I enjoyed the limited amount of time I spent out in the sunshine today, but the lure of basketball — as noted in the previous entry — was stronger. Like I said last time, it’s March, the best month to be a hoops fan.
I’ll start from the end of my day and work backwards.
For the last four years, I’ve covered the semifinals and finals of the South Atlantic Conference basketball tournament in Hickory. The games are played at the Multi-Purpose Center (love that colorful name) at Catawba Valley Community College. It’s a nice arena with more than enough room to accommodate the fans of the schools involved. And the hospitality and media facilities are top-notch.
But it’s the only time of the season that any of the SAC teams plays their games there, and that unfamiliarity can lead to some unsightly shooting and ugly games. Retired Wingate women’s coach Johnny Jacumin, not a man given to whining, was not a fan of the place.
“I don’t like this building, and it doesn’t like us,” I recall him saying after one particularly tough tournament loss by the Bulldogs. Players I’ve talked to cite tight rims and a tough background for shooters — the “end zone” seats are set back from the court a good distance, creating some difficulties with perspective.
“You just have to concentrate and block out the crowd and everything else,” said Antonio Houston, a plesant young man who’s a former Charlotte high school star (East Mecklenburg). He did a pretty good job at that tonight, scoring 23 points to lead his Catawba team to a 79-68 victory over top-seeded Lenoir-Rhyne in the first semifinal game.
(The venue also apparently didn’t bother a young lady named Nikki Van Dine, who hit 8 three pointers — all in the first half — for Tusculum in its victory over Carson-Newman on the women’s side of the tournament. But I didn’t see that one.)
Catawba advanced to tomorrow’s title game for the third straight year, the second straight as the No. 4 seed, and they’ve seemed to emerge from the pack on a regular basis in recent years.
I noticed during the game that the Lenoir-Rhyne team includes a player I followed when he was a freshman at Clemson a few years ago. Julius Powell, a 6-7 forward from nearby Newton, had a promising first year with the Tigers in 2005-6, starting 11 games. But injuries slowed his development in his sophomore season and he played only one game last year before deciding to sit out the rest of the season and transfer. He’s averaged about four points a game in a backup role for the Bears this year.
My other stop today was the second day of the Atlantic 10 women’s basketball tournament at UNC Charlotte, or Charlotte, as they call themselves athletically.
I covered St. Bonaventure’s 73-65 victory over St. Joseph’s in the first round of the tournament on Friday and hung around for the second evening game between Duquesne and Massachusetts. Conferences at the Division I level in recent years have morphed into pretty good-sized entities, leading to expanded tournament fields and lengthier tournaments.
(I’m interested to see how the Big East tournament works out this year, with all 16 teams in that massive conference included. The top four seeds won’t play the first two days.)
I don’t mind this because it’s more basketball, but the event loses a little something. The A-10 tourney started with 12 teams (the bottom two in the 14-team league don’t make the field), and there wasn’t a lot of fan energy for much of the action involving the 5-12 seeds. I didn’t see the day’s best game, a 62-58 upset by No. 12 Rhode Island over No. 5 George Washington. And two of the games were decided by more than 20 points. But as an ex-Pittsburgher, I enjoyed hearing that accent again from the Duquesne fans sitting behind me.
I saw what could turn out to be the tournament’s best game in the noon matchup between No. 1 seed Xavier, 22-5 and ranked No. 15 in the country going in, and No. 8 Dayton.
Dayton survived losing a six-point lead late in regulation to come back and get the upset in overtime, 63-60. The handful of Dayton faithful who made the trip celebrated, while a large contingent of Xavier folks sat in stunned silence. It was an example of what’s good about these tournaments — it’s a last chance for every team to prove themselves.
“In the overtime it was all about heart,” said Dayton forward Justine Raterman, the A-10 freshman of the year in women’s basketball, who had 14 points and nine rebounds in the game.
A cliche? Sure. And in my reporter’s heart, I know — and I teach — that you try to dig for the better quote beyond the practiced and well-worn platitudes that coaches and athletes often fall back on in their encounters with you.
But the thing about the cliche is that it usually contains a grain of truth. Sometimes “it was all about heart” is the only explanation there is. In this case, I thought it worked.