the ball fell over the front of the backboard, and dropped straight through the hoop, Swish!

I'm not sure Goins could have repeated the feat if he'd tried, and the near-capacity crowd almost lost its collective mind. I feel pretty safe in saying JMU fans have never cheered (and never again will cheer) so loudly for a ball entering an opponent's basket.


Something unusual (if not outright bizarre) always seems to happen when I visit the Convocation Center. One year, a friend of mine even gave some Dukes fans from Fairfax a ride back to Northern Virginia after their car was totaled in an accident.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my first visit to the Convo in 2008, for Dre Smith's NCAA-record breaking 10 of 10 performance from behind the three point arc. The next season provided an entirely different type of drama, as then-freshman Ryan Pearson's controlled-yet-desperate heave from mid-court kissed glass, hit the rim for a glorious millisecond, then popped out, as the Dukes escaped with a 2-point victory. The Madison students promptly stormed the court. It's hard to blame them for being excited about what's now their only win in the last 21 games in the series, but at the time it seemed excessive, adding insult to injury.

Perhaps the best drama of all came in 2010, in what will forever be known by both sides as the Hot Dog Game. Mason was up by 15 midway through the second half and the Patriots seemed well on their way to another beatdown of their southwestern rival. But then, the Dukes, fed by a raucous Convo crowd, went on a run that cut the lead to four. The momentum seemed unstoppable, until, right in the midst of a pair of JMU free throws, a hot dog inexplicably flew onto the court, thrown by a Madison student. The referees had no choice but to assess a technical foul, and the Dukes' surge came to an abrupt end. (JMU assistant coach Rob O'Driscoll re-told the entire tale last year, including what later happened to the kid who threw the hot dog).

2011 provided one of the hardest-fought basketball games I have ever attended. A late morning start time made the drive south a little weird, and I wasn't fully awake until about a quarter-second after I stepped inside the Convo. I have never seen a college arena that electric at 11 AM on a Saturday morning. The nationally-televised heavyweight bout went back and forth for a full 40 minutes, with Cam Long scoring a career-high 30 points for the Patriots while Dukes star Denzel Bowles posted 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks. Mason led 33-32 at the half, only to fall behind by 8 in the second half before rallying for a 75-73 victory.

Last season, I was unable to make the trip due to work commitments and a nagging head cold that had left me exhausted. As it turned out, I didn't miss much. The game was ruined by an astounding 63 personal fouls, many of them completely unnecessary. With everyone in foul trouble, neither team could play defense, and when combined with 89 free throw attempts, the final was 89-83 in favor of Mason, a huge score in the normally-stingy CAA.


Both teams entered the day with injury concerns.

James Madison has been positively snake-bitten with injuries in recent years, and this season has been no different. Fifth-year senior Andrey Semenov would miss the game with foot and shoulder injuries, and fellow red-shirt senior Devon Moore had left the previous game with an ankle injury, leading to doubts about his availability.

George Mason, meanwhile, lost starting forward and second-leading scorer Johnny Williams to a concussion a week prior. In his place, Jonathan Arledge had started and scored a then career-high 14 points against Drexel two days earlier, but he'd only played 2 minutes against Madison in the previous meeting in Fairfax.

The game began about as well as Mason could have hoped. Unlike other recent road games, they started out hot on offense and energetic on defense. James Madison won the tip but turned it over moments later, leading to a Sherrod Wright three pointer. The Dukes turned it over twice more, and Taylor Bessick picked up two quick fouls, while Mason jumped ahead 11-0. Corey Edwards capped the run with a wide-open three pointer, but Rayshawn Goins quickly countered for the Dukes.

Madison managed to pull within 13-10 with a layup out of the under-16 timeout, but then both teams slowed down as the game became a bit of a defensive struggle, with Mason maintaining a 3 to 8 point lead. Every time the Dukes got the lead down to three, the Patriots responded. A.J. Davis hit a huge three-pointer for the home team to cut the lead to 19-16, but almost immediately Patrick Holloway responded with a trey of his own.

