Thursday, November 28, 2013

William and Mary Lights Up Williamsburg on Thanksgiving Eve (Recap of VMI vs. W&M)

Several weeks ago, my brother had to cancel out on our original plans of his wife and him coming down for Thanksgiving.  Then my family and I accepted an invitation from my good friend Mike to join his family for Thanksgiving.  The plan was to drive up Wednesday morning from Columbia to our hotel in Williamsburg.

A few weeks ago, as I was reviewing the college basketball schedule for this week, I noticed that William and Mary was hosting VMI on Thanksgiving Eve.  Never one to pass up a great opportunity to see college basketball on the road, especially #CAAHoops basketball, I told Mike of my Wednesday night plans and asked him to join my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, and me to watch the game.   Mike was unavailable but was kind enough to reserve two tickets for Matthew and me at Will Call.  

We left Columbia about 10:00 AM on Wednesday and despite the constant rain during the six and a half hour trip, we made it to the Historic Powhatan Hotel at about 4:30 PM.   After a quick nap, Matthew and I made the short drive to William and Mary Hall, where the Kaplan Arena is located on the  campus of William and Mary.

The William and Mary Hall was built in 1971.  It includes athletic offices and the multipurpose Kaplan Arena, which seats 8,600 for basketball and 11,300 for other events.  Despite being built forty two years ago, the site lines in the arena are quite good.  We were up in the Mezzanine level, Section 23, Row E, which was literally center court.   Matthew and I felt close to the action.  If you like green and yellow seats, this is the arena for you.  Matthew appropriately was dressed in green.

When you get to an arena 45 minutes early, you get the chance to peruse the GameDay Notes that the home team provides for some Twitter and Blog post tidbits.  Entering Wednesday's game, VMI was 12th in the country in scoring, averaging 91.5 points per game.  The Keydets also were 10th in the country in 3 pointers made at 9.8 per game, 4th in blocked shots w 8.3 and 5th in the country in my favorite stat, turnover margin at 7.5.  VMI averages 11 steals per game.

W&M also was ranked highly in various statistics.  Entering the Wednesday night game, the Tribe were 19th nationally in 2 pt Field Goal Percentage and 67th in effective Field Goal Percentage.  W&M was also first in the CAA in Field Goal Percentage, assists and steals. 

After a beautfiul rendition of the national anthem performed on violin by one of the William and Mary cheerleaders,  Matthew and I were ready for some pre turkey basketball.  Based on the statistics, it looked like we were in for a high scoring game with lots of forced turnovers.   It turns out though on Wednesday night, only one team brought their shoes on offense.

Dan Crain,  a Drexel fan that I am friends with, has started a great new blog called "Dragons Speak".  But it's more than just about Drexel, it's about college basketball in general.  In a recent article entitled "The New NCAA Rules - Why The Dribble Drive is Your Friend", Dan notes that William and Mary, once known as a three point shooting team, has become a 2 point field goal team, mainly due to the new NCAA rules which have clamped down on the physicality in college basketball.   And as noted in a previous paragraph, the Tribe were 19th in the country in the fwo point field goal percentage coming into the game.  The first fifteen minutes would prove Dan prophetic.

VMI came out and took a 3-0 lead on a Rodney Glasgow three.   But W&M came back and scored the next two baskets to take a 4-3 lead, a lead they would never relinquish.  Glasgow would score five of the first seven Keydets' points.   VMI was only down 9-7 after three plus minutes into the game.

It was clear early on that the Tribe wanted to work the ball inside to center Tim Rusthoven, affectionately known in #CAAHoops circles as "Beasthoven", and forwards Kyle Gaillard and Terry Tarpey.   W&M would go on a 21-4 run over four plus minutes.  A Rusthoven layup would cap the spurt with a layup to make it 30-11 with twelve minutes left in the half.

What was most impressive about the Tribe offense over the first eight minutes was that they only attempted two three point field goals, both successful attempts by freshman Omar Prewitt.   Prewitt would later nail a third three pointer to put the Tribe up 35-16.  The lead would swell to twenty one, 38-17 with a little more than eight minutes left in the half.

But for the rest of the half, William and Mary got away from their offense. In the first fourteen minutes of the game, the Tribe had only attempted four three point attempts, which Prewitt hit on three of them.  Over the final six minutes of the half, W&M missed on all eight three point attempts.  VMI, who entered the game with a 4-2 record, took advantage, outscoring William and Mary 19-9 during that span to enter halftime only down nine, 44-35.

There were two very surprising statistics from the first twenty minutes.   First, Marcus Thornton, who entered the game leading the CAA in scoring average at 21.6 points per game had only two points on two field goal attempts.  Second, the Keydets only forced three Tribe turnovers, while committing six themselves.  

The start of the second half saw William and Mary revert to their original offense in the first half.  Beasthoven, who had missed a few first half bunnies, as William and Mary alum Josh Legette noted to me at halftime, scored the first two baskets for the Tribe.   A Tarpey layup extended the lead to twelve 50-38.

VMI quickly tried to adjust by overplaying inside.   This resulted in a lot of three point open looks for William and Mary and the Tribe took advantage.  W&M hit on three of their next four shots from beyond the arc; two by Julian Boatner and one by Prewitt.   The Tribe had extended their lead by nineteen, 61-42 with fourteen minutes left.

