Six days into March and I’ve already seen both sides of the Madness.
My Spring Break from teaching always begins or ends with a marathon of basketball coverage. I follow two NCAA Division II conference tournaments each season, and I always find the games and story lines at least as compelling as the big-time postseason hoopla that will come later.
As I have noted in this blog before, and as I make a point of telling my Sports Reporting class each spring, just because something isn’t “big” doesn’t mean it isn’t good, or worthy of coverage. It’s an important lesson for media people to learn, but I’ve met many sports media folks who don’t appreciate that fact.
Amid the 24/7 UNC-Duke hysteria on sports talk radio last week, a host whose show I like mentioned that Queens University of Charlotte was beginning play in its conference tournament that night — to his credit, a rare acknowledgement in this medium that Division II exists. He asked one of his assistants whether he had ever gone to see the Royals play.
“The next time I go will be the first time,” the sidekick type said. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t mean it as snarky as it sounded.
Anyway, that’s par for the course for small colleges in a media market with major college football and basketball, the NBA and the NFL.
Queens has played out this season, like most, under the radar of many local sports fans, which is a shame, because they’ve been a good story in most of the eight years I’ve watched them. This year has been especially interesting because of the mileage the team has piled up, And that’s just going to home games.
The Royals vacated their 50-something-year old bandbox of a home court, Ovens Gym, in early December. It’s now a construction site and a new physical education center and arena is scheduled to be ready for the opening of the 2013-14 season. Meanwhile, they’ll play their games in a city-owned concert and athletic facility, the Grady Cole Center.
But they couldn’t even get that on Friday night for a big semifinal Conference Carolinas tournament game against Barton. The Grady Cole Center was unavailable due to a conflict with a CIAA tournament event scheduled there for that night. So the game was played in uptown Charlotte on a court at the student center at Johnson & Wales University. It’s a school best known for turning out chefs and other hospitality industry professionals.
“I’ll bet they have great media food,” my wife Jayne suggested. Sadly, it was not to be.
But it proved to be a more than serviceable site for a hard-fought game between Queens, which hasn’t won its conference tournament since 1999, and Barton, which won the Division II national championship in 2007.
The Royals looked ready to advance to the championship game for the first time in the four year tenure of their 32-year-old head coach Wes Long, getting out to a 50-31 lead in the first couple minutes of the second half.
But Barton has a history of comebacks, their most famous one in that 2007 national title game with Mankato (Minn.) State. Five-foot-seven guard Anthony Atkinson, now a Harlem Globetrotter, scored his team’s last 10 points, including this game-winning layup at the buzzer to complete a rally from seven points down with 45 seconds to play.
Friday’s Barton comeback was much more extended and a lot more controversial, depending on whom you were rooting for.
(And I say this with a disclaimer. In my newspaper stories, I generally avoid making opinionated comments about the officiating — not my role — and try to downplay complaints that players and coaches may have about them in the immediate emotional aftermath of a loss. The winners generally don’t have much to say about the officiating.)
Basketball games are made up of literally hundreds of decisions by players, coaches and officials and the outcome is usually a cumulative thing. On most days the officials are deservedly invisible, and I mean that in a good way.
But I think Long had a valid point about the officiating after his team let that big lead slip away and ended up with a 65-64 loss. A physical full-court press by Barton forced turnover after turnover, and the Bulldogs — to their credit — took advantage.
“They kept fouling us, and when the fouls weren’t called, we got rattled,” Long said after the game. “And at the other end, they just put their head down on out-of-control drives and got fouls called on us.”
It was a stunning finish, leaving the Royals to wonder how it all had gotten away from them.
It was also the final game for the most exciting Queens player I’ve seen in my years of covering the team. Dan Bailey, a 6-foot-4 guard who plays four or five inches bigger, finished his career with 1,771 points, 39 short of the all-time scoring mark set by former teammate Reggie Hopkins (2007-2011). He’s also the Royals No. 2 all-time rebounder.
Later that evening after I got home, out of curiosity I checked Dan’s Twitter page. (For the difference between Division II and Division I, note that Dan has 324 followers as opposed to North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall’s 48,190. I’m sure another difference is that most of Dan’s followers know him personally.)
Shortly after the game, he had posted a wistful tweet: “Can’t believe it’s really over….” In every March basketball game, for one team that’s the way it ends.