Sunday, February 5, 2023

St. John's Red Storm 65 at Creighton 81 (NCAA Women's Basketball, Big East) - February 4, 2023

When a friend told me that the weekend before the Super Bowl would see all three Nebraska-based Division I men's teams at home, I jumped at the chance and booked a flight. I completely forgot that the Creighton women play in their own venue, and only when I checked my basketball map did I realize this. Amazingly, they also had a game on the Saturday; unfortunately it started just an hour before the Omaha Mavericks game across town. So I had a decision to make. Pay a visit to D.J. Sokol Arena and see one quarter of the game, or return to Omaha in the future. Well, without infinite time and resources, another trip to Nebraska just to see a women's basketball game is not likely, so I decided to venture over to the venue.

D.J. Sokol Arena is located on Creighton's campus in downtown Omaha, just a few blocks from Charles Schwab Field, home of the College World Series. The arena is next to the Ryan Athletic Center (visible on the right in the photo above), which houses all of the athletics support organizations. There is free street parking along Florence Boulevard if you get there early enough, or a $10 lot across the street. 

Opened in 2009, Sokol has a capacity of 2,950 and is also used for volleyball, which has been very successful during Creighton's time in both the Missouri Valley and Big East conferences. Just inside Entrance 1, which is where the box office can be found, is a display case with plenty of trophies from both volleyball and women's basketball.

Tickets are just $10 for general admission, and you get a hard stub. Out of the three venues I visited on this day, Sokol was the only one to give a hard stub at the box office, something I found very annoying and will harp on at length in the other posts.

The arena is quite simple, with a rectangular exterior concourse that contains a few displays such as the Athletics Hall of Fame above, as well as some concession stands. There is also a concession at the top of one of the seating areas, and they had a combo deal, with a hot dog, bag of chips, and 32-oz souvenir cup, all for just $5. That lasted me through the other two games!

There are five sections on each side, with the end sections having just 8 seats, those next to them 12, and 24 seats in the middle section, an interesting setup. Attendance was only 1,315 so there was plenty of space and nobody checking tickets.

General admission tickets are for the benches behind one basket, next to the band. There were few students at this one, given that the men had a game that night and there was lots of drinking to be done beforehand.

You can enter the gym through the corners as well, useful if you are in the GA sections or on the ends.

The women have had some success, including a WNIT title in 2004 and making the Elite Eight last season, where they were a 10-seed and upset 7-seed Colorado, 2-seed Iowa, and 3-seed Iowa State before falling to top seed and eventual champion South Carolina, who beat fellow Big East school UConn in the final.

The Big East has four schools where the women play in a gym that the men do not use, and I have been to them all now, though I could not get in to the game at Georgetown due to idiotic COVID rules. Thankfully, those seem to be a thing of the past.

Overall, Sokol Arena is a decent venue for women's hoops and one that is worth visiting if you happen to be in Omaha during basketball season and looking for something to do. The basketball is not that bad either.

The Game

Fellow Queens residents St. John's were in town with an 8-4 conference record, while Creighton was a half-game better at 9-4. 

The first quarter was evenly played, with Creighton leading 20-17 after ten minutes of action. I was impressed with the quality of the basketball; there is no comparison to the mid-major women's games I have attended. Pretty passing, excellent shooting, and the running of plays were obvious through the first frame.

I moved into a corner seat for the second quarter and Creighton scored four quick points, leading to a St. John's timeout, and signalling my exit. Creighton went on to win 81-65, shooting 59%, including 13/24 from long range. This turned out to be the best shooting performance on the day, and far better then the men's 38% later that evening, though of course, opposition defense has a lot to do with that.

Notes

This was my sixth women's-only gym of the 20 in the NCAA. It's unfortunate that I could not see more of the game, but at this point, with 265 arenas left in my NCAA hoops quest, touring the venue is paramount and if the schedule maker doesn't help, there is not much I can do. Still, I am keeping the rule that I have to see some of the game, so a return trip to Georgetown is on the cards.