But the run was far from done.   Over the next six and a half minutes  minutes, the Tribe would bury another five 3 pointers, three from an unleashed Thornton.   After a Beasthoven tip-in, William and Mary would be up 86-54 with seven and a half minutes left in the game.  

All that was left was whether the Tribe would score 100 points.  And when reserve forward Fred Heldring calmly knocked down a three to make it 97-64 with two and a half minutes left, it looked like the William and Mary fans in attendance would get that mark.  But alas, the Tribe missed their last few shots and the Tribe faithful would have to settle for an impressive 97-67 win.  

The Tribe shot 49 percent from the field, including 12 of 27 from beyond the arc.  William and Mary hit a ridiculous nine of fifteen 3 point attempts in the second half.   Beasthoven lived up to his name with a double double, leading all scorers with 26 points and 16 rebounds.  The impressive freshman Prewitt added 22 points on 5 of 7 shooting from beyond the arc.  Thornton added 11 points and Tarpey just missed a double double with 10 points and 9 rebounds.  The Tribe had 20 assists and only six turnovers.

It was a long night all around for the Keydets.  VMI scored twenty four points under their season average.  The Keydets also committed thirteen turnovers which gave them a minus seven for the evening.  They only had five steals on the night and were 6 of 25 from beyond the arc, also under their season average for three pointers made.  The Keydets did have four players in double figures.  Trey Chapman led the way with 16 points, Glasgow added 15, QJ Peterson added 12 and Brian Brown had 11 points for VMI.

As we left the Kaplan arena, Matt and I were very impressed by a Tribe team that had played shorthanded on the night.  Starting guard Brandon Britt is suspended for a few more games for violating team rules and reserve freshman forward Daniel Dixon, who averages twelve minutes a game, was out due to injury.   The Tribe will be a force to reckon with in the CAA.

While we were making our way back to our our suite on the hotel property, we stopped in the middle of the road to let four deer cross from the woods to the pond on the hotel property on the other side.   The deer camped out by the fountain much in the same way Beasthoven did in the paint last night.  

My guess is that the deer probably feasted on the grass as much as Beasthoven did on the Keydets.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Better Scoring Balance, Better Results for Gamecocks (Recap of Florida International vs. South Carolina Game)

Coming off consecutive road losses to Baylor, 66-64 and Clemson, 71-57, South Carolina was looking to rebound with some home cooking when they hosted Florida International on Sunday afternoon.  In each of the losses to the Bears and the Tigers, the Gamecocks had only two players score in double figures. In the loss vs. Baylor, Sindarius Thornwell had 20 points and Brenton Williams added 12 points.  In the loss vs. Clemson, Mindaugas Kacinas had 13 and Thornwell added 10 points.

In 1970, the Moody Blues released the album "Question of Balance", which includes one of my all time favorite songs, "Question".  However, I don't think Justin Hayward, John Lodge and the other band members had balanced college basketball scoring in mind when they released the album forty three years ago.  But the album title is appropriate for the Gamecocks, in which the past season and the recent two games against Baylor and Clemson have highlighted a common problem; a lack of balanced double figures scoring.

Last season, only one player, Brenton Williams, averaged double figures in scoring for the entire season.  The lack of balanced scoring resulted in the Gamecocks averaging 66 points per game, which was eighth in the SEC in 2012-13.  However, when you are twelfth in the SEC in scoring defense at 68.9 points per game, you're not going to win many games in conference.  And thus, the Gamecocks only won four games in the SEC all season.

This season, the Gamecocks returned fifty two percent of their scoring, but that was really only five players - Williams, Kacinas, Michael Carrera, Bruce Ellington and Laimonas Chatkevicius.  So it was very important that the eight new players recruited by Coach Frank Martin would bring some much needed scoring punch, along with Martin's trademark defense from his days at Kansas State.  But after three games, the Gamecocks only had two players in double figures scoring - Tyrone Johnson and Thornwell.  And South Carolina as a whole was averaging 68 points per game.  In other words, once again the Gamecocks had a "Question of Balance".

South Carolina was hosting a Florida International team that had won six straight games after losing its first two games.   The Golden Panthers had a very interesting off season, as their coach Richard Pitino left to take the Minnesota Gophers head coaching position.  Pitino tried to take a few FIU players with him.  Malik Smith, who as a junior averaged fourteen points per game was allowed to transfer to Minnesota, due to FIU being banned from postseason play this season due to a poor APR under previous head coach Isaiah Thomas (as you can see Thomas not only damaged the Knicks, but the Golden Panthers as well).  However, forward Rakeem Buckles was not allow to transfer to Minnesota, as Florida International denied his transfer request.

Florida International hired Anthony Evans, formerly the coach of Norfolk State (and known for their famous upset of Missouri in the 2012 NCAA Tournament) to replace Pitino.  And Evans already had his own crisis to deal with as guard Raymond Taylor was not available to play against the Gamecocks due to a question of his eligibility after pulling out of the past NBA draft.

The announced crowd of 9,869 saw the Gamecocks take an early 7-3 lead as Kacinas and Demetrius Henry combined for all seven points.   But the Golden Panthers responded with Buckles scoring seven of the first eleven FIU points.  A Buckles jumper gave the Golden Panthers an 11-9 lead.