This year, the annual task of providing me an unusual incident fell to the Convo itself. With around two minutes to play in the first half, both baskets rebelled. First, as mentioned, Goins got to play stick-ball with the backboard above the Mason basket. Then, on the very next possession, the officials noticed that the net on the Madison basket was torn. An 11-minute delay ensued, while the damaged net was cut down and a new net installed. To their credit, the JMU cheerleaders attempted to fill the time with increasingly imaginative stunts, from walking nearly the entire length of the court on their hands, to building a pyramid at center court.

I've seen some strange facilities problems over the years (such as a nail that popped out of the Towson Center's old floor and had to be hammered back into place) but I've never seen two incidents quite like Saturday's occur back to back. And that's one reason I love college basketball so much: Just when you might foolishly start to think you've seen it all, something unimaginable happens.

The pace had picked up just before the delay, and the long break had surprisingly little noticeable impact on the players. Both sides were whistled for a number of fouls in the last three minutes, with Mason converting all 4 free throws while the Dukes made just 3 of 5 -- foreshadowing what would be a game-long problem for Madison. The Patriots took a modest 32-27 lead into the locker room.

The halftime show consisted of two parts. First, the new net apparently hadn't been installed correctly, and had to be taken down and re-done for a second time. Then, there was a contest for JMU students called Madison's Got Talent, for which students had submitted videos in advance, and three acts had been chosen to compete for a $1000 prize. The first contestant was a singer (one of the Madison cheerleaders) who drummed a beat on a plastic table with a paper cup while she sang (you had to be there), and the other two were guitar/vocal acts.

I was a little apprehensive as the second half began. Perhaps Mason's biggest problem this season has been maintaining consistency and effort for an entire game. Just two nights earlier, the green and gold had blown a 20-point first half lead in a loss to Drexel. All season, they've played lots of good halves of basketball games, only to let their guard down and fail to play a complete games. But for once, the second half began in a positive way, with Sherrod Wright assisting on baskets by big men Erik Copes and Jonathan Arledge on the Patriots first two possessions.

Juniors Wright (22 points and a career-high 11 rebounds) and Arledge (a career-high 19 points) became the offensive formula for the Patriots throughout the second half, as the visitors maintained their intensity and survived everything the Dukes threw at them.

It was only a matter of time before the Dukes made a run, and it began with 11 minutes remaining and the Patriots holding a 50-41 lead. A pair of Dukes free throws and a Charles Cook trey made it 50-45, before Core Edwards answered for Mason. Then Moore (25 points, 5 assists), showing no signs of his ankle injury, took over the game for the Dukes, scoring two traditional three-point plays and hitting a jumper from beyond the arc. All of a sudden, it was 56-55, with around 6 and a half minutes remaining, and George Mason was forced to call a time out.

Arledge converted a layup, and Wright followed with a layup-and-one to stretch the lead back to 6, but the Dukes came right back, with a pair of Cooke free throws and another Moore layup. And so it continued, with Mason clinging to a lead of one to six points. Madison closed the gap several times, but never managed to tie or take the lead. And yet, with their crowd behind them, it almost seemed inevitable to me that the home team would find a way to break through and take at least a momentary lead. There was just too much time left.

Then, with 1:40 to play and the score 65-62 in their favor, the Patriots got a big break.

Moore missed a three-point attempt, and the Dukes turned the rebound over. The ball found Wright on the break, who went up against Goins for the layup attempt. Goins swung his arm wildly in an apparent attempt to block the shot, but Wright had faked his shot, and the big man missed badly and caught the side of Wright's head instead, sending him crashing to the floor.

All attention was immediately on Wright, who lay motionless on the court for several seconds, before popping up uninjured, a smile slowly crossing his face. The officials consulted the monitor, and ruled the foul to be a flagrant-1 on Goins -- which meant two free throws and possession for Mason. The partisan crowd erupted in anger, their frustration with a game's worth of inconsistent officiating boiling over.

Because the Patriots' athletic trainer had come out to check on Wright, by rule he had to leave the game, and thus could not take his free throws. Head coach Paul Hewitt chose the silky-smooth Arledge instead, who sank both despite the dim from a furious Dukes student section mere feet away, and then scored a layup on the ensuing possession, giving the visitors a 7 point lead with a minute to play. From there, the game was effectively over, and Mason hung on for the 74-63 win, their 20th in the last 21 meetings in the rivalry.

In a strange way, it felt like the Hot Dog Game all over again, only without the absurdity of perfectly good food being thrown onto the court.