Best,

Sean


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

South Dakota State Jackrabbits 67 at Kansas City Roos 66 (NCAA Basketball, Summit League) - January 30, 2023

Back in 2018, I visited the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City to see the UMKC Kangaroos, who were playing their last season in that venerable venue before moving back to Swinney Recreation Center on campus. During the following offseason, they announced that they would also return to the Summit League and rebranded their athletic teams as the Kansas City Roos, focusing more on being the city's athletics team. The new logo is below and it is a significant improvement, but it hasn't led to a massive increase in attendance, mostly because fans don't attend college games due to a brand, but because they are alumni or students. Or sports travellers such as myself.

As I am on a quest to see all regularly used Division I home gyms, I had to return to Kansas City to add Swinney to my list. My daughter accompanied me along with my friend and her son and we drove onto campus, located just south of the Plaza, which makes for a good pregame area if you have time (Jack Stack BBQ is less than 20 minutes away on foot). I found a free spot on Cherry Street about two minutes away from the venue, but there is also covered parking in a nearby garage, where you need to download an app and pay $1.25 per hour, so it wasn't like I was saving the big bucks like I did the day before at Arrowhead. We walked to the back of the building on the south side, passing by a kangaroo statue along the way (below). This entrance is usually reserved for students, but the receptionist told us to walk down a narrow hall to reach the gym, which we did, passing by the coaching offices along the way.

Below is the main entrance on the north side, with the box office just inside to the right. Tickets start at $10, but as I was with friends, I did not ask for the cheapest, instead paying an extra $7 to sit in the front row. The venue opened in 1941 and has a capacity of 1,500, making it about 10% of the size of Mizzou Arena.

Inside, there are a couple of panels highlighting both athletic and academic achievements, but the one that I found most interesting describes the history of the kangaroo mascot, unique among sports teams at the college level, if not everywhere outside Australia. In 1939, Walt Disney, who lived in Kansas City during his youth, drew the first mascot, who was known as Kasey the Kangaroo at the time. This article details the evolution of the mascot since then.

There is not much else to see in the lobby, so I entered the gym itself, and just like Northern Colorado and many other small venues, you are immediately at the corner of the floor.

There are only two seating areas, one on each sideline, with 14 rows across four sections; there are no bad seats here. The band sits in the leftmost section in the photo below, while the student section is one over and known as the Rowdy Roos. If you want to be on TV, sit on that side as all cameras are on the side from which I took the photo below.

This was my first Summit League game, and I took a picture of a few of the other logos in the conference, all places I still have to go (below). There are only two banners here, both for the women's 2019-20 season when they were declared the WAC champs after winning the regular season and then having the conference tournament cancelled after one day; their inclusion in the NCAA tournament that wasn't held is also commemorated.

There are two scoreboards on either end of the court, one with the score and player stats, the other rotates two pages of team stats and is one of the best I have seen. It is a really good way to keep track of the game, as you can see FG%, 3P%, turnovers, assists, rebounds, and all the other stats that make basketball so fascinating. Of course, it was so fascinating that I forgot to take a picture of it. 

The KC skyline is still on the floor, though tough to see from this side of the gym, and I never did move to the other side to take a better picture.

One of the problems with being in the first row is that the courtside seats partially block your view, but this is not much of an issue once the action starts given that the players are pretty tall.

The single concession stand has limited options at reasonable prices, and they seemed to give away popcorn after the game was over. One thing to note is that the venue is entirely cashless, something that is getting more and more common, even at these smaller places.

Overall, Swinney is a major step down from the Municipal Auditorium, at least aesthetically, but you can't blame the program for bringing games back to campus where they belong. I suspect most winter sports tourists in KC are there for the Chiefs, but they should not overlook the Roos, who put on a good show and are much, much more affordable.

The Game

The South Dakota State Jackrabbits were in town for this makeup game, as the original fixture was scheduled for December 21 (I saw Colorado that day), but postponed due to Winter Storm Elliot. Both teams were 6-4 in conference play. 

Kansas City had a very interesting starting lineup, particularly namewise, with 6'9 twins Precious and Promise Idiaru (born in Germany to Nigerian parents, they have a younger sister Peace) accompanying Shemarri Allen and RayQuawndis Mitchell. The fifth starter was Jeff Ngandu (above), who hails from the DRC but played prep at Orangeville in Ontario, and then was unable to join Seton Hall last season due to visa issues exacerbated by the pandemic. College hoops has the most interesting backstories, especially with so many international players these days.