But one of the new players Martin brought in to help add scoring, freshman guard Jaylen Shaw, highlighted the Gamecocks' new three point shooting prowess.  Shaw buried two three pointers in a row, then later, Johnson and Williams added three pointers to put the Gamecocks up 23-19.

The Golden Panthers answered with a 10-2 run, with Marco Porcher Jiminez scoring six of their points.  FIU was back up 29-25 with 7:56 left in the half.   The Gamecocks, who were last in the SEC last season in FG percentage defense at 45.2 percent, allowed the Golden Panthers to hit on ten of their first fourteen shots.

FIU was still up four, 31-27 with less than six minutes left in the half when South Carolina went on a 12-4 spurt, which included two three pointers by Shaw and Carrera.  The Gamecocks were back up 39-35 with 1:44 left in the half.  But the Golden Panthers scored the last seven points in the half, five by forward Tymell Murphy.   FIU led at halftime 42-39.

The second half started with Florida International actually extending their lead to their largest of the game, five, 44-39 on two Jerome Frink free throws.  South Carolina would score the next six points, the last of which came on a Kacinas layup to put the Gamecocks back in front, 45-44.  However, the Golden Panthers would regain the lead twice over the next four minutes, leading 51-49 with thirteen minutes left in the game.

From there, South Carolina would take command, outscoring Florida International 12-4 over the next three minutes, as Shaw and Williams both buried three pointers in the run.  Williams' three pointer made the score 61-55 with ten minutes left in the game.  The Golden Panthers would hang around however, as Dominique Williams and Murphy each hit three pointers to cut the deficit to two, 63-61 with eight and a half minutes left.

But FIU would not get any closer.  The Gamecocks clamped down on the Golden Panthers, as FIU would not score a field goal for more than six and a half minutes and only scored thirty points in the entire second half.  By the time Florida International finally scored on a basket by Jiminez, the score was 69-65 South Carolina with 1:53 left in the game.  The Gamecocks would hit thirteen of fifteen free throws the rest of the way and Thornwell ended the scoring with an emphatic dunk as South Carolina would win 84-72.

The Gamecocks shot fifty percent from the field, including eight of nineteen from beyond the arc.  The key was South Carolina had four players in double figures scoring.  Johnson led USC with eighteen points, while Shaw and Williams each had sixteen points, with Shaw hitting four three pointers.  Henry added fourteen points for the Gamecocks.  Kacinas nearly had a double double with nine points and nine rebounds.  FIU also had four scorers in double figures as Murphy led all scorers with 22 points, Jiminez added 15, Buckles had 11 and Dennis Maven added 10 points.

For one afternoon, at least scoring wise, the Gamecocks had no question of balance. The only question now is whether a relatively young South Carolina team can be consistent in their play with a long way left in the season.

As far as a Moody Blues album title that covers that, well there is  "Long Distance Voyager".

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Quick Observations

Some quick observations from the past few days.

  • If you didn't watch the last few minutes of the UConn-Indiana 2K Sports Classic Championship game from last night, get the WatchESPN app and watch the replay.   You had a ludicrous number of lead changes, a late game turnover, an even later in the game offensive foul, a last second out of bounds play and Tom Crean at a "lunatic fringe" moment.  Must see TV and definitely more excitement at MSG than any Knicks game this season.
  • Thursday evening, VCU got hammered by Florida State.  I don't know what was the bigger deal, the Rams losing to an athletic Seminoles team or that Dan Dakich actually fanned the flames of a Twitter war by going after "Around the Horns", a Rams blogger, for taking umbrage to Dakich's comment that the Rams were "tired".  If you're on Twitter, track down Dakich's tweets. Dakich, to make matters worse, actually commented on the Twitter war during the ESPN broadcast of VCU's win last night over Long Beach.
  • And yes, I watched both the first half and part of the second half of the Thursday night VCU - Florida State game and the second half of the VCU-Long Beach State game last night, where Dakich referred to his Twitter war with the VCU fan base.  First, from what I saw of the Seminoles-Rams game, I don't think VCU was tired.  They forced twenty five turnovers on the Seminoles.  The Rams just couldn't hit the side of a barn on offense, shooting twenty nine percent on twenty one more attempts than the Seminoles.  Second, Dakich should have just let the VCU fans base comments go.  There was no need to bring it up last night.
  • Finally, there is no better defensive player in the country and I mean no better defensive player in the country than VCU's Briante Weber.  He is so fun to watch on defense and such quick hands.
  • Hopefully UAB learned a valuable lesson about being up three points late in a game.  In their first round Charleston Classic game vs. New Mexico, the Blazers were up three late with the shot clock off in regulation and in the first overtime.  Both times they didn't foul the shooter.  Both times, the Lobos hit a three.  The Lobos won in double overtime.   Moral of the story, late in the game, last possession, up three, shot clock off, when on defense, foul a player before they are in the act of shooting a three.
  • North Carolina Central won a huge game at North Carolina State, winning in overtime at Raleigh.  Now living in SEC/ACC country, I watched the second half and the overtime period. The Eagles definitely outplayed the Wolfpack, especially in that overtime period.  But it should have never got to the overtime period.   Up three on defense with three seconds left in the game, two Eagles' defenders inexplicably converged on Wolfpack guard Anthony Barber, who was driving to the basket. Barber, of course, kicked it out to an open Patrick Wallace, who buried a three pointer to tie the game.   The Eagles could have of course fouled Barber, or better yet just let him take the layup.  Thankfully NC Central recovered by scoring the first eleven points in overtime, winning 82-72.  By the way, keep an eye on Eagles guard Jeremy Ingram. Averaging twenty eight points per game on the season and he put twenty nine on the Wolfpack.
  • I was following the Seton Hall-Oklahoma game on Twitter last night.  The Pirates squandered a six point lead in the last minute of the game, losing to the Sooners 96-95 in Brooklyn.  All I could think of was whether Reggie Miller had suited up for Oklahoma last night. Yes, fellow Knicks fans, that's two digs in one blog post.
  • Zeke Upshaw scored a career high thirty seven points and had nine rebounds for Hofstra in an overtime loss at Richmond.  Upshaw, a graduate student who played his first three seasons at Illinois State, is averaging twenty points per game for the Pride.   Upshaw is averaging twenty eight minutes per game, four times his average in his third year at Illinois State.  His career high in scoring prior to this season was eleven points vs. Creighton.  Upshaw is further proof that if you give a player the right system, he can flourish.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Old Friends, New Homes (Recap of Seton Hall vs. South Carolina Women's Basketball Game)

