Sunday, March 8, 2020

UMass Lowell River Hawks 75 at Hartford Hawks 89 (NCAA Basketball, America East Quarterfinal) - March 7, 2020


Most NCAA basketball conferences conduct their post-season tournaments at neutral sites, but a few continue to hold games on campus. I much prefer to see teams at home because the atmosphere at these smaller gyms is better than the sterile stadiums that are often half empty. So when the America East quarterfinals were announced, I made plans to travel to Hartford to see the Hawks hosting the similarly named River Hawks of UMass Lowell.



The Hawks play out of Chase Arena, which is not sponsored by the bank as the stadiums in Phoenix and San Francisco are, but named after the Chase Family of West Hartford. In fact, the official name of the venue is The Chase Family Arena. It is part of the Reich Family Pavilion, which houses several other sports facilities as well as the athletics administrative offices.



The arena opened in 1990 and has a capacity of 4,017. There is a small parking area (Lot L) next to the Pavilion that fills up quickly, and a much larger space behind (Lot M), which had plenty of spots despite this being a playoff game. I brought my two-year-old daughter to the game and we arrived about 10 minutes before tip. There was a long line at the single ticket window inside a very small lobby. By the time I had picked up the ticket ($18, $3 more than the regular season), the national anthem had been sung, the starting lineups had been announced, and they were about ready to jump. I walked in just as the game started, and was able to stand at the corner near the entrance, with my kid in her stroller. It was interesting to be so close, but not a great vantage point, as you can see below.



At the under-12 timeout, I moved to the gallery, which are the second floor seats that are visible to the right of the above photo.



This gave us some space to move around, as well as some very comfortable seats. The area is even carpeted and was a good place for my daughter to roam around at halftime. This is a much better place to sit than the hard plastic seats in the lower bowl, but few fans seem to agree. The view from where we sat is below. Hartford is one of the courts without a special design on the floor, something that is getting rarer in college hoops.



Many fans actually preferred to sit on hard wooden benches far from the court (below). One older gentleman in line for tickets joked to his wife that he liked these seats because they had a good view of the cheerleaders. Possibly true, but the view of the game is definitely better upstairs. And again, much more comfortable.



The ceiling is quite interesting with curving triangles that meet in the center. I have no idea what this type of roof structure is called, and could not find anything online, so any readers who are knowledgeable about architecture, please comment with the answer.



The men's team has yet to make the NCAA tournament (update: they went in 2021 and lost in the first round to eventual winner Baylor), but the women have had more success, notching seven visits and two wins (banners below). The men did make the Division II tourney four times back in the 1970s, and had two trips to the CIT, where they lost in the first round both times. There are banners for these "achievements" but they remind me of Wild Card banners in MLB, and hence no photo.



There is one retired jersey belonging to Vin Baker, who played here between 1989-92 before going on to the NBA, drafted 8th overall by Milwaukee. He was a four-time All-Star but became an alcoholic and was broke after retirement. He is now an assistant coach for the Bucks and the story of how he escaped his addiction is actually quite inspiring, even for those who are not particularly religious.



The Hawks do have a Hall of Fame, but you have to go up to the second floor inside the main lobby to see it. And bring binoculars, because it is set into a wall above an open space, so you cannot read any of it! A unique setup that I found a bit frustrating, as I do enjoy learning a bit about the history of the program.



Baker has his own display nearby that has a lot of memorabilia. It is rare for a top-10 pick to come from such a small school and Baker was once referred to as "America's best-kept secret" by Sports Illustrated.



Baker is not the only famous athlete to come out of Hartford. Cooperstown resident Jeff Bagwell played here from 1987-89 and is honoured with a similar display.



There are also several trophies in this area, though none of the national championship variety. Various Hawks squads have won 23 conference titles though, as well as 7 Academic Cups. These are awarded based on the combined GPAs of all student-athletes in the America East.



Overall, I was quite impressed with this venue, other than the long wait at the ticket window. When it comes to college hoops in Hartford, UConn at the XL Center reigns supreme, but you should make the trip to West Hartford to see Chase Arena for a far more intimate and enjoyable time.



