Friday, April 17, 2015

Philadelphia Union 1 at NYCFC 1 - April 16, 2015


Did you know that Major League Soccer has a new team In New York? Yep, the brilliantly named NYCFC is one of two expansion teams (Orlando City FC is the other) to begin play in 2015, bringing the total number of teams in the circuit to 20 (Chivas USA folded after last season). NYCFC is jointly owned by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, so frontrunning fans should turn out in droves. The team will spend the first few seasons playing in Yankee Stadium while a new soccer only stadium is built somewhere within the 5 boroughs.



As MLS is one of the leagues on my venue count, I wanted to visit as soon as possible, and a weeknight game against the Philadelphia Union presented the best opportunity early in the season. Tickets were cheap on the secondary market, so I picked one up on StubHub and headed to the Bronx after work.



The crowd was small to start (the empty concourse above is a rarity at Yankee Stadium), but this was to be expected as they don't sell seats in the upper deck. As I wandered around, I saw that the Yankee Museum was open. I had been in here a couple of times before during Yankee games when it was crowded, but NYCFC fans couldn't care less about the history of their owners and the place was completely empty save for a security guard. I do not like the Yankees but you have to respect the history on display, with Babe Ruth bats and home run balls, a jersey from Gehrig, and on and on. It was nice to be able to take my time here for a change. An interesting bit of trivia for us Canadian baseball fans: the Yankees own the first World Series trophy with the Toronto Blue Jays written on it (1977, below), as well as the last (the trophy was redesigned for the 2000 series and now features blank flags).



My seat was down low near one corner flag in section 106, which is an outfield seat for baseball (view below). I would strongly suggest staying away from here as the scoreboard is partially blocked and you don't get a good view of the action at the other end from this angle. In fact, there are few good seats throughout the venue, Since the field not quite parallel to the seats, in some places you are quite far from the action even at field level. Seats behind either goal are probably the closest, with the general admission supporters' seats worth a look if you can stand up for a couple of hours. If you are not happy with your location, you can move around during halftime to find a better spot.



That's about all there is to say here. Concession prices are the same as for Yankee games (i.e. insanely overpriced) so don't bother unless you enjoy being gouged and contributing to the Evil Empire. If you only have time for one soccer stadium in the New York area, go to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, which is a proper venue for the beautiful game.

The Game



The match started quickly for Philadelphia who had a couple of chances parried away by NYCFC keeper Josh Saunders (above) before NYCFC took over. They had a few chances, with Mehdi Ballouchy missing a golden opportunity after finding himself alone in front, only to chip over the bar as the first half ended without a goal.



Twelve minutes into the second half, Ballouchy, who is on his sixth MLS team after being drafted 2nd overall by Real Salt Lake in 2006, atoned for his miss. After receiving a perfect pass from Khiry Shelton (2nd overall pick in this year's draft), Ballouchy avoided his defender and flicked a deft curling shot into the top right corner behind helpless rookie John McCarthy (#55 above). Ballouchy removed his shirt in celebrating his first goal in 3 years, earning him a yellow card.

It looked like NYCFC would escape with 3 points, but with four minutes to go. Union's Cristian Maidana lobbed a long ball into the box that drew 2 NYCFC defenders against Maurice Edu. Edu beat both and his header bounced to a wide open C.J. Sapong, who had no trouble booting it past Saunders to equalize. A late chance from Ballouchy was saved by McCarthy and the tie finished tied, 1-1. An entertaining game if you had low expectations but I don't think either team will contend for a playoff spot this year.



Notes

I overheard fans using the proverbial "we" to discuss the team ("we should have won, we always give up late goals"). Given this is the club's 6th game ever, I found it amusing that they had already identified so closely with the club and identified its weaknesses so clearly.

I can't think of a less original or interesting name than New York City Football Club. When MLS started, teams were given nicknames as in other leagues (Seattle Sounders, Houston Dynamo, New England Revolution etc.) but some pretentious ass decided that new teams should feature European monikers like Toronto FC, Sporting Kansas City, and D.C. United. Seven of the 20 clubs have these dull nicknames and expect more to come as clubs in Minnesota, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Miami should all be joining the league in the next few seasons. I know MLS wants to be taken seriously on the international stage, but give the league some personality first!