In August of 2012, I accepted a position at the University of South Carolina School of Law.  After forty six plus years of living on Long Island, I made the biggest move of my life and left for Columbia, South Carolina. It's only been fifteen months, but my family and I are truly happy here. It was a move that worked out for the best.

In late March of this year, Tony Bozzella accepted the Women's Head Basketball Coach position at Seton Hall.  In Coach Bozzella's case, he was coming back home to his alma mater after eleven seasons at Iona.  It was while at Seton Hall that he first started his coaching career as the head coach of St. Mary's High School, now known as Cardinal McCarrick, in South Amboy, New Jersey.  But that was not the most important part of his undergraduate years at Seton Hall.    The most important part was meeting there his future wife, Maria, who is also a Seton Hall graduate.
For Coach Bozzella, Seton Hall is just another in the list of reclamation projects he has overseen in his twenty one years as a head coach.   His first job was SUNY Southampton, where he took a perennial doormat ECAC team and took them to six straight winning seasons.  Then he received his first Division I head coaching position at LIU Brooklyn.  In his very first season there, he guided the Blackbirds to their first ever NEC Tournament Championship and their only ever NCAA Tournament appearance.  In his second and final season, he took LIU Brooklyn to the championship game before losing to St. Francis PA.

Then he took the head coaching position at Iona College.  Over his eleven seasons there, he led Iona in 2005-06 to their first ever winning season in twenty three years. In 2006-07, he guided Iona to their first ever postseason appearance, a WNIT bid.  He would take the Gaels to three more WNIT appearances and in his last seven seasons with Iona, the Gaels had an 85-56 MAAC conference record.

Bozzella has always had a sense of family and loyalty as far as his coaching staff.   His Iona coaching staff has been made up over the years of former players for Southampton, LIU Brooklyn and Iona.  His Seton Hall coaching staff is no exception.  Lauren DeFalco, a former star guard at Iona, Melissa Flagg, another former starting Iona Gael guard and Timothy Gardner served as assistants for him at Iona.

When I found out that Coach Bozzella's Pirates were going to be in Columbia to face the Gamecocks on November 17, it was the genesis of what turned out to be a  three day sports weekend for our group of friends.  As I noted in my previous post, my friends Mal and Tieff flew down Friday morning and we spent Friday night in Charleston watching UNC Asheville defeat the College of Charleston in overtime.  We were then joined on Saturday by our friend Den Bashuk and his friend Neal to watch SEC Football as South Carolina rallied at home to defeat Florida.

Sunday was not only a big day for my friends, but for me personally.  November 17 also happened to be my younger son Jonathan's sixth birthday.  He woke up about 7:00 AM and not too long after, we were opening his birthday presents.  Later, my entire family met up with my friends for brunch at Liberty Tap House and then we made our way to Colonial Life Arena.  Once there, we joined up with Maria and the rest of the Bozzella family, Samantha and Joseph and caught up on old times.

Seton Hall had won their first three games, the latest being an impressive 78-61 win over Weber State last Friday night.  However, on Sunday the Pirates were missing three of their starters - Bra'Shey Ali, Alexis Brown and Sidney Cook, all due to injuries.  They were facing the #21 team in the country in Dawn Staley's  3-0 Gamecocks on their home court, a tall order even for a fully healthy team.

South Carolina started the scoring on two free throws by Elem Ibiam, as Gamecocks shooting free throws would be a consistent story line throughout the game.  However in another consistent story line, Tabatha Richardson-Smith buried a three pointer to put Seton Hall up one.  Two free throws by forward Tiffany Webb would put the Pirates up three, 7-4.