For the Dukes (13-11, 7-4 after Saturday), the biggest disappointment had to be their free throw shooting, as they missed 11 of their 28 attempts from the charity stripe -- which equaled the margin of victory in the game. Likewise, their promising freshman class of starters Taylor Bessick (4 fouls in 4 minutes), Ron Curry (0 points in 12 minutes), and Andre Nation, as well as reserve Charles Cooke, combined for only 11 points. The seniors -- Moore, Goins (13 points, 9 rebounds), and AJ Davis (9 points) -- can't carry the load on their own.

On the opposite side, the visiting Patriots (13-9, 6-4) played one of their most consistent games of the entire season, leading the entire game and withstanding a furious charge in the second half from the Dukes. Far too many times this season, Mason has taken 7 or 8 minutes or even an entire half off on either offense or defense. Saturday, the lapses were there, but they were limited in duration, and this allowed for a new kind of consistency.

The continued emergence of Jonathan Arledge as a complementary scorer to Sherrod Wright, a renewed emphasis on rebounding (35-25 advantage), good free throw shooting (23 of 26), and shortening their sometimes-lengthy lapses in attention on defense all played a role in the win, and are trends that need to continue for George Mason to be the contender everyone expected them to be this season in the CAA.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Strong Second Half Propels Georgia to Win Over South Carolina

(My apologies for the delay on this posting.)

The 2012-13 college basketball season so far has been the craziest season I can ever remember. There have been a significant number of buzzer beaters, countless overtime games and teams that look like world beaters at one moment then lose a conference game to a team much lower in the standings. And if you are the number one ranked team, well you might as well be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, because number one ranked teams have a very short shelf life.

South Carolina has not been immune to the craziness of this season. In a 75-54 win, the Gamecocks had a 32-4 first half run vs. Arkansas, the second 32-4 run I had seen a calendar year (the first was VCU against George Mason in the CAA Tournament Semifinals last March). Then in their next game last Thursday against the buzzsaw known as Florida, the Gamecocks scored a total of 36 points for the entire game in a 75-36 drubbing.

Frank Martin's team was looking to rebound against a Georgia team that also hasn't been immune to the wackiness that is the 2012-13 basketball season. The first time I saw the Bulldogs this season was on TV when they were soundly defeated at home by Youngstown State in a non conference game. The Bulldogs started the season 2-7 and later lost their first three SEC conference games. But they had won three out of their last four, including a win over Auburn, a team that beat South Carolina recently.

it was a beautiful early Saturday afternoon and as a result, over 11,000 fans came out to Colonial Life Arena to see if the Gamecocks could get a win over the Bulldogs. If you are not familiar with the arena, when you walk into the main entrance, there is a pavilion, where you can walk downstairs to get tickets or go up stairs to your seats. At the top of the stairs last Saturday were members of the dance team giving out free Gamecocks' towels. Give a kid a towel and you can be guaranteed that he or she will whip it around sometime during the game.

When I watched that game early in the season, one player stood out for the Bulldogs. Kentavius Caldwell-Pope is clearly Georgia's best player. He also happens to be their only player averaging double digits in scoring on the season. Pope wasted no time showing the South Carolina fans how good he is as he scored the Bulldogs' first five points on a three pointer and then a jumper.

While the sophomore Pope is clearly Georgia's best player, South Carolina's best player is also an underclassman. Freshman Michael Carrera has quickly become a fan favorite due to his relentless play, ability to score inside and his charisma. Carrera scored the Gamecocks' first four points, including a jumper after an offensive rebound.

The Gamecocks went up 14-13 after a Lakeem Jackson jumper. But Pope responded with one of his own to put the Bulldogs back in front. Later he would bury a three pointer to give Georgia a 20-16 lead.

But Carrera would respond with his own mini spurt. His jumper cut the lead to two. Then he hit a three pointer to put South Carolina up one. Then finally he assisted on Bruce Ellington's jumper to put the Gamecocks up three, 23-20.

However Pope would respond to this personal challenge by scoring four of the next five Georgia points to put the Bulldogs up 25-23. Of course Carrera would respond with two free throws to tie the game. And of course, Pope responded with a layup later on to put Georgia back up four 29-25.