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Syracuse Chiefs 1 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders 3 (International League) - April 12, 2015


Back in 2003, I attended 40 games in 30 venues in 35 days in April and May, my only venture into hardcore sports road tripping (i.e. at least one game every day and no more than three straight days in any one city). The journey started with a snowstorm that caused me some difficulties in Buffalo (where opening day was played in 29 degree weather) and Rochester, but spring arrived when I turned south for Scranton. On the first Sunday of the minor league season, a perfect afternoon that represented the end of a long, cold winter, I saw the Ottawa Lynx shutout by Chase Utley and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons at Lackawanna County Stadium.

Twelve years later and although things have changed in AAA ball (the Ottawa Lynx are no more, the Scranton ball team is now the RailRiders and affiliated with the Yankees instead of the Phillies, and the stadium has been fully renovated and renamed PNC Field), I decided to repeat the past, returning to the Scranton area to welcome spring by watching a minor league game. The season started on Thursday, but the first few days were still chilly up in the northeast. Sunday turned out to be a perfect day though, a cloudless sky and temperatures in the high 60s, so I drove to Moosic, PA to renew acquaintances with my favourite sport for road tripping.



PNC Field is located in a valley just off 1-81, down Montage Mountain Road. Parking is $2 but you get a completely useless coupon book to help mitigate the cost. The ticket office is to the right of the main entrance, and you can pick up a free copy of the game day program before entering as well. Outside, the silver facade gleams in the sunlight, but it is inside where this stadium really shines. It is located at the bottom of a valley, giving it some great views of the hillside from the seating bowl. Early in the spring, the trees are still barren but a search of images shows that this place is quite attractive come summer and fall, when the leaves change.



Back in 2003, the field was an ugly artificial turf, but when the franchise signed with the Yankees in 2007, a grass field was mandated and it is top notch now. As well, there used to be an upper deck but that was removed as part of the renovations in 2012 and the seating bowl is now sleek, with about 18 rows in most sections. During the early part of the season, much of the seating bowl is in the shade throughout the afternoon; if you want to remain in the sun best to buy a lawn seat and bring a blanket. The spacious concourse encircles the entire field and is worth the obligatory tour, you can watch the starters warm up in the bullpen.



Concessions are reasonably priced, with jumbo hot dogs running $3.50 this season and offering the best condiment selection I have seen anywhere (below). There is a craft brew pub right behind home plate that had some decent offerings for $7 or so.



The only negative here (and I'm really reaching) is the scoreboard - it is huge but could contain more information on the batters and pitchers, such as the full lineups and more statistics. A minor quibble in what has become a wonderful ballpark destination. Scranton is only a couple of hours from my office (without traffic, about 3 1/2 hours during rush hour on a Friday) so I expect to return here much more often than every 12 years.



The Game

The Syracuse Chiefs (Washington's affiliate) were in town to open the season and had taken two of the first three contests. Chase Whitley (15th round, 2010, warming up in the photo above), who appeared in 24 games for New York last year, started for the RailRiders and was solid, scattering 4 hits over 5 scoreless innings. Meanwhile, Syracuse sent Scott McGregor (15th, 2008, St. Louis) to the mound. McGregor, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer who is no relation to the former Orioles star of the same name, gave up a solo shot to Tyler Austin (13th, 2010, below) in the second and allowed Austin to slam an RBI double in the 4th that ended his afternoon prematurely.



In the 6th, SWB's Rob Refsnyder (5th, 2012) reached on an error by Cutter Dykstra (son of Lenny and partner of Jamie-Lynn Sigler for you Sopranos fans) and Austin singled him to third. Austin Romine (2nd, 2007) followed with a double that scored Refsnyder to make it 3-0.


Tony Gwynn Jr.

Syracuse spoiled the shutout when Caleb Ramsey hit a solo homer in the top of the 9th, but that was all they could muster in a 3-1 loss that took 2:40. All in all, a great day and the first of what I hope to be many minor league games this season.



Player to Watch

Austin, who had a chance for the cycle in the 8'" but grounded out. He is the Yankees #18 prospect. Click that link if you want to see the future of baseball; each team has 30 prospects listed - that's 900 players to study!

Refsnyder, a second baseman, is the Yankees #5 prospect and an interesting story. He led Arizona to the NCAA championship in 2012 and was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player. Born in South Korea, he was adopted as a baby by parents based in Southern California. If he makes the Yankees, I wonder if there will be any reaction from the Korean community here or overseas.

