Sunday, March 22, 2015

It's Better in Columbia Than in the Bahamas for Gamecocks

When South Carolina found out Friday night that their opponent would be Syracuse on Sunday, they already had first hand knowledge of the Orange.  Earlier in the season, the Gamecocks played the Orange in a preseason tournament in the Bahamas.   South Carolina had to rally from a ten point deficit with a little under seven minutes left to beat then No. 22 Syracuse 67-63 in the Junkanoo Jam.

The Orange had played a zone in that game, packing it in against the Gamecocks' bigs, daring South Carolina to hit from the outside.   The Gamecocks hit on nine of twenty six three pointers and were actually out-rebounded by the smaller Orange 50-35.

So Dawn Staley and her team knew what was cut out for them Sunday evening.  They were going to have to have their outside game working against's Cuse's zone and do their best to contend for rebounds against the tenacious Orange.

When my color analyst, aka my older son, Matthew and I got to Colonial Life Arena about ninety minutes before game time, we saw a large crowd standing outside of the arena, full of umbrellas due to the light rain falling. I believe due to NCAA rules, they were not allowing fans to enter the arena until an hour before game time.

It was my fourth NCAA Tournament and my second NCAA Women's Tournament.  My first women's tournament had actually been in 2001, when my good friend and now Seton Hall Women's Basketball Head Coach, Anthony Bozzella, took his LIU Brooklyn team to the NEC Championship in 2001.  His reward was to face UConn in Storrs in the First Round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament and I was there as his team lost to the #1 seed Huskies.   It's ironic that in Coach Bozzella's second ever NCAA Tournament appearance this season, he would again be in Storrs (Seton Hall lost a close first round game to Rutgers last night).

I had been to two NCAA Men's tournament regionals in Raleigh in 2008 and last year.  In 2008, I got to see Davidson and Steph Curry upset first Gonzaga and then Georgetown.  Last year, I got to see Mercer upset Duke.  This year, I was rooting for chalk.

Once 6:00 PM hit, a loud roar came from the crowd as they finally let the fans into the arena.   The crowd line moved at a reasonable pace and we got into the arena rather quickly, then along with the rest of the large herd, got through the ticket takers.   I decided to splurge for a $15 NCAA program, which is actually a nice keepsake.  Every team that made the tournament has their own page in the program with a team photo, roster, statistics leaders, team record and results.  It was cool to see Seton Hall and South Carolina's teams in there.

The 10,485 fans in attendance were energized from the get go, with a loud "Let's Go Gamecocks" chant to start things out.   Syracuse struck first on a three by their point guard Alexis Petersen, who reminded me of a female Pearl Washington.  But South Carolina answered. scoring eleven of the next thirteen points.  The Gamecocks moved the ball well around the Orange zone, as they had three assists during the span, two by Tiffany Mitchell.   Asia Dozier banged in two three pointers, the second of which put the Gamecocks up seven, 14-7.

The Gamecocks extended the lead to eleven, 20-9 on a Mitchell three pointer.  They extended the lead to thirteen, 27-14 as Alaina Coates hit three free throws as the smaller Orange couldn't contain her in the paint, despite their zone.   The Orange would cut the deficit to ten, 27-17 on a Brianna Butler three pointer.   Butler and Petersen combined to score fifteen of Syracuse's first seventeen points.

But that's as close as Syracuse would get the rest of the way.   South Carolina would respond with a 10-0 run over three and a half minutes, as again the Orange could not handle the bigger Gamecocks inside.  A'ja Wilson's two free throws put South Carolina up twenty, 37-17 with five and a half minutes left till halftime

The Gamecocks would actually extend the lead even further, thanks to unselfish basketball and nice passing.  South Carolina would have assists on their next six baskets, capped by an assist by Dozier on Aleigsha Welch layup to make the score 51-23.   The Gamecocks would enter the half up 53-25.  Their unselfish play over the first twenty minutes rendered Syracuse's zone useless.

The early three pointers by the Gamecocks, combined with the Syracuse bigs; Briana Day, Bria Day, Isabella Slim and Taylor Ford all getting into foul trouble, opened up the paint for South Carolina's bigs; Coates, Wilson and Welch.  The game was over for all intensive purposes at halftime.