However the Gamecocks would end the half on a 5-0 mini spurt. Carrera hit two free throws, then Mindaugas Kacinas added a three point play. South Carolina was up 30-29 at the half. Pope had sixteen of Georgia's points while Carrera had fifteen of South Carolina's points.

At halftime, while the Gamecocks tried to figure out how to stop Pope and the Bulldogs tried to figure out Carrera, there was a ceremony honoring a lot of South Carolina Men's Basketball Alumni who came out for the game. They received a very warm ovation from the crowd.

At the start of the second half, Carrera picked up right where he left off, drawing a foul and hitting one of two free throws to put South Carolina up 31-29. Little did anyone know that the free throw would be the last point he scored in the game.

Meanwhile, Kenny Gaines took it upon himself to give the Bulldogs additional scoring. He scored six of the next eight Georgia points to put the Bulldogs up 37-33. Bruce Ellington would hit a three pointer to cut the lead to one, 37-36.

But Georgia responded with a 9-1 run over the next three and a half minutes. Gaines capped the run with a three pointer to put Georgia up 46-38 with 11:48 left in the game. The TV timeout with 11:30 left couldn't have come at a better time for South Carolina.

Off the timeout, the other fan favorite, Ellington went to work. First, he a three pointer which resulted in a large BRUUUUUCE cheer from the fans. Then Ellington hit an old fashioned three pointer to cut the lead to two, 46-44 with a little under eleven minutes left in the game.

Unfortunately, the Gamecocks would not get any closer. The Bulldogs scored the next five points to go up 51-44. South Carolina would cut the lead to four twice, the second time on a Brian Richardson jumper to make the score 53-49.

But Georgia would bury two three pointers in a row, one by Sherrard Brantley, the other by Caldwell-Pope, his first and only points of the second half. The Bulldogs were up 59-49 with four and a half minutes left. The Gamecocks would get as close again as 61-56 on a Richardson three pointer. But the Bulldogs scored the last six points to win 67-56.

Caldwell-Pope led all scorers with nineteen points, but only three came in the second half.  Gaines and Charles Mann each had eleven points for the Bulldogs.Georgia shot fifty eight percent for the game.

Carrera led the Gamecocks with sixteen points, but only one point came in the second half.  Ellington added fourteen points and Richardson chipped in with twelve points. Brenton Williams, who had been the Gamecocks leading scorer entering the game, only had two points.   South Carolina had ten more field goal attempts than Georgia. But the Gamecocks made six less field goals than the Bulldogs and only shot thirty five percent from the field.

After the first half even duel between Carrera and Pope, the Bulldogs had a better team effort in the second half than the Gamecocks.  Coach Martin needs to find a way to get more output from players other than Carrera.  Otherwise the Gamecocks will be hard pressed to get wins in the competitive SEC.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Davidson Holds Off Wofford...Again

After the Georgia-South Carolina game, I got in my car and made the now familiar drive from the Gamecocks' campus to Huger Street then up to I-26. This time I was not getting off at the always crowded Harbison Boulevard exit. No, I was heading up to Spartanburg to see Wofford host Davidson.

It seems the magical time range for any of my basketball road trips so far is ninety minutes (I can make Charlotte in that time frame with my lead foot) to two and a half hours (Coastal Carolina). The trip from Columbia to Spartanburg is ninety minutes. I was debating whether to stop along the way for dinner or find a place near campus. To what I thought was my eventual chagrin, I chose the latter. Along the way though, I saw the exit for Presbyterian College, one of my eventual Big South Conference destinations.

The exit for Wofford College is Route 221, which brings you directly into the heart of Spartanburg. But as I got close to Wofford, I didn't see much in the way of restaurant choices. So I drove into the main entrance to Wofford and a nice campus safety guard showed me the direct way to get to the main parking lot for Johnson Arena.

To get to Johnson Arena, basically, you have to drive past the main Wofford College entrance and take the second right on Pearl Street. Then as the campus safety guard noted to me, once you see the pink house on the top of the hill, you bear right. Then you follow the winding road down behind a housing development (nice houses by the way), which then takes you down a narrow road that leads to the entrance of the main parking area. There an attendant directs you to park. I wouldn't have found this myself had it not been for the helpful campus security guard.