Notes

The Scranton franchise played in Jersey City (where I now work) between 1937-50 and my hometown of Ottawa between 1951-54. Perhaps that is why I feel a historical connection to this ballpark.



The Scranton area is known for anthracite (a form of coal) and somewhat tangentially, the train system that delivered it around the country. That's where the new nickname RailRiders comes from. If you are a fan of old railroads, visit the Steamtown National Historic Site (link) which has some great displays about the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railway that used to pass through here.

Best,

Sean

Monday, April 13, 2015

Utica Comets 2 at Binghamton Senators 3 (SO, AHL) - April 11, 2015


With Club 122 in the books, I've resumed my larger sports road tripping challenge: all minor leagues in the Big 4 sports (160 minor league ballparks, 58 hockey rinks in the AHL and ECHL, and 18 NBDL gyms) and the 3 remaining "major" leagues (MLS, CFL, NLL). I originally called this my Quest for 400 as when the 122 venues of the big 4 were added, the total number of venues happened to equal 400, but with franchises coming and going every year, that round number has dropped a bit and the Quest for 396 isn't as meaningful. Now I just keep track of my overall venue count. Out of the 274 venues in these lower leagues, I've already been to 117, which means 157 left to visit. I plan to crisscross the country over the next three years to see every one of them, assuming the cooperation of the various schedule makers. After that, I can finally retire and limit my sports road trips to new stadiums, college venues, and watching Toronto teams on the road.

With that in mind, I am in the midst of a weekly AHL tour, whereby I spend every weekend driving from New York to one of the nearby arenas. Last weekend, on the day my hometown Ottawa Senators improbably clinched a playoff spot, I paid a visit to their farm club in Binghamton. Ottawa had a rather unstable minor league system for their first few years. Their inaugural season saw them partner with the New Haven Senators, who moved to Prince Edward Island for three years before suspending operations. While the franchise remained dormant, Ottawa used Worcester for a single season and then Grand Rapids in the IHL for two years before the Griffins jumped to the AHL. Finally, in 2002, the sleeping Senators were awakened and moved to Binghamton, where they took the parent club's nickname. Over the last decade, the team stablised Ottawa's minor league situation, and they even won a Calder Cup in 2011. A few players from that championship club are with the Senators now and certainly had a part to play in their record-breaking playoff run.



The B-Sens play in the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, which resembles a government building more than a sporting venue, at least as I approached from the north. It reminded me of the Brutalist architecture that was popular around the time the arena was opened in 1973 (the term
Brutalist comes from the French b6ton brut, or "raw concrete,") and certainly concrete is the dominant feature on the outside. The arena is right downtown and street parking is available, though if you get there late you might have to look around a bit. Nearby lots are $5 if you want to avoid the hassle of driving around. Before entering, stop by the northwest corner, where there is an actual memorial to the war dead from the area. Note that one of the panels for the names of those who sacrificed all for their country remains blank; I'm not sure if this is intended as an artistic wish for no more war, or just advanced preparation for the next time America's military are sent to battle.



Should you need to buy tickets, the box office is on the ground floor in the northeast corner. As is my custom at these minor league games, I spent a few minutes here to see if anyone had an extra ticket. Sure enough, a gentleman was trying to give away a single Skybox seat. The only caveat was that I could not sit in the Skybox with his group. No problem there, the arena would be half full at best and so I took the freebie and entered - my 545th' lifetime venue and 19th active AHL rink.



Much like the Memorial Arena in Syracuse, you walk upstairs to reach the main concourse, which is separated from the seating bowl by doors at every section. The typical food items are here, including a 12 oz. Labatt's Blue for only $5, a relative bargain these days. Note the Binghamton Hockey Hall of Fame along one wall at the east end of the concourse.



Inside the seating bowl, you have four distinct sides, with no corner seats. The leads to some interesting options on all sides, including single seats low in each corner, which are right above the tunnels to the dressing rooms. These don't have great sightlines to the ice, but are good if you want to heckle the opposition.



The ceiling is adorned with banners celebrating other Binghamton hockey teams, including the Rangers who played here from 1990-97 and are now the Hartford Wolf Pack. Of course, the highlight is the Calder Cup banner.