South Carolina responded with two free throws by Khadijah Sessions, another free throw by freshman sensation Alaina Coates and a three point play by Ibiam to go up 10-7.  Seton Hall would answer as Richardson Smith would tie the game at thirteen with another three pointer.  Then after Aleighsa Welch would put the Gamecocks ahead again with another free throw, Ka-Deidre Simmons hit a jumper to put the Pirates back up one, 15-14.  Simmons would hit another jumper to give Seton Hall an 18-16 lead.

However, the foul toll was mounting on short handed Seton Hall.  In barely a little more than ten minutes, the Pirates had fourteen fouls. Janee Johnson already had three fouls with 10:45 left in the first half.  Bozzella, who was only dressing nine players, used his entire bench in the first half, basically out of necessity.

And yet not only did the Pirates hang in there against the talented, taller Gamecocks, they actually rallied from a late six point first half deficit with 7-0 mini spurt, capped by another basket by Richardson-Smith to put Seton Hall up 39-38 with about a minute left.  Asia Dozier would answer for South Carolina with a three pointer to put the Gamecocks up two.  Simmons missed on a jumper at the buzzer but the Pirates were only down two, 41-39 at the half.

Seton Hall actually hit six more shots on fourteen more attempts in the first half than the Gamecocks including five of nine from beyond the arc. But the Gamecocks went to the line in the first half more than most teams do in a game with twenty seven attempts.  South Carolina hit on twenty one of those free throw attempts, seventeen more than Seton Hall (four of five from the line).

During halftime of South Carolina Women's Basketball games, kids can dance with Cocky on the court. Jonathan had a chance to celebrate his birthday by dancing as well.  He decided he didn't want to go out there.  Then I found out why; he was tired from being up early that morning.  A short while later, he was asleep in his seat.

At the beginning of the second half, Dozier picked up right where she left off with another three pointer. It would start a 16-4 run, culminated by two Tiffany Mitchell three pointers and a Sessions layup to put the Gamecocks up 57-43 with 14:23 left in the game. It looked like the Hall was about to be blown out of Colonial Life Arena.

But the Pirates refused to quit and came back with a 10-4 spurt.  Richardson-Smith would score another five points and a Simmons layup would cut the South Carolina lead to eight, 61-53 with eleven minutes left.  Seton Hall was only down ten, 64-54 with ten minutes left.

But the Gamecocks size and post play was too much for the Pirates.  After Seton Hall was still within eleven, 72-61 with about six and a half minutes left,  Ibiam went to work.  She would score the next seven Gamecocks points, on three short jumpers in the post and a free throw.  It would swell to an eventual 12-2 run that put South Carolina up 84-63.  The Gamecocks would go onto win 88-67.

The Gamecocks shot an impressive nearly seventy four percent from the field in the second half, hitting seventeen of twenty three shots.  The Pirates actually had as many field goals, twenty six and as many three pointers, six, as the Gamecocks.  However, South Carolina had twenty one more free throws than Seton Hall and that was the difference in the game.  

As the game was ending, I heard Coach Bozzella turn to his bench and say "Good Effort".  Considering he was missing three starters, his team was only down two points at the half and were only down ten with ten minutes left, it was a good effort.  The Gamecocks were just too strong in the paint for the shorthanded Pirates, who only committed eight turnovers on the game (South Carolina only committed eleven turnovers).

The Gamecocks had five players in double figures in scoring.  Ibiam led the way with eighteen points, Sessions added seventeen, while Welch and Mitchell each had fifteen and Coates added ten points. Richardson-Smith led Seton Hall and all scorers with twenty four points while Simmons added nineteen.

We said our goodbyes to Maria, Samantha and Joseph, along with Mal and Tieff.  We couldn't stay because Jonathan wanted to have his birthday dinner at his favorite place...McDonalds (hey, he is only six).  Plus I knew I would see them again later next month when they play at St John's during our Christmas in New York vacation.

It was good to see an old friend who was able to go back home to his alma mater.  For Tony Bozzella, considering his track record, it will be for the best too.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Night in Charleston (Recap of UNC Asheville vs. College of Charleston)

In November 2008, my friend Tony Terentieff and I took a trip down to Charleston to see Hofstra play in the inaugural Charleston Classic.  I quickly fell in love with a city full of history, culture, character, wonderful southern architecture and of course, terrific food.  It was truly one of the best vacations in my life.

When I accepted a position at the University of South Carolina School of Law in August 2012, one of the things I quickly looked forward to was being able to go every so often to Charleston.  Last basketball season, I was able to see Towson play College of Charleston, but due to time constraints, I didn't have much of a chance to enjoy one of my favorite cities.

However, late this summer, I brought my family to visit Charleston for an overnight trip.  My wife and my kids immensely enjoyed this city by the water, as we took in the Aquarium, visited a plantation (with a swamp full of alligators!) and walked through Waterfront Park, The Battery and went by many historic homes.  My family quickly became fond of the second largest city in South Carolina.

When my friend, Tony Bozzella, became head coach of the Seton Hall women's basketball team, he let us know that they were playing at South Carolina on Sunday, November 17.   It also happens to be the weekend of South Carolina hosting Florida in football.   So, a group of us put plans in motion for a weekend of sports, circled around seeing our good friend, Coach Bozzella.  It was also a reunion of my Hofstra basketball trio as I would get to see Tieff and Mal.