Once I got out of my car, it was a little after 5:30. I followed some Wofford fans to the entrance of the Campus Life Building where Johnson Arena is located. When you first walk into the Campus Life Building, you are greeted by a small statute of a Terrier. Then you walk into a quiet commons area with a coffee bar on the right hand side. But if you look in the right hand corner, you will see a student cafe. This cafe contains ample seating, flat screen TVs and a mini food court with a Chick Fil-a counter, a deli counter and another "Foods of the World" counter. In front of the entrance to the mini food court was a table with homemade baked desserts, cookies, cakes, cupcakes etc.

After striking up a conversation with the friendly attendant at the Chick Fila station where he made me a fresh grilled chicken sandwich, I grabbed some waffle fries, some desserts and grabbed a sweet tea. I managed to somehow hold onto all four items without a tray, paid the cashier and made my way to a set of tables that was right in front of the flat screen TV showing Northern Iowa and Wichita State (eventually won by the Panthers).

There was a nice mix of students and Wofford fans, many of them older fans. I could see why many people would come out for a nice Saturday night game. My reserved ticket cost twelve dollars, a bleacher seat costs ten dollars. Dinner was seven dollars. Think about it, for twenty bucks per person you can have a decent meal and watch a good basketball game. That's a good deal. Thanks Wofford!

After dinner, I made my way to my seat. There are two wings, the east and west wings, each of which has a separate entrance and outside of one hallway outside the arena, there is no connection to the wings once in the building. Not knowing this, It turns out I went to the wrong wing entrance. But the usher was kind enough to show me how to get there and I eventually made my way to the east wing section where my seat was located.

Now don't take this the wrong way Wofford fans, but when I got to my seat at Johnson Arena, I didn't consider it an arena. It's somewhat a very large gym with mostly wooden bleachers that had three sections of reserved comfortable chair back seating on each side in the front.. There is no club suite seating. The walls are your classic concrete gym walls.

However, there are two standout things you notice about Johnson Arena. First is the striking parquet floor, one of the few of its kind. Second, the gym holds noise well. Really well. In fact, in the second half, when Wofford made a run on Davidson, it started getting really loud and it was not packed (about 1500 was the attendance last night). Turns out, as I drove home, I turned on the post game show from the local Wofford station and they noted that half the students still haven't returned from break. Imagine the arena when Wofford had good teams that made the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2011. I bet it was the place was rocking.  Plus, the giant "Beware of Dog" sign behind the Wofford basket was a nice touch as well.

A local grade school choir did a wonderful job singing the national anthem. The students also were located in the bleacher level behind me, so when they made their way up to their seats, I made sure to tell the music choir director what a good job they did. It was the start to a very good evening of basketball and promotional events.

As the team introductions were made, I saw that Davidson's fans had basically taken up the entire section behind the Wildcats' bench. Yes, it helps to draw fans when you are 9-1 in conference. But considering Davidson's long storied history, I am not surprised by the large contingent they had for last night's game. I thought for sure that they were going to break out into "Sweet Caroline" late in the second half.

The Wildcats came out early scoring the first four points. Spencer Collins though would drill a three pointer, in what would be a reoccurring theme for the Terriers on the night. Through the first six minutes, it was a close affair, with Davidson maintaining an 8-6 lead.

But if you have watched enough of Davidson's basketball games on TV or in person, you can see that is so difficult to stop Bob McKillop's team on offense. The Wildcats' offensive sets are a thing of a beauty, both from a ball movement standpoint and a player movement standpoint. The Wildcats are constantly moving without the ball. This leads to multiple screens, backdoor cuts and a lot of open looks driving the lane. In the second half, with Davidson on my end of the court, it was truly a treat to watch their offensive set from my vantage point.

As a result, Davidson started pulling away from Wofford in the first half. First it was a 9-2 spurt on four consecutive layups, including a three point play by senior forward Jake Cohen. Davidson was up 17-8 and Wofford Coach Mike Young had to call timeout. It was a good timeout which resulted in an offensive set that got Karl Cochran open for a three pointer that he buried to cut the lead to 17-11.

Again Davidson responded with an 8-2 spurt with Tom Droney and Chris Czerpowicz each scoring four points. The Wildcats were now up 25-13 with nine minutes left in the half. It seemed that the Terriers had no answers to stopping Davidson on offense.