Overall, this is a good old barn that suits its purpose well. With the NHL soon to eliminate the last three rinks from the 1970s (Nassau Coliseum, Rexall Place, and Joe Louis), the AHL will be the only place to enjoy old-time arenas, and the one in Binghamton is well worth adding to your list should you be passing through.

The Game

Vancouver's top affiliate, the West-leading Utica Comets were in town to face the B-Sens, who had already been eliminated from playoff contention. Utica featured a few players who had enjoyed brief stints with the Canucks earlier in the year, including Alex Biega and Adam Clendening. The first period ended goalless, but just 50 seconds into the second. Hunter Shinkaruk opened the scoring for the visitors, scoring right off a face-off. Binghamton replied when Cole Schneider took advantage of some sloppy Comet clearing and broke in alone on Joacim Eriksson (making a save below), beating him with a great rising wrist shot.



Five minutes after that, Brandon DeFazio regained the lead for Utica with a power-play marker, only to have Buddy Robinson reply for Binghamton just a couple of minutes later, backhanding home a rebound during a 4-on-4 situation.



The third period was dominated by Utica but they could not beat Chris Driedger (above) despite throwing 16 shots his way, and we went to overtime. Nothing was solved there, so it was back to the shootout, only Binghamton's second of the season. After DeFazio missed to open the breakaway portion of the evening, Schneider skated in and beat Eriksson easily. When the next four skaters missed, Binghamton had won. But wait! The referee forgot that the AHL reverted to a 3-round shootout this season! Two more skaters went for each team while everyone wondered what the hell was going on. Thankfully all missed and Binghamton got their well-deserved 2 points, but I am sure that the league office had a chat with ref Kendrick Nicholson after that little mix-up.



Notes

Utica's Cal O'Reilly had the longest point streak in the league this season, 14 games going back to March 7, but the B-Sens kept him from extending it.

Update: The teams played again in Binghamton on April 15 with the B-Sens winning 6-5 in overtime, but the bigger story was a goalie "fight" involving Jacob Markstrom (recently sent down by the Canucks) and Peter Mannino.

I am hoping that Utica will play Toronto in the first round of the AHL playoffs as I have yet to visit there (it lies about an hour east of Syracuse). I originally had planned to travel there on the Sunday after this game, but with both Utica and visiting Syracuse on their third game in three days, I expected a stinker (2-1) and so went to Scranton for minor league baseball. For once, a good decision on my part, as you'll see in the next post.

Best,

Sean


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Manchester Monarchs 2 at Hartford Wolf Pack 3 (SO, AHL) - April 4, 2015


My AHL tour continued on the weekend with a brief trip to Hartford, home of the Wolf Pack. The Insurance Capital of the World is just a couple of hours north of New York City yet I had never been here before. Sadly, my sports road tripping hobby had yet to develop when the Whalers moved to Carolina in 1997, so I never got to enjoy an NHL game in Connecticut's capital. Fortunately for Hartford hockey fens, the New York Rangers moved their top affiliate here to replace the Whalers, and the Wolf Pack have remained since, including three seasons where they were renamed the Connecticut Whale.



The team plays in the XL Center, which used to be known as the Hartford Civic Center. Located right downtown, it doesn't look a pro sports venue from the outside. Street parking is free after 6 pm and you should be able to find a spot within a block or two. Inside the building, before entering the actual seating bowl, you will find a wall that holds dozens of pictures of both past Whaler and Wolf Pack players, a testament to the interesting history that this building has witnessed over its 40 years.



The Civic Center was first opened in 1975 and hosted the WHA's New England Whalers for three seasons. In January 1978, the arena's roof collapsed due to excessive snow and ice, forcing the team to Springfield for two years while repairs were completed. During that time, the WHA merged with the NHL and the Whalers dropped New England in favour of Hartford (as demanded by the Boston Bruins). They returned to the Civic Center midway through the season and even made the playoffs that year, not a particularly difficult task with only 21 teams in the league. That was one of their highlights as over the next 17 seasons, the Whalers were the poster boys for futility, finishing above .500 just three times and winning only a single playoff series. As the NHL expanded and grew in popularity, it became clear that the Civic Center was not large enough to keep the franchise and new owner Peter Karmanos eventually moved it to Raleigh, where they became the Carolina Hurricanes. To add insult to injury, the 'Canes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, defeating fellow WHA refugee Edmonton in a 7-game final.