The original plan for the sports weekend was for Mal and Tieff to fly down on Friday morning and I would show them around Columbia.  But it just so happened that the College of Charleston was hosting UNC Asheville last night.  So I had a better plan;  a night of hoops in "The Holy City".

After picking them up at Charlotte airport, I drove them back to my house here in Forest Acres, a town inside Columbia.   We then had a tasty lunch of South Carolina barbecue at my home. Afterwards, I took Mal and Tieff to check into their hotel.  Then we made the now familiar two hour drive down to "America's Most Friendly City" (as noted by Conde Nast Traveler).  

I parked in the same garage by the downtown Hampton Inn that we used for my family trip in late summer and made our way through the streets of Charleston.  After a quick dinner at a local establishment, we headed out to what my Google Maps thought where the arena was located.  We quickly realized that it was not the right direction, so thanks to a couple of helpful, female College of Charleston students, which once again proved that Charleston is "the most polite and hospitable city in America", we got to TD Arena fifteen minutes before game time.

The John Kresse Court at TD arena is nestled into the heart of the College of Charleston campus.  It opened in November of 2008 and seats 5,100 people.  The TD Arena will be hosting its sixth Charleston Classic on November 21.   The Cougars will be one of the eight teams in the tournament.  Strangely, this only the third time that the College of Charleston will have played in the tournament on its home court.  The Cougars played in the first Charleston Classic and in last season's tournament.

It was a good crowd for a drizzly Friday night.  Tieff was hoping that there was no rain this time, unlike 2008.  During the first day of action in the brand new arena, it was raining in Charleston.  And the TD Arena roof had its first leak.  It just so happened the leak was right above where Tieff was sitting and sure enough, TD Arena, sort of speak, christened Tieff.

There was one difference between last night and the previous times I had seen the College of Charleston play on John Kresse Court.  That was the CAA logo at both baskets.  The Cougars just joined the Colonial Athletic Association this fall after years of being in the Southern Conference.

Early in this college basketball season, so much has been made of the impact of freshmen like Duke's Jabari Parker, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky's Julius Randle.  But its not just the big name schools that have impact freshman.   UNC Asheville and College of Charleston each have a freshman leading their team in scoring.   The Bulldogs have guard Andrew Rowsey, who came into the game averaging 18 points per game. The Cougars have Rick Barry's son, Canyon Barry.  Canyon put up 36 points in a win over Charlotte.

From the outset, both freshmen made their presence known on the court.  Barry hit a layup to give Charleston a 2-0 lead.  It would be the only lead the Cougars would have for the next thirty plus minutes of game action.  After D.J Cunningham, otherwise known as "Mr. C" the rest of the night (Google it), tipped in a rebound to tie the game at two, Rowsey went to work.  He assisted on a layup, then buried a three pointer and then hit another jumper to put UNC Asheville up 9-4.  A little bit later, Rowsey hit a layup and then buried another three pointer to extend the Bulldogs lead to ten, 16-6.

After the Bulldogs went up by 13, 21-8 with about nine minutes left in the half, Barry went to work.  He would score eleven of the Cougars next thirteen points with an array of three pointers, layups, dunks and of course, trademark Rick Barry underhanded free throws.  The kicker was that entering the game, Barry was only one of seven from the free throw line.  Tieff and Mal believed that Barry had been shooting his free throws overhand in those two games and that his Dad called him to say "Us Barrys shoot their free throws underhand, son.".  Barry would go six of six shooting underhand free throws on the night.

But despite Barry's scoring prowess, the UNC Asheville lead would continue to grow.  The Bulldogs were up 31-17 with two and a half minutes to go in the half.  This was a result of largely two things.  One, Rowsey creating offense either with a long three pointer or in one case, driving to the basket, then using an old school, rec league ball fake that resulted in a defender jumping up, leaving his man open for an easy layup. The other was "Mr. C" constantly getting post feeds and backing into his man for easy post shots.  Time after time, Cunningham was able to get an open look and there were no Cougars helping out to double team the six foot ten senior center.

Meanwhile, outside of Barry, the Cougars struggled on offense.  They only shot 8 of 29 from the field in the first half and if they weren't missing a shot, Cunningham or the Bulldogs' Jaleel Roberts were blocking them.  Cunningham had six blocks in the game and Roberts added three of his own.   UNC Asheville went into the locker room up 31-21 at half.

The College of Charleston needed to change things up to start the second half.  And the Cougars' Athletics Staff  provided the student section with the necessary arsenal to distract the Bulldogs' free throw shooters; inflatable props, consisting of palm trees, blue whales, bricks and turtles.  I think the props distracted the students more than it did the free throw shooters.  Still, it was a neat touch.

Through the first three minutes of the second half, UNC Asheville maintained a double digit lead, 37-26.  Then a Barry three pointer ignited a 16-2 run, capped on layup by Joe Chealey, another talented Cougars' freshman.   College of Charleston had its first lead, 42-39, since ninety seconds into the start of the game.

Rowsey would answer with four straight points, his first points since seven minutes left in the first half and the Bulldogs went back up 43-42.  Chealey would respond with a three pointer to put the Cougars back up two, 45-43 with ten minutes left.

