When is Homecoming not really a homecoming?
In Queens University of Charlotte’s case for the last several years, it’s when it’s played off campus. But they fixed that yesterday on what turned out to be a good day to be a Royal, as Queens beat Pfeiffer 89-78 in the cozy confines of its on-campus gym.
A little background: I’ve been covering the men’s basketball team at Queens, a Division II school, for seven seasons. And for all of them, the team played at least one home game — Homecoming and usually the game against closest Conference Carolinas rival Belmont Abbey — in the 3,000-seat Grady Cole Center near uptown Charlotte.
It’s a perfectly fine gym owned by the city, and it’s notable to me for a couple of reasons — one, it’s named for a media guy, a former WBT Radio personality in the 1940s and ’50s. And in the early 1960s when it was known as the Park Center, the Rolling Stones actually played there — no, not basketball.
But I always thought that for Queens, it was like giving up a home game. Playing one or two times a year there, all it gave the Royals was unfamiliar rims and a difficult background for shooters and enough room to let a significant number of the opposing team’s fans in. Especially true for the game against The Abbey, where the crowd was divided about 50-50.
Nothing at all like Ovens Gym, nicknamed “The Oven” which can pack in maybe 450 skinny people on a good night. (Hence the nickname, from the heat that’s sometimes generated when the place is crowded.)
I don’t know the financials of all this, but it at least made public relations sense to give more people a chance to see the team’s biggest games.
“In Division II, we don’t need to be turning people away if they want to see our games,” Brian Good, the head coach of the first four Royals’ teams I covered who is now at Wingate, once told me.
But recently, especially after last season’s Homecoming loss to underdog Coker, I’ve left some of these games with the feeling that the crowd could easily have fit into Ovens Gym — and that some of the games might have turned out differently there.
Last night’s game gave Queens that Homecoming home court back. Several minutes before game time, people were still lined up to get into the building. The place was packed. Outside, some groups were tailgating and anyone who couldn’t get in could watch the game in a big tent supplied with TV screens. (Royals’ games are videotaped and streamed online.)
“We deserve this kind of atmosphere,” said Royals coach Wes Long, whose team is in first place in Conference Carolinas with an 18-6 (14-2 conference) record after the victory. “It was an exciting environment to play in.”
And the game itself was good. Pfeiffer is always a challenging opponent for the Royals. The Falcons no longer play that frenetic frequent 5-for-5 substitution system that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Coach Dave Davis, the guy who dreamed that up, is now at Newberry in the South Atlantic Conference.
But Pfeiffer is still oddly intriguing despite a 10-14 record, with a 5-foot-6, 150-pound Japanese kid named Yuki Yamaguchi starting at point guard — doesn’t shoot much, but he can whip the ball around. And the biggest guy on the team, 6-foot-10, 235-pound Eli Gillis, has an unusual favorite shot — the three-pointer from deep in the corner while falling out of bounds. The East Tennessee State transfer hit all four that he took last night.
And the Falcons’ Chris Woods, a 6-foot-5 forward, is one of the best players in the conference.
But Queens has some weapons too. The Royals’ all-time leading scorer, senior guard Reggie Hopkins, went for a dozen points in each half as the Royals took the lead for good near the end of a back-and-forth first 20 minutes.
They expanded that lead to as many as nine points midway through the second half. But Pfeiffer, which finished the night with 12 three-pointers, kept close by bombing away from outside, tying the game at 56-56 before Queens gradually pulled away in the last seven or eight minutes.
I thought a big difference-maker in the game was Queens junior forward Daniel Bailey, who’s second on the team in scoring at 13 points a game going into last night. He didn’t play until 13:36 remained in it, held out due to the lingering effects of a finger injury he suffered in a game Thursday at Erskine.
It will require surgery after the season’s over, both his coach and his father told me. And he played with the finger taped up for protection. But for such a short appearance, there was high impact.
He scored eight points, including what the players call a “dagger” shot (the one that puts opponents away for good), on a resounding jam after a steal in the final minutes. And he added four rebounds and four assists.
A little extra Homecoming treat for a crowd that was ready for it.