Tuesday, February 16, 2021

SIUE Cougars 60 at Jacksonville State Gamecocks 80 (NCAA Basketball, Ohio Valley) - February 13, 2021

The final stop on this whirlwind weekend trip was Jacksonville. Not Florida, as I had originally thought when I heard of Jacksonville State, but Alabama. This town of 12,600 people lies about 95 miles east of Atlanta and is two hours southwest of Chattanooga, where I had seen the Mocs earlier. As I approached the town along SR 19, I was sent on a ten-minute detour by a bridge having gone out, but still arrived nearly an hour before the 4:00 tip (Alabama is in the Central Time Zone). 

The Gamecocks play out of Pete Mathews Coliseum, an unassuming rectangular building on the west side of campus. A large, free parking lot on the north side is more then enough for the crowd.

Nicknamed The Pete, the venue honours Alabama state legislator Pete Mathews who was also a member of the university's board of trustees. It opened in 1974 and has undergone some renovations in the meantime, most recently in 2015 when an entirely new seating area was installed, reducing capacity to 3,500. The box office is to the left of the main entrance (above) and there are two choices: $15 reserved seats along the side, or $10 GA seats behind the baskets. I usually buy the cheapest and sit anywhere, but that is not an option during the pandemic, so I splurged. Given that the band, known as the Southerners, is in one end, and the spirit squad in the other, the extra $5 provides good value.

Inside the main entrance is a lobby with several detailed displays that are well worth your time. Like the other two schools I saw on this trip (Kennesaw State and Chattanooga), Jacksonville State can brag about a Division II national championship, this one from 1985 (above). In addition, the Gamecocks have had several famous athletes pass through, including 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett. The lobby is also where you will find the only concession stand, which sells the best hot dogs I have tasted in a long while, though I had to find some space to eat in private.

The sidelines are divided into north and south and there is a hallway down each side that has more history on display, including coaches and others who have made it onto the national stage, such as reliever Todd Jones, along with less familiar names such as Todd Cunningham and Donovan Hand, who combined for 99 MLB games.

The mascot is Cocky (all mascots are cocky I suppose) and the related hashtag is #StayCocky, so they make good use of their nickname. Of course, there is another, more famous, school in South Carolina with the same appellation and the same mascot moniker as well. 

Inside, the red and grey seats go well with the court, on which the logo and the area between the key and the 3-point line are highlighted in dark brown. There are no sections, as the seats go from 1 to about 60 depending on the row. The picture below is taken from the south side and obviously shows the north side seating area, with seat numbers starting on the right. My seat number was 40 and I had an aisle seat in the leftmost section, facing the free throw line.

The band sets up in the east end zone and if you enjoy losing your hearing, you will want to sit here.

The cheerleaders are at the opposite end of the court and there are fans sitting above them as you can see below. On a couple of occasions, the cheerleaders came into the crowd to toss promotional items to the fans.

Above the end seats are banners celebrating past stars such as Bill Jones who played here before coaching the team to that Division II title, along with accomplishments such as the 2017 Ohio Valley championship that sent the Gamecocks to their first Big Dance, where they lost to Louisville. Note the donation request in the bottom left below; JSU is moving to the Atlantic Sun in July of this year. So although this was my first OVC venue, that will change next season and I will be back to zero. As mentioned in a previous post, all of these conference moves make tracking college basketball visits very difficult.

The video boards in two corners are a unique aspect of this venue  - they are curved to match the structure of the building (below). The other corners have more traditional scoreboards that also appear to be concave at first glance, but in fact are separated into smaller portions to fit the columns on which they rest.

Each corner also has a standing area with a great view of the court (below), but those are off limits during the game, whether for safety protocols or other reasons I could not discern. I should mention that adherence to such protocols here and in Alabama in general was the worst I have seen in the past year. Few fans here bothered to wear a mask and I saw people smirking at those who did; even those working in service stations couldn't be bothered. I wasn't particularly surprised by this; living in NYC, we saw firsthand the damage done by the virus, but in smaller towns, there is still a disconnect between what they have experienced and what is happening elsewhere. 

Other than that, I found Pete Mathews Coliseum to be a pleasant surprise for a venue belonging to a smaller school. I doubt many readers will find themselves in Eastern Alabama in the winter, but if you do, see if the Gamecocks are at The Pete and enjoy some college hoops while you are here.