Despite the relatively unsuccessful stint in the NHL, the Whalers were one of the more interesting franchises, having had signed Gordie Howe and his two sons Mark and Marty. The "first family of hockey" is honoured with a banner, which hangs alongside a few Whaler numbers and a banner from their WHA days.



Of course, the Wolf Pack is the tenant now, and they have a long history of their own. In fact, the Wolf Pack is the oldest continually operating minor league hockey franchise, having formed in 1926 as the Providence Reds. As I mentioned in a previous post, minor league franchise moves generally don't retain the team's successes, so there are no banners from Providence or Binghamton here, but still a good number for the Wolf Pack, who won the Calder Cup in 2000. Along with all the UConn basketball banners, this is one of the most decorated ceilings in the minor leagues.



The arena just underwent some renovations and it seems quite new. The concourse is wide enough for the crowd, with plenty of concessions spread around. There is a premium beer stand with Guinness and Harp that is well worth the extra buck or two; the Harp I had (thanks to Dom) was the coldest arena beer I have ever experienced.

As you can see below, most of the upper bowl is blocked off with curtains and seats are generally not sold for this area, although there were a few fans sitting there without being harassed. The ticket window is inside the main entrance and standing around before the game might net you a freebie as it did for me - turned out to be a great seat just five rows behind the visiting bench.



Still, if you want an unobstructed view of the nets, sit about 15 rows from the ice (below). Overall, I really liked the XL Center and found it hard to believe it was nearly as old as I am. I don't see the need to replace it with a brand new facility but there are discussions taking place toward that end. Either way, Hartford is close enough and a worthwhile destination in its own right (the Wadsworth Atheneum is one of the nation's better small art museums) and I'm sure I'll return in the very near future. At the latest, that would be 2016 when the Hartford Yard Goats begin play in the Eastern League.



The Game



The visitors were the Manchester Monarchs, setting up a minor league rematch of last year's Stanley Cup Final. Manchester led the league and had already clinched a playoff spot, while Hartford was fighting for a berth. Early in the first, with Justin Vaive (son of former Leaf Rick) in the penalty box for Hartford, Nic Dowd capitalized on a rebound to give the visitors the lead. Late in the second, veteran Paul Bissonnette (mostly famous for his Twitter usage) and Dylan Mcllrath squared off in a good scrap. Mcllrath earned an extra 2 minutes for interference and Manchester made good on the power play when Michael Mersch scored on a pretty wraparound play.



In the third period. Monarch netminder Patrik Bartosak was called for delay of game after touching the puck outside the trapezoid. A minute later and Sean Backman was sent to the sin bin for slashing and Hartford had a 2-man advantage. It didn't take them long to score as Oscar Lindberg beat a helpless Bartosak with a backhand from the slot. As the seconds ticked away, it looked like Manchester would escape with the win, but Lindberg slapped one past Bartosak with just 40 seconds left to send the game to overtime (below, that's Lindberg to the right of the net).



In the AHL, the extra period is seven minutes, and the teams skate 3-on-3 after the first whistle with less than four minutes remaining. It is certainly more open than the typical NHL overtime and the teams managed 10 combined shots but nary a goal and it was shootout time.



Danny Kristo, who had assists on both of Lindberg's markers, scored to open the proceedings. The next three shooters missed, giving Joey Crabb a chance to win the game for Hartford. Crabb skated in and blasted the shot right at Bartosak's pad, surprising the goalie quite a bit as he had not heard the whistle.  Bizarre. That left Zach O'Brien as Manchester's only hope and he beat Yann Danis, only to have the puck ring off the goalpost. Hartford completes the comeback with a 3-2 shootout win that ended up being one of the more entertaining AHL games I've seen.



Next Up

I'm heading up to the Scranton area to check out the Binghamton Senators, my 19th active AHL venue. I was also planning to add the Utica Comets on the trip, but the weather on Sunday looks to be perfect for baseball, and the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders are home that day so I might just do that instead and save Utica for the AHL playoffs. Check back next week to see what happened.

Best,

Sean

Monday, March 30, 2015

Rochester Americans 2 at Syracuse Crunch 0 (AHL) - March 28, 2015


The AHL schedule maker was kind enough to slate a Syracuse Crunch game on the Saturday between the NCAA tournament days. The visitors were nearby rival Rochester Americans and this would be the eighth and final meeting of the season between the two, who happen to play in opposite conferences in the wacky setup of the AHL.