The Game

UML was the sixth seed at 7-9 in the America East, while Hartford was 9-7, good for third. Like seemingly every game I've seen over the past month, the officials were not letting things go, whistling nearly every bit of contact, with 24 fouls in the first half alone, Anyway, Hartford dominated the early going, taking a 25-12 lead, but UML responded with a 24-8 run of their own. The final points of the half were naturally from free throws as Hartford's Moses Flowers made a pair to tie things at 38. The Hawks were 10-10 from the line, while the River Hawks were 10-13.



The best part of the game was the first two minutes of the second half, when there was only one foul called. Five more were called before the under-16 timeout, setting the tone for another half of the Zealous Zebras show. Still, Hartford was playing well, with Malik Ellison scoring 10 of the team's first 12 points. When Hunter Marks completed a three-point play, Hartford had a 53-43 lead just 4 minutes in. And that lead was never challenged, with UML coming within 6 but never closer and the Hawks pulled away down the stretch for a solid 89-75 win. Hartford shot 14-15 from the line in the second half and an amazing 22-31 (71%) from inside the arc over the course of the game.



I overheard one fan call it a phenomenal game, and certainly Hartford's shooting was excellent, but again, the officials were just too involved. Here is the simplest definition about personal fouls, from Wikipedia: Personal contact does not necessarily constitute a personal foul, unless it gives a player an advantage or puts the opponent at a disadvantage. Yet you often hear the whistle on plays in which the contact did not result in an advantage. It is so frustrating to watch these refs who can't seem to understand the basics of the game they are tasked with overseeing. Sometimes I wonder if they are competing with each other to see who can call the silliest foul. With 296 venues left on my Quest for 388, the question is not whether I will go crazy, but when.

Update: Hartford upset #2 Stony Brook in the semifinals and travel to #1 Vermont on Saturday. They will be heavy underdogs, but I hope they can pull off the stunner and get their first NCAA tournament berth. Assuming, of course, that the tournament takes place. Update: neither that game nor the tournament will take place.

Notes

The Hawks logo looks a lot like that of the namesake Atlanta franchise. I guess there are only so many varieties of hawk logos, but this is close enough to be considered copyright infringement, if Hartford had any national presence that is.


Update: The Hawks are leaving Division I, with a transition to Division III to happen no later than 2025. But some are fighting back.

Next Up

I'm heading to Cincinnati in a couple of weeks for a couple of college baseball games as well as to see TFC at historic Nippert Stadium. Check back for recaps then!

Nothing for the time being. Stay safe everyone.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Manhattan Jaspers 59 at Rider Broncs 71 (NCAA Basketball, MAAC) - March 4, 2020


It's the last week of the regular season in college basketball, so I'm trying to check off a few more venues before the long wait until November. The closest stadium that I had yet to see was Alumni Gymnasium on the campus of Rider University and their last home game was on Wednesday night. I convinced my buddy Eddie to join me, so he picked me up outside my office in New Jersey and we made the drive in good time, arriving at the gym at 6:00.



There is a large free parking lot just behind the gym that was surprisingly full, just not with cars belonging to fans, but to students still hanging out after classes. This is where you can see the backside of the gym with the Go Broncs sign.



Walk around to the main entrance, inside of which is a very small lobby with the ticket windows, restrooms, and a statue of a bronc.



A close-up of the statue, which seems to be telling me to stay back. As bucking broncs do.



The Rider Athletics Hall of Fame can be found in the atrium that joins the gymnasium with the Student Recreation Center next door.



There are two recognizable names: Jason Thompson, who was the 12th overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft and enjoyed a decent career with the Sacramento Kings, and Digger Phelps, who played here before beginning his impressive coaching and broadcasting careers.



The atrium also houses the concessions, which include a small stand with Jersey Mike's subs as well as the other usual fare, and a Starbucks. They are open to all, and we saw one of the Rider cheerleaders in line while we wandered about. This also means that you can bring your own food in should you desire. There is also a giant chair here that makes for a good photo opportunity; I usually travel alone so don't take advantage of these opportunities to look like an idiot.



