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.


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.



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