However, Wofford kept in the game in large part due to Collins (number 32 pictured here), who by himself would keep the Terriers in the game. Collins scored ten straight points for Wofford on a variety of shots, a three pointer, a layup and a couple of short jumpers. After being fouled in the act of shooting and missing his first attempt, Collins hit the second free throw to end his ten straight point outburst and cut the Davidson lead to ten 31-21.

Davidson's relentless offense would respond with another mini spurt, outscoring Wofford 7-2 over the last five minutes of the half. The Wildcats would enter halftime up 38-23. It was similar to their first matchup I saw when they played back in December at Belk Arena. Davidson was up big early, 31-10, before Wofford used a 12-0 run to cut the lead to nine at the half, 31-22. The Terriers would cut it to four late but the Wildcats would eventually hold onto win 63-56. I wondered if there would be a similar outcome.

Wofford has a lot of unique promotional events during media timeouts. Three stood out. Early in the first half during the first media timeout, they had a "Cheeseburger in Paradise" promotion where the Wofford cheerleaders toss out wrapped McDonald's cheeseburgers in plastic bags. Guess who got one?

In the second half, they had "Steal a Meal". One fan gets a meal - a drink, burger and fries. But another fan gets to try to steal the meal. If they hit the layup, they get the drink. If they hit the free throw, they get the chips.  And if they bury the three pointer, they get the burger. It was a couple and thankfully for the wife, the husband missed all three attempts. I would love to play that game with my son (are you reading this, Wofford? :-) ).

Finally, at halftime, to celebrate the 75th year of the NCAA Tournament, Wofford is putting on a series of "re-creations" of famous plays from the NCAA Tournament. In this case, they tried to "recreate" the famous Christian Laettner game winning shot vs. Kentucky. One fan played Grant Hill with the inbounds pass at one end of the court. Two girls each got an attempt to play Laettner in catching the pass and turning around and hitting the shot. They were not successful in any of the attempts, which shows how difficult that play was to make.

The start of the second half saw Davidson maintain its double digit lead as Cohen scored six points in the first seven minutes of the half. Wofford kept within striking distance due in large part to Cochran and Collins, who scored all but two of the first fifteen Terriers' points in the first seven and a half minutes of the second half.

But after two straight Czerapowicz baskets put Davidson up by thirteen with ten minutes left, it didn't seem like Wofford would be able to get any closer. Enter the Australian sophomore point guard with the striking name of Indiana Faithfull. Faithfull would have a hand in the Terriers' next three baskets by hitting two three pointers and assisting on a Cochran layup. His second three pointer cut the Wildcats' lead to seven, 54-47 with seven a half minutes left.

A little later, Collins would get the Terriers's closer with a three point play to cut Davidson's lead to six, 59-53 with a little less than five minutes. That's when the fans started making some noise and you could tell the potential of how loud Johnson Arena can be with a full, noisy crowd.

Wofford had two chances to cut the lead even closer. But their two leading scorers, Cochran and Collins each committed a critical turnover. And when Jake Cohen buried a NBA three pointer to put Davidson up 64-53 with 1:10 left, that was the ball game. The Wildcats would eventually win 68-57.

Davidson had a very balanced attack with four scorers in double figures. Cohen led the Wildcats with fifteen points, eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks. Czerapowicz also had fifteen points and six rebounds. De'Mon Brooks and Droney each had thirteen points. Davidson shot forty eight percent from the field and an impressive twenty four of twenty seven from the charity stripe. Davidson is now 15-7 overall and 10-1 in conference.

Collins led all scorers with twenty four points on ten of nineteen from the field. Cochran added fourteen points. And Faithfull, who played all forty minutes of the game, had eight points, nine assists and six rebounds. A truly solid all around performance for the Australian. Wofford is 8-15 overall and now 2-8 in conference.

As I left Wofford walking through the commons area, reveling in the good time I had last evening, I saw the coffee bar was still open. It was tempting, but I figured I would visit that the next time. The next time I am at Wofford, I hope to have my color analyst, aka my seven year old son Matthew with me. The thought of sitting with him in the commons after the game, going over the contest and watching another basketball game sounds really appealing. That is something that should be shared.

Still, I really enjoyed myself last night. Thanks Wofford for a fun experience.