The start of the second half saw the Gamecocks hold serve and actually extend the lead to thirty one, 63-32, on an Elem Ibiam jumper.  With about ten minutes left, the lead was still twenty eight, 71-43.   Syracuse would cut the deficit down to twenty, 85-65 on a Peterson three pointer with 4:43 left.  But South Carolina would actually extend the margin over the last few minutes, holding the Orange to three points the rest of the way, eventually winning 97-68.

The Gamecocks shot fifty two percent from the field, including a very efficient eight of nineteen from beyond the arc.  South Carolina distributed the ball extremely well on the evening with twenty assists. They also out-rebounded the Orange 40-35 and held Syracuse to thirty three percent shooting from the field.

Finally, the Gamecocks showed a great amount of balance, with six players scoring in double figures.  Coates and Mitchell each had fourteen points, Wilson and Welch each had thirteen points and Dozier and Bianca Cuevas, an absolute blur when on the court, each had twelve points.

Petersen led all scorers with twenty three points.  Cornelia Fondren added sixteen for the Cuse, while Butler had twelve points.

The Gamecocks now move onto the Sweet Sixteen and a likely rematch with North Carolina, who defeated South Carolina in last year' Sweet Sixteen (that's if the Tar Heels get by the Buckeyes of Ohio State tomorrow).   But it seems the Gamecocks like having rematches with opponents.  The Tar Heels might want to ask the Orange about that.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

From the CBI to NCAA Tourney Win for Hunter

Hunter after son RJ buries three pointer (courtesy of TBS)
Thursday, as I watched Georgia State Coach Ron Hunter literally fall off his chair, after his son R.J. hit a three pointer to give the Panthers a 57-56 win over Baylor, I couldn't help but smile.  This is one of the few men's college basketball coaches that I got a chance to talk to outside a press conference (Mo Cassara, former Hofstra coach and friend is another) and came away so impressed.  I couldn't help but root for him.

My first recollection of Hunter was back when he was coaching IUPUI against Hofstra in a CBI game in 2010.  This is a game where 953 people, including myself, attended a "college basketball tournament game".   You could see the game mattered to only a very few and certainly not to Hofstra, who lost 74-60 in what I considered one of their poorest efforts of that season.

But the Jaguars played as if it was the NCAA Tournament.  IUPUI was aggressive in their play,  jumping out to a 21-2 lead and they never looked back.  Judging by Hunter's demeanor on the sideline, they better have gone out to an early lead.  Hunter was intense, demanding excellence of his players every second they were on the court, even when they were up nineteen.  I was worried the man would have a heart attack right on the floor.

That night, I only stayed till halftime, as I was heading to Stony Brook to see the Seawolves take on Illinois in a real college basketball tournament game, a NIT game.  But Hunter left an indelible mark on me.  And I would get the chance to see him and his teams again, in fact several times.

Hunter had a long history with IUPUI.  He started heading coach in 1995, when the school was still in the NAIA.  Then eventually the Jaguars joined the NCAA and eventually a D1 school playing in the Summit League.

In 2011, Hunter accepted the position as head coach of Georgia State.  Now it meant their former CBI rival, Hofstra, would play Hunter at least once, possibly twice a season, depending on how the CAA regular season schedule would work out.

Hunter's first season with Georgia State in 2011-12 was impressive one.  He took basically the same team that was 12-19 the season before, predicted to finish again at the bottom of the conference and turned them into an imposing force.   They won eleven CAA regular season conference games that season, including a dominant 59-43 win over Hofstra on the Pride's home court.

It was how they won that game against Hofstra that was so impressive.  Using his team's height, Hunter had them play a match-up zone and they challenged every Pride shot that night.   The Panthers that season were first in the Colonial in field goal percentage defense, second in scoring defense, first in blocked shots and second in steals and turnover margin.

But it was something that Hunter said right before the Hofstra game that week that will always stick out in my mind,  Earlier that week, Georgia State struggled to win a game over then hapless Towson.   Right after the game, Hunter tweeted "I love my basketball team, but tomorrow, practice will be epic. Bring your lunch pail."

And sure enough, Georgia State brought their lunch pail against Hofstra too.

The Panthers kept that momentum going in the CAA Tournament, where as the sixth seed, they once again took on the Pride in the first round of the CAA Tournament.   In my ninth year of the CAA Tournament, it was my first and only CAA Tournament where I sat on press row as a member of the press, as I sat next to my dear friend Jerry Beach, aka Defiantly Dutch.  And we watched Georgia State use a 24-4 first half run to absolutely dismantle Hofstra 85-40 in what was the biggest margin of victory in the history of the CAA Tournament.