The gym itself is very small, with a capacity of just 1,650. There are some chairback seats that go for $15, some other seats that are $12, and general admission that cost $10. If you sit in the last row, you get a chairback and save the five bucks too.



You can see the chairback seats in the photo below. The side that faces the Bronc on the floor is mostly general admission, though the seats in the leftmost section are for students, who were out in force on this senior night.



As you can see at the top of that section, this place is known as the Broncs' Zoo. They even added the possessive apostrophe, even though it is not necessary when used for sports teams.



There is a video board above the main entrance. Note that there are two doors; the one on the right as you enter (left in the photo below) leads to the chairbacks, the one on the left is for the GA seats.



At the other end is an alcove that hides the band. I think that this area is closed to regular fans, though I can't imagine it being enjoyable to be that far from the court and dealing with the acoustics.



There are two retired numbers: the aforementioned Jason Thompson and Darrick Suber, who made a game-winning shot to send Rider to their first tournament appearance in 1993. They were a 16 seed and lost to Kentucky 96-52.



I really enjoyed Alumni Gymnasium for its simplicity and small size. The crowd was into the game from the beginning and they were rewarded. Not with a particularly good game, but with a win at least.

The Game

The Manhattan Jaspers were the visitors, coming in at 8-10 in MAAC play, while Rider was 11-8 after their win at Fairfield on Sunday. The Broncs were also 10-1 at home, not surprising given how intimate this place is. The Jaspers green uniforms were the highlight of their game. Rider stormed to a 14-4 lead and went up 23-12 with six minutes remaining, but Manhattan sank three straight treys as part of a 16-6 run to end the first half. It was a messy period, with 22 fouls, 13 against the Jaspers. Only Rider's poor shooting from the line (7-17) kept Manhattan in the game.



Down just a point, the Jaspers had a chance to take the lead on the first play of the second half, but an offensive foul just 7 seconds in ended that dream. That was the first of 25 fouls in the half, with 14 being whistled against Manhattan. Most were properly called as the Jaspers simply played too aggressively on defense. Again, the Broncs struggled at the line which allowed the Jaspers to entertain ideas of a win, until a 25-6 Rider run put paid to that.



Whistle after whistle continued down the stretch, but the outcome was not in doubt for the last 10 minutes, although Manhattan did chip away at the lead during garbage time. The final was 71-59 in a game that was really ugly and painful to watch, but the home fans minded not a whit.



Notice the "bout" counts; Rider has a wrestling program that competes here too. Sometimes it seemed like Manhattan thought it was a wrestling match. Rider finished 17-36 from the stripe which is the only reason that the Jaspers were that close.

Notes

This completes all nine Division I venues in New Jersey for me. There are eight schools, but Seton Hall uses two arenas. Wyoming (1) and Maine (1) are the other states that I have completed.

Best,

Sean

Monday, March 2, 2020

Rider Broncs 65 at Fairfield Stags 51 (NCAA Basketball, MAAC) - March 1, 2020


One of the aspects of the quest for Division I college basketball venues that raises the number from 357 to 388 is that a few schools play out of two different arenas. Usually, one is an on-campus gym, with a larger stadium in the nearest city. UConn is one of the most obvious examples, splitting games between Gampel Pavilion on campus and XL Center in nearby Hartford. But they are not the only Connecticut-based school that does this. Fairfield University plays most of their contests at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, a 9,000-seat facility that is better suited to the AHL hockey team that it also houses. But once in a while, a scheduling conflict sends the Stags back home, where they do battle in Alumni Hall, an old barn with room for just 2,479 fans.



When I saw that Fairfield's last home game of the season would be held there on Sunday afternoon, I decided to head up to add it to my list. And I'm glad I did because it turned out to be the last men's college hoops game ever played there. The school is tearing down this venerable venue and replacing it with a shiny new Convocation Center in 2021. So this post will be a memorial rather than offering any useful advice.



Fairfield is on the Metro-North line, and only about 80 minutes from Grand Central on the New Haven line. From the station, it is about a 20-minute walk through residential streets to the main entrance of the university.