After an afternoon spent gorging at the original Dinosaur BBQ (this Syracuse standout is worth the four-hour drive from NYC alone), Sharpy and I headed over to the War Memorial Arena, just a few blocks south of downtown and easily walkable. The Crunch had a brilliant promotion, putting flyers in hotels advertising $10 off tickets to entice basketball fans who were not heading to Albany to watch the NCAA women's regional. The promo worked as the game was sold out; unfortunately those getting their first taste of AHL hockey probably won't return.



Before getting to that, a quick word on the arena, one of the more interesting in the league. Opened in 1951 as the Onodaga County War Memorial, it is now part of the OnCenter complex that includes a convention center and theaters. The Crunch are the fourth AHL team to play here, and are celebrating their 21st season this year.



After entering, you take a set of stairs to the main concourse (above). The seating bowl is hidden behind several sets of doors, so before you enter, take the time to find the tribute to the Syracuse Nationals, NBA champions in 1955.



There will be a 60th- anniversary celebration on April 10, the date of their 92-91 Game 7 win over the Fort Wayne Pistons that was held at this very venue. Note that the NBA regular season doesn't even finish by April 10 these days! Sadly for Syracuse hoops fans, the Nationals moved to Philadelphia in 1963, but the championship banner remains.



In the same alcove is a plaque commemorating the creation of the 24-second shot clock, which
happened in Syracuse in 1954. There is an actual clock downtown with the same plaque, but they did not change the wording on the one here in the arena, so it refers to "This clock" when there is no clock around.



Having completed the requisite tour, you can enter the horseshoe-shaped seating bowl, with the top of one end displaying a message honouring veterans (below). There are seats in this section, but the angle and distance from the ice makes them a poor choice.



The best option is sitting high up in the middle of the ice which give you a mostly unobstructed view of the action. All tickets are $24 on game day (discounted to $14 with the flyer) and $3 cheaper if bought in advance.



The visitors wore their home whites (the AHL has smartly kept this tradition while the NHL cynically promotes the third jersey concept with home darks) and it has to be one of the most timeless uniforms in sports. The Amerks logo has remained essentially unchanged since 1970 (save for a season when the Vancouver Canucks messed with it, foreshadowing that franchise's long road through uniform hell). It looks really sharp, particularly when compared to the Crunch's cartoon superhero.



Returning to the game, the first two periods were scoreless, and although each team generated their share of shots (23-21 in favour of Syracuse), there were few scoring opportunities. Four minutes into the third, Allan McPherson one-timed a beautiful pass from Dan Catenacci that beat Kristers Gudlevskis high on the shoulder side. That was all the Amerks needed as Catenacci added an empty netter with eight seconds to go, giving Andrey Makarov (above) the shutout and the first star.



Notes

My first AHL game was in Rochester when the Crunch visited in the middle of a snowstorm back in April, 2003. The Amerks goalie was Ryan Miller, completing his rookie season as a pro. I also saw Makarov (below) play in Saskatoon back in 2011. I expect I'll see him in a Sabres uniform next time.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, March 28, 2015

NCAA East Regional Semifinals - March 27, 2015


Last year when I first saw the NCAA tournament schedule, I considered the possibility of traveling to Dayton for the First Four, then Columbus and Pittsburgh for the first weekend, and Cleveland and Syracuse for the second. Such a trip would require a lot of time, which my job precludes, so I ended up just visiting Syracuse for the East Regional. After attending two games on Friday night, I'm glad that I couldn't make it to the other venues. During the season, college ball, especially in the mid-majors, can be exciting and fast paced, but in the tournament, the games become a slog. The first weekend hides this fact by throwing 48 games at you over four days, but by the Sweet Sixteen, it becomes more obvious. Long TV timeouts extend the game to well over two hours (for 40 minutes of action) and late start times mean that by the end of the evening, you are just waiting for the final whistle.



The East Regional was held in the Carrier Dome, a venue that I had driven by many times but never had the pleasure of entering. It is actually on the Syracuse University campus, but for the tournament, all nearby parking was sold out. Fortunately, the organizers arranged free shuttles from downtown and a nearby mall. My basketball buddy Eddie drove me up from New York while Sharpy drove down from Ottawa to meet us. We took the shuttle from Armory Square and got to the dome about 45 minutes before the tip.



