Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top Ten College Basketball Games of 2012 As Seen In Person

Sometimes, you need to get out of the house and just take a drive.  Such was the case Saturday night.  After staying indoors much of the day, I got stir crazy and went out for a bit.  I was supposed to have plans with a friend as well, but they fell through.  The bright side was that it forced me out of the house for a little while.  I got coffee to keep me going so I could write most of this article, money for Sunday's activities and gas for the car.  There's a bright side to everything, even failed plans.

What transpired Saturday night was that it also got me thinking on my year in review.  I had seen about sixty Division I and Division III men's and women's games in the calendar year of 2012.   I got to see several good NCAA Tournament men's teams in VCU, Iona and LIU.  I got to see the #1 women's team in the country, Stanford, play recently against a very gutty #19 South Carolina.  I saw many talented players, two of which ended up in the NBA; Kent Bazemore and Scott Machado.  Finally, I saw many exciting games and ten of them have made my Top Ten Games of 2012, one of which was a late year addition.  I also note some unique things I remember about each game.

Number 10 - St. Peter's vs. Iona -  The Gaels' Leave an Indelible Mark - I know what you're saying, what is a thirty seven point win doing in my Top Ten? Well, it's for the very simple fact that Iona went on a 31-0 run in the second half to turn a close seven point game into a blowout.  It was one of the most awesome displays by one team I had ever seen in a game.  Perhaps the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee was impressed too, as the Gaels eventually got an at large bid to the Big Dance.

What I always will love and now will miss about Iona games since I am now in South Carolina for the most part, is the Iona pep band.  They are an old school band.  They are the only pep band I know that plays Steely Dan's "Peg", a bouncy version of the theme song from "I Dream of Jeannie" and several Earth Wind and Fire songs, which are excellent songs for pep bands.

Number  9 - Iona vs. Manhattan - The Gaels Gain Revenge on the Jaspers - It was the final game of a Hofstra themed tripleheader, culminating at a raucous Draddy Gymnasium.  The Gaels were trying to extract revenge for the Jaspers' amazing come from behind rally at the Hynes Center earlier in the season. Iona would pull away for a convincing 81-71 win that wasn't even that close as the final score indicated.  But the atmosphere and a close first twenty minutes made the evening fun.

That night leaves several indelible memories.  First, you always have to be at Draddy early for a game, otherwise you will end parking in another state.  Thus was the case that night.  Second, the truly bizarre configuration of Draddy resulted in the only game I had ever had a partial, obstructed view of a basketball game.  Third, my little trouper of a color analyst, my now seven year old son Matthew making it through three games on the day.  He was still very much into watching basketball at Draddy that night and was bothered that he didn't have a full view of the game.  That folks is a basketball fan.

Number 8 - Stanford vs. South Carolina Women's Basketball Game - The Cardinal Withstand the Gamecocks in a NCAA Women's Tournament Quality Game - This is the only game from the 2012-13 season that has made my 2012 Top Ten and it was a dandy.  Imagine the 2010 Butler vs. Duke national championship men's game played as a women's game. It was a physical defensive struggle and the South Carolina fans made it a great atmosphere.

Here's the kicker.  It was the second game of a twin bill with the men's game vs. Appalachian State as the first game.  There was a late arriving crowd for the women's game.  How cool is that?  Dawn Staley has slowly but surely built a strong program in Columbia.  And once Frank Martin builds his program at South Carolina, the fans will be there for the men's game too.

Number 7 - Maine vs. Stony Brook - Seawolves win the Regular Season America East Championship - Perhaps the Black Bears-Seawolves game didn't have as large of a crowd of either number 9 or number 8 on my list, but it was still a sold out Pritchard Gym on Senior Day and the game had more meaning than those two games because a conference championship was on the line.  Plus it had a national TV audience thanks to CBS Sports Network.  Seeing the Seawolves win in front of their home crowd and hoist the regular season championship trophy in front of their fans made it extra special.

One of the things I most remember about this game is that legendary broadcaster Don Criqui broadcasted this game.  If you know your basketball from the seventies and eighties, Criqui broadcasted many college basketball games for NBC on Saturdays.  Heck, I remember fondly Syracuse's Roosevelt Bowie, Louis Orr and Don Criqui.  CBS gave the Stony Brook game a very cool retro feel with Criqui there.

Number 6 - Loyola Md vs. Fairfield - In the MAAC, It's Never Over Til It's Over Part Deux -  This game is memorable for me for several reasons- One, I got to go to Frank Pepe's before the game. Two, you had the Evil Black Curtain.  Three, you had a great rally by the Greyhounds late to knock off the Stags on their home court twenty four hours after Manhattan rallied to take down Iona in New Rochelle.  And finally,you had one Jimmy Patsos, quite possibly the craziest cat to coach Division I men's college basketball.  It made for a truly entertaining night in a contest that was televised to a national audience, even if only 2,000 people showed up for the game live.