Anyway, KC was brutal (brootal?) to start, missing their first seven shots as the Jackrabbits raced to a 12-1 lead. That advantage held up until near the end of the half, when the Roos rallied with a 9-1 run of their own and the game was still close at the break, with SDSU up 39-32.

The second half saw KC get within a point after an Allen hoop and harm, and then the teams went nearly three minutes without scoring. Both finally got back on the board by trading jumpers and then Mitchell sank a three to give the Roos their first lead at 49-47 with just under 12 minutes to go. Things remained tight and the game was tied at 59 at the final media timeout. A couple of Allen free throws were answered by a Zeke Mayo triple for the visitors; Babacar Diallo then contributed two for KC, only for Matt Mims to go one better with an unbelievable buzzer-beating bank shot to make it a 66-64 for SDSU. Allen got that right back to give the Roos a 1-point bulge with 37 seconds left. 

The Jackrabbits held the ball and then Mayo drove to the basket where he was fouled by Diallo. Mayo made both freebies, leaving KC 12 seconds to make one final shot for the win. Two timeouts were taken by coach Marvin Menzies, but they seemed like a waste as the play they ran was awful, with Allen attempting a jumpback shot from the wing. Above you can see everybody watching the ball; it missed and went out off a Jackrabbit, giving the Roos one second to perform a miracle. Mitchell's inbounds pass was high over the hoop and Allen came flying in for the one-handed jam, but he couldn't quite control the ball, which went off the backboard, hit the rim, and bounced harmlessly away, allowing the Jackrabbits to escape with a frenetic 67-66 victory.

KC finished 3-19 from long range, dooming them to defeat. Mayo was the leading scorer with 24 points, while Allen finished with 23 in the loss. There were eight lead changes and four ties, with most of those coming down the stretch, making this a very entertaining affair. The highlights are here and worth a look for that final play that would have made ESPN had it succeeded.

Notes

Regular readers know how much I value hard tickets and if you check out this beauty below, you should understand why. A permanent souvenir of a very memorable evening that cost nothing, quite literally, as it was the GA ticket for my daughter. The fact that billion-dollar organizations can't do something like this for the fans that want it is just another stain on the sporting landscape that is increasingly filled with them.

Of the 32 conferences, I have yet to see home games in five: Big South, MAC, MEAC, Ohio Valley, and Southland. I will visit New Orleans in two weeks to get the last while the rest will have to wait until next season. I have seen two Sun Belt schools, but UT Arlington left for the WAC, while Georgia State opened a new venue this season, so I have no active venues in that conference either. It is almost a full-time job keeping track of all these changes.

Next Up

Another weekend in the Midwest as I head to Nebraska to see all four D-I venues in the state. Check back for recaps next week.

Best,

Sean


Monday, January 30, 2023

Cincinnati Bengals 20 at Kansas City Chiefs 23 (AFC Championship) - January 29, 2023

I booked this trip to Kansas City without really thinking about the NFL playoffs, what with the possibility of the AFC Championship being played in Atlanta. But the Bills did not fulfil their part of the bargain, and so the game ended up at Arrowhead Stadium. I decided to get a ticket when they went on public sale, without checking the weather. Big mistake. I overpaid for a nosebleed seat and could have saved more than a few bucks had I waited, as Chiefs fans are bored with five straight AFC Championship games and prices plummeted along with the temperature. This also meant empty seats, however, and I ended up standing in the lower bowl for the whole game, with the view below.

This was my second time at Arrowhead, and the first where I had to drive as on my previous visit, I stayed at a hotel across the street. I avoided the $62 parking charge by leaving the car in a residential area north of I-70, close to Score Sports Bar. From there, you can take the free 47 bus a couple of stops to get out of the cold, though it had stopped before the game finished, so I had to walk about 20 minutes to get back there. I wasn't the only one; there are hundreds of fans who would rather not be gouged by the Chiefs, and so traffic after the game can be a bit rough even in that area.