As we made our way around to our seats, the concourse gradually became more and more crowded. The picture above does not do justice to what happened between the two games, when it was nearly gridlocked on both levels.



My seat (actually a bench) was in the corner (view above) while Sharpy and Eddie were sitting nearby. The court was arranged at one end of the stadium, which limited the seating possibilities, while the other half of the football field was covered by a media area (below).



The first game featured two ACC teams as #4 seed Louisville took on #8 NC State. The first half was slow as both teams controlled the ball, with few fast breaks in either direction. With the Cardinals up 28-27 and a minute to go, Trevor Lacey and  Ralston Turner made back-to-back threes for the Wolfpack before Terry Rozier closed the frame with another three for Louisville to get them back within two. This was about the only time the crowd was into the game; the size of the dome really makes it difficult for fans to maintain an atmosphere.



The first five minutes of the second half saw Montrezl Harrell (#24 above) score 8 points but NC State kept the game close and approached the final media timeout up 54-53. Then Anton Gill (#1 below, guarding Anthony 'Cat' Barber) hit a jumper and a trey and Louisville never trailed after that. Another Turner three got the Wolfpack back within one but a couple of Rozier free throws, a steal by Mangok Mathiang, leading to a Gill layup made it 62-57. NC State missed their next two shots and turned the ball over once more, with Harrell capitalizing with a layup to make it 67-57 and salt the game away.



The last minute had six fouls, but it made no difference in the outcome as Louisville and Rick Pitino advanced to the Elite Eight with a 75-65 win. A good game in the end, with the teams combining for only 12 turnovers. The Cardinals were solid from inside the arc, shooting 24/42 with Harrell leading all scorers with 24 points.



With all the fouling at the end, the game didn't finish until 9:45 so the next game wouldn't get started until 10:17. I took the opportunity to move over to Sharpy's seat, which was right behind the basket. His neighbours had left after the first game, so we sat there to watch Michigan State take on Oklahoma.



The #3 seeded Sooners jumped out to a 23-13 lead on the #7 Spartans but never count Tom Izzo out in the tournament. Michigan State fought back to get within four at the half, with the last 2:39 seeing 7 missed shots and not a single point.



The Spartans tied the game at 39 early in the second half and the teams fought for the lead for the next while. Travis Trice (shooting above) sank a three to make it 54-49 with 5 minutes to go. Oklahoma's TaShawn Thomas made four foul shots while Trice added a jumper and two free throws of his own to keep the five point lead. But then Big 12 player of the year Buddy Hield drained a three, and the Sooners were within 2, down 58-56 with a minute to go. After each team took a time out, Trice tried for a clinching three which missed. Matt Costello got the offensive board but his tip shot also missed. Still the Sooners could not grab the ball as Denzel Valentine grabbed it and was fouled by Buddy Hield. The game essentially ended there as Valentine made both free throws (in a 1-and-1 situation). Thomas added a layup to make it 60-58 and the Sooners fouled Trice in a last-ditch attempt. But Trice calmly sank both shots to finish with 24 points leading all scorers as his Spartans held on for the 62-58 win.



This would have been a thrilling finish if it wasn't 12:30 in the morning after a long day. I was so tired I just wanted to get out of there. These back-to-back games have to start earlier, many fans were likely asleep as this one finished.

As the game neared an end, we decided to make our way to the other side of the dome, near the exit that would be close to the shuttle buses. We walked around the seating bowl, allowing for some pictures of the commemorative banners scattered throughout. The Carrier Dome is a pretty nice venue (for a dome) and they do a good job of honouring basketball, football, and lacrosse there.



As Michigan State clinched the game, we hurried down and out of the dome, getting on the second bus back to Armory Square. We could hear the radio chatter from the other bus drivers and it seemed like it was a bit disorganized as the full crowd reached the buses, with some trying to push their way on buses that were far back in the line. In the end, we were back downtown by 1 am, giving us a bit of time to enjoy one of the local bars before finally calling it a day. A very long day.

Notes

At halftime, we moved over to Eddie's area, which was quite far away (below). Bring your binoculars if you end up here.



Michigan State won the regional with a 70-65 overtime victory over Louisville on the Sunday, a game that was very entertaining. When there is only one game in a day, the tournament becomes much more palatable as a sports road trip.

Best,

Sean