I will always remember the end of the game.  After Loyola wins, Patsos is so fired up, he's yelling at the Loyola fans. He yanks his tie off and tries to throw into the Greyhounds fan section behind the Loyola bench.  The problem is the tie doesn't go very far.  Doesn't stop Patsos.  He goes behind the bench, picks up the tie, puts it around a Loyola fan and then gives him a hug.  It was a huge win for Loyola, which eventually made the NCAA Tournament by winning the MAAC Tournament.

Number 5 - LIU Brooklyn vs. Wagner - This Isn't Your Father's NEC -  A nationally televised NEC game.  First place in the Northeast Conference on the line.  The defending NEC champs, LIU vs. Team Hurley.  A sold out Spiro Center. Yes, sign me up for that please.  Dandy of a game too as the Blackbirds held off the Seahawks to win.  I truly believe it was the springboard for the eventual second straight NCAA Tournament appearance for LIU Brookyn.

There were several things that stood out at Spiro. First they have a basketball club called the College Hardwood.  How awesome is that!  Second, the Wagner student section did a terrific job that night.  Third, the PA system didn't do such a good job.  It was waaaaaay too loud and the game so needed a pep band there.  Pep band music > Canned music every time.  More schools should take after LaSalle.  The pep band plays the entire night.  No canned music (at least that's what it was at Gola Arena back in December 2005 when I was there for a Hofstra-LaSalle game).

Number 4 - UMass vs. Drexel NIT Quarterfinals - Minutemen Rally to Take Down the Dragons at the DAC - There is nothing like a sold out DAC for a basketball game.  Drexel looked like they were going to again show the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee that they truly messed up by not taking the Dragons, as they went out to a seventeen point second half lead.  But the Minutemen rallied to give the Dragons their first home loss of the season.  It was one hell of a game.

It was memorable for several reasons.  First, obviously a huge UMass comeback down seventeen in the second half that stunned the home Drexel crowd.  Second, it was the night I found out that I didn't get a job in Colorado, which actually worked out better for me.  Third, how often do you get a parking spot literally right in front of the arena?  Yup that was the night.

Number 3 - Manhattan vs. Iona - It's Never Over Till It's Over in the MAAC -  One of the wildest games of the regular season.  The Gaels leading at home in the Hynes Center by seventeen points with seven minutes left.  Manhattan rallies late and hits a three pointer at the buzzer to win.  It was surreal.

This Jaspers-Gaels classic was unfortunately a foreshadow of a problem that Iona would have throughout the season, blowing huge leads.  The Gaels would do this again at Siena later in the regular season.  Finally, Iona blew a huge lead in their first round play in game against BYU.   The sense of "I have seen this before" dread watching the Cougars rally in the second half against the Gaels started from this game against the Jaspers.

Number 2 -  Georgia State vs. George Mason - Byron Allen's Game Winning Shot in CAA Quarterfinals -  You had your classic CAA knockdown rockfight with the Panthers and the Patriots. Georgia State rallies late to tie the game, only to lose in heartbreak fashion with Allen's basket with 3.4 seconds left, which I captured on video from my seat on press row.

What I will always, always remember is Panthers' Head Coach Ron Hunter's emotional post game press conference.  It was truly honest, raw and heartbreaking.  It's a shame that Ron Hunter was only in the CAA a couple of years (Georgia State leaves for the Sun Belt after this season).  I got to meet with him after the press conference and he is genuine, funny and was really kind to Jerry Beach and me. He even joked with us about the IUPUI - Hofstra CBI game seen by only 952 people.  Class act.

Number 1 -  George Mason vs. VCU - The Patriots Stage a Near Impossible Comeback But Fall Short  -  In the second game of the CAA Semifinals, VCU rolls out to a 22-0 lead, then actually extends it to 32-4.  The sold out "neutral" Richmond Coliseum crowd was DEAFENING.  It looks like George Mason is going to be blown out of the building.

But the Patriots didn't fold up their tent.  They actually whittle that twenty eight point lead down to six with three minutes left before eventually losing by ten 74-64.  Yes, there were closer games than this in the countdown.  But considering the raucous "neutral" crowd (yes there were a good number of Mason fans, but it was mostly a pro VCU crowd) and the huge deficit, what George Mason did was nothing less than heroic

What I will always remember is the perspective you get sitting on the court.  I had been going to the CAA Tournament for years starting in the 2002-03 season.  Until this past March, I always sat in the stands.  This time, I was on press row.  You truly don't have an appreciation of how loud a sold out crowd in Richmond Coliseum is until you are on the court.  It was truly an incredible atmosphere.  It was also the last time I would see in person VCU in the CAA.

2012 was a great season college hoops wise.  May 2013 be just as good for all college hoops fans everywhere.  Happy New Year!

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