The bus dropped me off about 45 minutes before kick off and I walked over and lined up for security, which has everybody funnel into a single line to walk through a metal detector. It is as slow as it sounds. With that done, I walked straight to the lower bowl, where I knew there were some unsold seats along an aisle. It is also much warmer down low than up top, especially with the wind chill there. As I looked up, I did notice a new addition since I was here nearly ten years ago (above).

At halftime, I went to the large team store to warm up and I went back there again in the fourth quarter, as my toes were losing feeling. When I returned to the seating area, I stood at midfield and snapped a few shots. These are expensive seats, but no one sits.

I'm not going to recap the game, other than to say it was very confusing to watch without commentary, particularly on the play that was run after a whistle was blown. Obviously, being inside such a loud crowd, we could not hear the whistles on many occasions, so it was certainly an odd situation when the 3rd and 9 was run again. There was also the late hit on Joe Burrow that wasn't called, which really angered Bengals fans after Mahomes was hit out of bounds, leading to the game winning field goal on the subsequent play. After the fact, I read Football Zebras and they explained things quite clearly, so the referees were not the clowns I thought they were, but still, the NFL needs to do better.

I will say though, that it was one of the best live sporting experiences I have been to. First, the game was actually very exciting, given that it was close throughout, and tied in the fourth quarter. Also, the guy next to me was very friendly and we spent much of the time just sharing stories about sports and games we have seen and that helped things go by much more quickly than had I just been standing there, especially through all the TV timeouts. It was too cold to do frequent checks of my phone, and so having a conversation buddy was very helpful. 

After the game, there was a grass fire on the other side of the stadium, which fortunately did not affect my departure. Officials weren't sure exactly what caused it, though they suspect fireworks may have played a part. Ya think?

Notes

This was my second AFC Championship game after the Broncos beat the Pats in 2014. I hope the Chiefs do better than Denver did in the Super Bowl.

Best,

Sean


Sunday, January 29, 2023

Iowa State Cyclones 61 at Missouri Tigers 78 (NCAA Basketball, Big 12/SEC Challenge) - January 28, 2023

If you read the last post, you will know that I am using some gifted Southwest points to fly around the country with my daughter. This past weekend, we headed out to Kansas City as we have a good friend there who was more than happy to host us. Of course, there were a few games to be seen in the area, starting with a big college basketball tilt in Columbia, home of the University of Missouri. At two hours from KC, it's not really in the area, but better to get it done when I can, especially for a nationally broadcast game.

I left early Saturday and drove along I-70, passing by Arrowhead Stadium, where an even bigger game would be played the following day (and yes, I had a ticket for that one too). I arrived at Mizzou Arena a couple of hours before tip, since I was picking up a media credential for Stadium Journey. As you can see above, students were lining up outside, a sign of the rowdy crowd that was to come. The credential did allow me to park in a nearby lot for free, a spot that is reserved for season ticket holders. There is a public parking option at Truman's Landing, which is about a half mile down a hill; free shuttles are available before and after the game. 

Before entering, I took a picture of the statue of Norm Stewart, who coached here from 1967-99. Below the statue is a list of his incredible accomplishments, which include some from baseball, as he was a pitcher on Missouri's 1954 championship team, tossed a no-hitter against Arkansas, and signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles. He was also a basketball star and was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks, for whom he played five games in 1956-57. He moved to college coaching in 1961 and amassing 731 victories in his career, with 633 coming at Mizzou. The court is also named in his honour.

I went in through the media entrance well before fans were allowed. This allowed me time around the empty arena, which I always enjoy as I can get some pictures of the seating bowl as it is meant to be seen.

Barren concourses are also attractive; I particularly like the way the banners spell MIZZOU down the hallway.

Mizzou Arena opened in November 2004 and has a capacity of 15,061, making it the sixth largest in the SEC. Walmart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie and her husband Bill (who once tried to buy the Vancouver Grizzlies) donated $25 million toward construction and were allowed to name it Paige Sports Arena after their daughter. This was widely criticized since Paige attended the University of Southern California. The problem was solved when Paige was involved in a cheating scandal that forced the Lauries to relinquish the naming rights after just three games. 

