Wednesday, March 30, 2016

UC Irvine Anteaters 67 at Columbia Lions 73 (NCAA Basketball, CIT Championship) - March 29, 2016

The college basketball season is coming to a close. Most eyes are on the NCAA tournament, which I found particularly annoying this year because a number of smaller schools were overlooked (Monmouth, Valparaiso, San Diego State) after losing their conference tournament. Instead, the committee chose teams like Michigan, Tulsa, and Syracuse, who finished 19-13 (including 3-8 on the road) and lost their first conference tournament game. Yeah, the Orange are now in the Final Four, but they didn't deserve to be in the tournament in the first place. They lucked out when the favourites in their quadrant got eliminated early, allowing them to reach the Elite Eight. I'm not knocking their unbelievable comeback over Virginia but if they go on to win it all, they will be the least-qualified champion ever (update: they didn't).

Anyway, that's enough of my criticism of the Big Dance, rather I'd like to focus on the smaller tournaments that take place around this time. There are now four other competitions: the National Invitational Tournament (NIT, which invites all regular season champions that lose in their conference tournament plus others to complete a field of 32), the CollegeInsider.Com Tournament (CIT, with 26 schools from outside the power conferences), the College Basketball Invitational (CBI, 16 smaller schools), and the Vegas 16 (which started this year and will likely fold after attracting only 8 teams). All together, that's 150 of the 351 Division I teams seeing postseason action, which is obviously too many as the Vegas 16 organizers discovered. Still, as these tournaments reach their conclusion, you can see some good quality hoops at a fraction of the cost of a ticket to the Final Four.

The NIT plays their semifinals and final at Madison Square Garden while the Vegas 16 took place at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, with embarrassingly low attendance. All other games are played at campus gyms, and generally schools pay to host games, particularly in the CIT. This year, the Columbia Lions, who finished 3rd in the Ivy League, were invited to the CIT and made it to the semifinals after hosting a couple of games. On Sunday, they defeated NJIT, again at their home gym, to earn a chance to host UC Irvine for the title.

I always enjoy attending championship events and the Anteaters made for a compelling visitor as they had sent out the tallest starting lineup in college hoops history back in December. Their tallest player is 7'6 Mamadou Ndiaye from Senegal. In the foreground is Mike Best at 6'10 but he looks much shorter next to Ndiaye. As an aside, Best's moustache earned him the loudest jeers on the night as the Columbia faithful urged him to "Shave It Off!"

The Ivy League hasn't won any postseason silverware since Princeton took the NIT in 1975, so there was great anticipation as the game got underway. The student section slowly filled to capacity during the first half as many made their way to the Levien Gym after tip off. By the time everybody was settled, a great atmosphere had developed, and free pizza was distributed to those in the student section as a reward.

On the court, the game was fast-paced from the start, and the refs let them play. Columbia had a 31-26 lead at the break, but UCI came out strong in the second half and took a 53-46 lead with 8:42 to go after an Ndiaye dunk (well worth seeing as he doesn't even leave the floor). From there, Columbia went on a 12-0 run, highlighted by a wild Grant Mullins (from Burlington, Ontario) shot as he flung one up while falling after being fouled. Amazingly, it went in and the gym erupted, and when his free throw gave the Lions the lead, the place went even crazier. Maodo Lô (the tournament MVP, above) later sank a three to make it 63-57 and on the ensuing Anteater possession, Dominque Dunning committed a foul and a technical. Mullins sank both technical free throws and although the Lions turned it over on their next possession, Irvine could not get closer than 5. They resorted to fouling, but the Lions made 6 of 8 and then Lô ended the game with a layup as the buzzer sounded, giving Columbia the 73-67 victory.

After the game, fans went onto the court in an orderly fashion (no storming in the Ivy!) and my buddy Eddie and I followed along, allowing me to capture a few photos as we wandered about for 15 minutes or so. Below are some of the bench players holding the trophy.

That's coach Kyle Smith below after cutting down the nets to much cheering.

It was a great experience to see the school win something and to join the celebration These smaller tournaments are much more enjoyable for me because different schools win every year. As such, I'm going to the NIT final tomorrow as well, which will feature Valparaiso and George Washington (GWU won 76-60 so maybe Valpo wasn't so good after all).


The CBI final is between Morehead State and Nevada (best 2 of 3) while the Vegas 16 has Oakland and Old Dominion. Interestingly, these two tournaments have their finals in Nevada, while the NIT and CIT are in New York City.



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