Ron Hunter & Jerry Beach (Courtesy of Defiantly Dutch)
And in the post game press conference, Dutch and I found out why.  The night before was the CAA Awards Banquet, many people thought, including yours truly that Hunter deserved the CAA Coach of the Year award for taking basically the same team that won six conference games the year before and nearly doubled that.  But Bruiser Flint, whose team was favored to win the CAA in the preseason, won the award.  Also Eric Buckner, the dominant shot blocker for Georgia State was denied the CAA Defensive Player of the Year.

Hunter at the press conference was angry and defiant.  He said his team played with a "chip on its shoulder".  He felt as if they had been not given the respect they deserved at the CAA Awards Banquet.   So Hunter channeled his team's anger into what I thought was the most dominant performance I ever saw in my nine years of covering the CAA Tournament.

Then came the next day, the day of heartbreak and missed free throws.  Georgia State came out in the same dominant fashion they had against Hofstra, and went up 22-11 early on George Mason.  Thanks in part to the Panthers missing many opportunities at the charity stripe, the Patriots responded and took the lead in the second half.   The Panthers rallied late to tie the game at 59 all.   But Byron Allen hit a reverse layup with 3.4 seconds left to send the Patriots the 61-59 victory and a trip to the CAA semifinal against VCU.

What I remember more than Allen's winning circus shot, was the post game press conference by Hunter.   As he was holding back tears, Hunter struggled to speak.  When he did, he passionately spoke about their "achilles heel", the missed free throws, and how he never saw a more hungry team in his years of coaching.   He wanted to have his team play one more game, since six of his players were seniors.

After the press conference, Dutch and I met Hunter right under the stands near the entrance to the lower bowl of the Richmond Coliseum.  Dutch and I shook hands with Coach Hunter.  He hoped his team would make the CBI or CIT because with twenty one wins they deserved that opportunity (they did make the CIT, winning one game before being eliminated).   Coach Hunter was very cordial and even got a laugh when we reminded him about his former IUPUI team beating up on Hofstra in the CBI in 2010.  He said "You remember that?!' as if no one would probably remember a game where 953 people showed up.

Courtesy of Defiantly Dutch
One season later, Hunter showed he had a sense of humor.   Georgia State was leaving the CAA after the season for the Sun Belt.  Hunter noted to former CAA Hoops pundit, now VCU radio analyst Mike Litos that " This is my farewell tour in the CAA,  How many guys in any league coach one year and get a farewell tour? I want gifts every place I go. I’ll tell them—get me a gift or I’ll take it out on them on the floor.”

Sure enough, someone met that challenge.  One Defiantly Dutch, Mr. Jerry Beach.  Dutch presented Hunter with the "Meritorious Service" plaque after Hofstra defeated Georgia State in the last few seconds. Dutch noted that "Hunter was a great sport during the 'awards ceremony'...Hunter seemed quite amused that someone remembered his throwaway quote. Or maybe amused is a synonym for frightened, I don’t know."

Hunter is also known for his "humanitarian efforts, partnering with Samaritan’s Feet, an organization that collects shoes for underprivileged children around the world."

Hunter's Georgia State team in 2013-14 went 17-1 in conference before a stunning overtime loss in the Sun Belt Tournament final.   This season, the Panthers got the job done, going 15-5 in conference, 25-9 overall, winning the Sun Belt Tournament and thus the automatic NCAA berth.   Hunter's team features his son RJ, former Kentucky Wildcat Ryan Harrow and former Louisville Cardinal Kevin Ware.

It is also Hunter's first NCAA Tournament as a head coach.  He was a member of three Miami of Ohio NCAA Tournament teams as a player, where one of his teammates was eventual longtime NBA player Ron Harper, who was also a high school teammate.

And here was Georgia State holding its own with Baylor.  Then came RJ's three point shot from long range at the top of the key to cap a 13-0 run to end the game.

Dead solid perfect as it crashed through the net.

And then came his dad, Coach Hunter, crashing down from his chair onto the court.

Georgia State won its second ever tournament game in just their third tournament appearance.  Ron Hunter had just won a NCAA Tournament game in front of twelve thousand plus fans, a far cry from his "first postseason win" as a head coach in front of 953 people.

I think a lot of people will always remember that.