It was then that Bulldogs' senior Jaron Lane offensively got on track.  Lane, a redshirt senior due to an ankle injury last season and who averaged 11.5 points per game in 2011-12, had a horrible first half as he went 0 for 6 from the field, missing badly on all of his three point attempts. In fact, Lane had missed on his first seven three pointers of the season.  But over the span of nearly six minutes, Lane accounted for nine of the next eleven points UNC Asheville scored, including a three pointer that put the Bulldogs up 54-49 with 3:20 left in the game.

The Bulldogs looked like they were going onto victory as the Cougars had not hit a field goal since eight and a half minutes left in the second half.   But some teams can't stand prosperity and the Bulldogs went away from their Rowsey dribble drive/Cunningham post game and went into a stall, with either Rowsey or Corey Littlejohn dribbling at the top of the key and Cunningham all the way over into a corner.  Their possessions ended up in badly taken shots, or in the case of Lane, a turnover.

As a result, UNC Asheville would not score another point the rest of the second half.   However, the College of Charleston barely took advantage.  First, Anthony Thomas hit a jumper to cut the lead to three, 54-51.  After missing on two consecutive possessions, the third time was the charge as Chealey setup Willis Hall nicely for a game tying three pointer with thirty five seconds left in the game.   The Bulldogs failed to score on their last possession and the game went into overtime tied at fifty four.

In the overtime period, the Bulldogs went back to the offense they unwisely had abandoned late in the second half.   On post plays, Cunningham, sorry, Mr. C hit two consecutive jumpers to put UNC Asheville up 58-54.  Adjehl Baru, who had a double of twelve points and thirteen rebounds, hit a jumper of his own to cut the Bulldogs lead to two, 58-56.  But on the next Cougars' possession, Baru missed a possible game tying jumper.  Rowsey responded with a jumper to put UNC Asheville back up four, 60-56.

As was the case for most of the game, the Cougars were ice cold from the floor down the stretch and Chealey and Thomas both missed easy layups that could have cut the deficit to two points.  From there, the Bulldogs iced the game hitting seven of eight free throws.  Meanwhile, Chealey had the last two points for the Cougars, but missed on two shots to end the game.  The Bulldogs got their first win of the season, a hard fought 67-58 overtime win.

The Bulldogs shot forty six percent from the field and fourteen of fifteen from the charity stripe.  Rowsey led all scorers with twenty three points on eight of eleven shooting from the field, including three of six from beyond the arc.  Lane scored thirteen points after the first twenty minutes.  Mr. C had a double double of twelve points and ten rebounds to go with his six blocks.

The Cougars had eighteen more field goal attempts than the Bulldogs, due to only six turnovers and forcing fourteen Bulldogs' turnovers.  Yet Charleston hit two less shots than UNC Asheville (22 to 24).  The Cougars were also a frigid five of twenty seven from beyond the arc.  Barry led Charleston with eighteen points, but he was only five of seventeen from the field, including two of nine from beyond the arc.  Baru had his double double and Chealey added ten points.

We said goodbye to "The Holy City" and made the two hour trip back to Mal and Tieff's hotel in downtown, Columbia.  Day one of our sports weekend was complete.  Day two is just beginning.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Good Start to a New Season for the Gamecocks

Saturdays have been busy for me since February of this year.  With very few exceptions, my Saturdays have revolved around baseball with two sons, both of whom I coach, playing Little League.  In the past ten months, Saturday mornings consisted either of a game or practice in our spring Trenholm Little League, a summer YMCA game or a fall doubleheader of practice (first teeball, then Minors). Yesterday was no exception, as our minors team likely had its last practice going into this Monday night's championship game.

But for the first time since the beginning of March, this was different.  Live college basketball was back on the agenda.  And for the first time all year, my son and I left a baseball practice early.  I left my co-head coach and my assistant coach in charge as Matthew and I quickly headed home, changed and headed into Columbia for the Longwood - South Carolina game.  As I told Matt, we were "Back in the saddle again".

Just like us and many other fans, South Carolina Head Coach Frank Martin was looking forward to the start of a new college basketball season.  Last season, the Gamecocks were 14-18 in his first season in Columbia, which was a four win improvement from the season before.  But for a coach like Martin, who never had a losing season and never missed the postseason in his five years at Kansas State (four NCAA tournaments and one NIT), last season must have seemed an eternity.

But Martin was hard at work in his first season and off-season to get back on the winning track in his second season.  He brought in seven blue chip freshman and one outstanding transfer, Tyrone Johnson from Villanova to go along with his returning nucleus.  Saturday was the debut for this new team.

Matthew and I got to Colonial Life Arena about 45 minutes before game time.  In the parking lot, Matthew was trying to figure out how many games he has gone to since the 2010-11 season.  He thought it was about one hundred.  It's more likely near fifty, but I let his imagination run wild.  After we got our game programs from one of the pretty Gamecock Dance team members stationed at the top of the stairs, unlike last season, I decided to get a Gamecock Yearbook so I could get a background on the each of the new players for South Carolina.