Inside the main entrance is the Hall of Champions, a collection of trophies and other memorabilia won by past teams. There are several glass cases here and one that caught my eye held a tribute to Willie Smith, whose mid-1970s jersey was the design that would be used by the Tigers in a throwback game today.

That is not the only bit of history here. Outside, there is a plaza listing the school's All-Americans in every sport, and inside is the Athletics Hall of Fame, which stretches along the length of one concourse.

Above the seating bowl are dozens of banners, with several retired numbers foremost among them, including Stewart's 22...

...while conference championships are celebrated with gold banners for the men, and black for the women. The men have five Elite Eight appearances, though one has been vacated.

Tickets for this marquee matchup started at $30 and went up to $60, but for most games, you will be able to get in for less on the secondary market. In fact, since Missouri moved to the SEC from the Big 12 in 2012, their attendance has been disappointing, so much so that other schools are mocking them. But there would be no ridicule for this game, which was completely sold out. The students occupy the benches at one end where the stylized M can be found, and are known as The Zou. They were into the game well before it tipped off and make use of a Cheat Sheet, a page that makes fun of the opposing players.

The arena design is excellent, with corner seats pointing directly at the court. The colours naturally are the black and gold of the school, and it goes very well with the playing surface.

Looking up, you can see the small windows that let some natural light into the building. The picture above highlights a bit of an oddity in the numbering of the sections: the yellow seats in the second deck are still 100s, while the black seats above are the 200s. In other words, row 28 actually is at the front of a section and is a lot better than row 27.

The Mizzou name can be found throughout the venue, and above you can see it accompanied by an older logo, which was used by several other schools with the Tiger nickname, long before the internet made such copyright violations more difficult.

Concessions are varied and interesting, and there is one concession stand where you could order online or at a nearby kiosk and your food would be delivered to a secure locker, thus eliminating the need to wait in line miss some of the action. I did not see anyone making use of it however.

Before fans were let in, I made my way to the top, where the view is glorious. The slightly more ferocious logo is inside the State of Missouri, and really adds to the floor. 

Overall, this is really an impressively designed venue that looks much younger than 20 years and I really enjoyed having it to myself for a few minutes. Columbia is midway between St. Louis and Kansas City, and worth a stop if the Tigers are in town as you don't want to miss Mizzou,

The Game

This was one of ten Big 12/SEC challenge matches on the day, a tradition that started in the 2013-14 season and finished this year. #12 Iowa State was visiting, having won the reverse match a year before. 

Midway through the first half, Iowa State's Jared Holmes missed a free throw, but got the ball back after an offensive rebound and drained a three to make it 21-20 for the visitors. Isiaih Mosley immediately followed with a three for the Tigers and then the game then hit a cold spell, as the Cyclones scored just 3 points over the next six minutes while Missouri managed only 8 themselves. But then the Tigers got hot, scoring on five straight possessions as part of a 12-6 run to make it 42-32 at the break.

Often, halftime ends any sort of momentum, but not in this case. Mizzou went 6 for 6 to start the second stanza, with four of those from downtown, including a pair from Nick Honor (#10 above) and suddenly it was 58-39 at the first media timeout, with the crowd suitably pumped. Iowa State never got closer than 13 the rest of the way as the home fans were treated to a blowout win, 78-61. There's the final below, with the first words of the alma mater.

Mizzou finished 14-30 from long range, while hitting 12-23 from inside the arc. Iowa State only attempted 15 treys, making just 6, but their interior shooting was a rather poor 20-43. Simply put, when your expected value from downtown is higher than it is inside, you might as well jack up shots all the time, and that seems to be the case for most teams these days. 

Notes

It was Star Wars Day, and there were many characters on the concourse wearing costumes that were far better than I had ever seen. A pair of giant Chewbaccas was the rage, while Truman the Tiger took down Darth Vader (wearing an Iowa State logo) before the game (below).  

Meanwhile, this was one of only three SEC wins on the afternoon, as the Big 12 ended the ten-year series with a 5-3-2 record, with 55 wins against 44 losses. Having won the last two national titles as well, safe to say that the Big 12 is the best conference in the country right now.

Best,

Sean