Alumni Hall is located next to the Campus Center, which has an exterior plaza from where you can see the entire structure. As you can see in the photo below, barn is an accurate description.



Opened in 1959, the curved roof is not unusual in facilities from that era. Wikipedia states that it was one of the earliest pre-stressed concrete structures and that the eleven 160-foot pre-cast arches created a record-breaking span for structures in the United States.



There are two stags on campus. The first is an impressive statue just to the west of the gym (above) while the other is a large inflatable closer to the entrance (below). I guess he is waving bye-bye to Alumni Hall.



Inside, tickets were sold in a very small and congested lobby. There was actually no need to buy one as nobody seemed to be checking tickets at the door, but I need my stub and was happy for fork over $10 for one. Entrances to the gym are on both sides, with about 7 rows of benches along the sideline. In the center on both sides, red plastic seats offer slightly more comfort.



The end zone seats consist of 30 rows of wooden benches. This shot was taken before the game, but by early in the first half, this area was more than half full. In fact, attendance was announced at 2,321, 94% of capacity.



As this venue is used mostly for women's volleyball, those are the banners that you see. There are a few banners for women's hoops too, but nothing for the men. That will change in the new building as they expect to start playing more games and possibly leaving Webster Bank Arena completely. As they should, it is my least favourite college sports venue.



There was a single concession stand down by the visiting bench that had decent offerings, including wraps for just $4. What surprised me was that attendance here was more than UIC the previous week, but there was no waiting for food. When you put your concession stand in a spot that is difficult to access and limit your selection to a few easily served items (no fountain drinks for example), things will move quickly.



With the place nearly full, the benches were very cramped, especially if you had someone in front of you as your knees would almost be touching their back. I do love these old venues, but I also enjoy a bit of space and that was hard to find on this day. Not that you can tell from the picture below, again taken before the game.



No reason to say any more. I didn't even know that this was to be the final men's college basketball game to be played here, so I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to attend. I guess it will now become an inactive venue on my count, and I will have to return in 2021 (or 2022) to see the new digs. I hope I get a better game at that time.

The Game 

The Rider Broncs were in town at 10-8 in MAAC play while Fairfield was 7-10. The first few minutes were terrible, with 12 fouls being called before we had hit the under-12 time out. To be fair, both teams were spending most of the time in the paint and the fouls were not ticky-tack, but it slowed the game down terribly. Rider had built a 14-8 lead in that time, with half of those 22 points coming from free throws. The refs let up, however, calling only five fouls over the rest of the half and things moved quickly, though the Broncs held on to the lead, entering the break up 27-23.



The second half saw Fairfield come out strong and they took a 31-30 lead on a dunk by Vincent Eze that got the gym shaking and led to the famous "The Stags Take the Lead!" call from the P.A. announcer. He got to repeat himself a few more times as there were 7 lead changes after that, with Rider grabbing a 42-40 advantage on a trey by Tyrei Randall. That was the beginning of a 18-5 Rider run that saw Fairfield commit five turnovers (including a 10-second violation due to the Broncs full-court press) and miss seven shots, essentially ending the suspense. The Stags got back within 8 with 1:48 to go and decided to start fouling shortly thereafter. The final 90 seconds took about 10 minutes as the fouls continued unabated and both teams called pointless timeouts. The final was 65-51 Rider in a game that was closer than the score would indicate.



This was substantially different than most basketball games I've seen, with only 21 total three-point attempts, and just 5 makes. (To compare, I saw the Knicks and Rockets the following night, when there were 86 shots from beyond the arc). On the other hand, there were 43 fouls and 45 free throws, though for the most parts the officials were calling what had to be called. Rider's Stevie Jordan led all scorers with 19 points, 13 of those coming from the line. Not a lot of fun to watch, but such is life at the lower ends of the mid-majors.

Notes

This was my 100th NCAA Division I basketball venue.

If you are desperate to see this place before it gets demolished, you have two chances to see the Lady Stags on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon.

Best,

Sean