We made our way to our seats and watched the Gamecocks practice on the court.  I took a picture of Matthew and a little later I realized how much he has grown since the boy who first went to a basketball game with me on my birthday in February 2011, the famous Hofstra - William and Mary overtime game that got him hooked on college basketball.   Things have changed so much in the two and half years since that game.  We were now seven hundred and fifty miles away in another state, in a new home, but we still made time together for college basketball.

As the game was about to start, I tweeted on how sparse the crowd was at Colonial Life.  It did not seem like the later announced attendance of 8,536.  It seemed much less than that, though in an 18,000 seat arena, eight thousand people can seem very sparse.  To be fair to Coach Martin, game time was on an early Saturday afternoon in November in SEC football country against a team that is just entering its tenth season of Division I basketball.

The Longwood Lancers joined Division I in the 2004-05 season.  In that first season, the Lancers went 1-30, with their lone win at home over Howard.   The Lancers have had only one winning season; they went 17-14 in the 2008-09 season.   It was only last season that the Lancers finally had a true conference affiliation as a member of the Big South.  They went 8-25 and 4-12 last season, though their highlight of the season was a First Round Big South Tournament upset of two time defending champion UNC Asheville and Keith Hornsby (Bruce Hornsby's son).

One of the biggest problems for the Gamecocks last season was a lack of scoring options.  Brenton Williams was the only player to play a full season and average over double figures in scoring per game (11.7), though Michael Carrera and Bruce Ellington almost averaged ten points per game (each averaged 9.9).   With the additions of star recruits like Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie, Duane Notice and the transfer Johnson, the hope is that there will be a lot more scoring that the sixty six points per game the Gamecocks struggle to average last season.

Strangely at tipoff, none of those three players were starting yesterday.  Of course Ellington was not there, being a star wide receiver for the football team that has a chance to play for a BCS game. But neither Carrera or Williams were starting either as Martin decided to start three freshman - Thornwell, Demetrius Henry and Dwayne Notice, along with Johnson and a returning member from last season, Mindaugas Kacinas.

Nearly three minutes into the start of the game, it seemed like things hadn't changed at all from last season.  Despite playing lock down defense, the Gamecocks were struggling to score, leading only 3-0 with about four and a half minutes into the game.  The fans near me in my section were starting to get frustrated at the Gamecocks, who were shooting 1 of 9 from the field at the time.

But then Williams and Carrera entered the game.  Both bring energy, along with scoring and Carrera's passion and infectious smile light up a crowd as well as the team.  South Carolina went on a 15-4 run, with Carrera and Williams combining for thirteen of the points.  The Gamecocks were up 18-4 with eleven minutes left in the half.

Longwood would make its one run of the game, a 7-0 spurt that cut the Carolina lead to 18-11 with 5:44 left in the half.  Frustrated, Martin called timeout.  Whatever he said to his team in the timeout worked.  The Gamecocks would end the half on a 19-4 run, punctuated by two three pointers in a row by Notice.  The Gamecocks were up 37-15 at halftime.

With all the talk of the all the new recruits plus the transfer Johnson adding scoring options to the team, the first half scoring was dominated by the returning nucleus.  Williams, Carrera, Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius combined for twenty eight of the thirty seven points scored with only Johnson and Notice adding to the scoring total.

As Matthew chowed down on his halftime ritual meal of a pretzel, the new guys decided to make the start of the second half all about them.  Notice buried his third jumper in a row to get the festivities started.  Then Thornwell scored his first two points as a Gamecock on a pair of free throws.  Over the first six plus minutes of the second half, Notice, Thornwell, Johnson and Henry combined to score all sixteen Gamecocks' points as South Carolina went up 53-21 with fourteen minutes left in the game.

Carrera briefly ended the Gamecock Newbie Run with a jumper to put the Gamecocks up thirty four, 55-21.  But again, the newbies would make their mark scoring seventeen of the next twenty one South Carolina points.  The lead would swell to forty two,  76-34, on a Johnson jumper with just under four minutes left in the game.

The only question left in the game was whether Longwood would break forty points.  They did with about ninety seconds left in the game as South Carolina won 82-44.  The Gamecocks largest margin of victory in non conference games last season was twenty one, in their last non conference game vs. South Carolina State.  They already topped that in their first non conference game of this season, winning by thirty eight points.

In their first game of the season, the Gamecocks got the balanced double digit scoring that was sorely lacking last season. Four players scored in double figures; Johnson led the way with eighteen points, Thornwell and Williams each had fourteen and Carrera just missed a double double with twelve points and nine rebounds.  More importantly, two more players almost had double digits in scoring; Kacinas missed a double double with eight points and fourteen rebounds, while Notice had eight points, five rebounds and four assists.  The Gamecocks shot forty nine percent from the field and an equally impressive twenty of twenty four from the free throw line.

The Gamecocks held the Lancers to twenty three percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them  50-27.   Longwood only had one scorer in double digits, guard Tristan Carey with ten points. But Carey had to work for those ten points as he shot 5 of 20 from the field.

All in all it was a good day for Matthew.  He got his beloved baseball practice in, got to watch his first basketball game of the season and saw an impressive Gamecock win.  Later, Matthew played Nerf basketball in the den for a good part of the evening and the end of the night, he was asleep in his bed, wearing his Bruce Ellington basketball jersey.

I'd say that's a pretty good start to the college basketball season.