The Game

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) were in town sporting a 6-6 conference record, while JSU was 9-5. The game got off to a slow start with the Cougars not scoring their first points until 2:30 on a Courtney Carter trey, which gave them a brief 3-2 lead, their only one of the game. A Kayne Henry (#11 below) layup made it 4-3 JSU and that 4:3 ratio of points remained throughout the rest of the match. Of course, there were times that SIUE got a bit closer or JSU had a larger lead, but overall, for every 3 points the Cougars scored, JSU had around 4, with the first half ending 40-30.

A similar start to the second stanza saw JSU go up 44-33 on a dunk by Henry. The Gamecocks then pulled away and at one point were up 67-43 but an 11-5 run for SIUE got them back on track, down 72-54 (again 4:3). My hope at this time was that the game would finish with this ratio, but when Mike Adewunmi drained a three for the visitors to make it 77-60 with 1:35 left, it looked unlikely. But a few misses were followed by a JSU trey from lumbering Czech Martin Roub that made it 80-60 with 38 seconds left. Fortunately, the Cougars could not convert on their final possession as Roub blocked a layup and the game finished with identical 40-30 halves, making mathematical me very happy.

Although not competitive, this was an entertaining game that had more of a playground atmosphere with some monster dunks and poor shot selection. It was also very well officiated; look at the scoreboard below, neither team was in the bonus in the second half, something I don't think I have seen before. In the first half there were only 12 fouls as well, a welcome change from the typical college contest and a good way to end the trip.

Notes

The KSU game started at 6:00 EST the night before and this one ended at 5:45 CST, so I saw 3 games in 3 states and 3 conferences in just over 24 hours.

This was my first college hoops game in Alabama, leaving 18 states to go. It was also my 99th Division I men's home gym, but 6 of those are no longer in use, so I have 275 left on the list plus 19 women's venues. Safe to say that I be watching college basketball until the day I die. 

Next Up

The second wave of the pandemic has peaked and the worst is behind us, so I am optimistic that my sports travels will return to normal this year. I hope to get to Indianapolis next month for some March Madness and then it is baseball season, with the Blue Jays visiting Globe Life Field in early April. After that, there are eight new minor league parks to see, plus the Jays in Seattle and Washington, and even a trip to Canada if they can sort things out there. As always, check back for updates when you can.

Best,

Sean


Monday, February 15, 2021

The Citadel Bulldogs 66 at Chattanoga Mocs 70 (NCAA Basketball, Southern Conference) - February 13, 2021

Saturday was to be my first true driving doubleheader since December 2019, when I saw Louisville and Kentucky on the same day. I had rented a car, getting upgraded to a brand new BMW SUV (26 miles on the odometer) and left Kennesaw in style around 9:30. Just over 90 minutes later, I arrived in Chattanooga, where I would see the first game of the day. I lucked into a free parking spot just a block from McKenzie Arena, where the Chattanooga Mocs had a noon start against The Citadel.

Known as the Roundhouse for obvious reasons, McKenzie Arena was opened in 1982 and usually has a capacity of 10,995. Originally dubbed UTC Arena (The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is the full name of the school), the venue was renamed for a couple who donated $2 million to help pay off its debt. It is located just east of downtown on the Chattanooga campus, and if you can't find parking nearby, there is a visitor's garage next door. The box office is to the left of the main entrance in the photo above, with GA tickets a bargain at $10.

Inside, the single concourse is narrow and it would be tough to navigate them if there were 10,000 fans here. But with COVID restrictions, less than 1,000 were on hand and there was no problem getting around.

There are a few displays along the corridors, such as photos of conference championship teams (above) and a timeline of the program's highlights (below), including a Division II national championship in 1977. Two concession stands were open and doing relatively well, even selling beer. 

In order to fit so many seats into such a small footprint, steep sections are necessary, as you can see below. The upper deck was completely closed off, however, so I could not get up there to take a picture.

Seats here are not tied down, but those that are not to be used are designated with a yellow sign on the bottom. This means that you have to walk down and look back up to see where you are able to sit, which is a problem once most fans have taken their spot. During the early part of the game, those who had arrived late could be seen looking around in confusion, as there were so many seats but few were actually ones they could use. 

As you can see above, the first six rows are blocked off, making things that much more difficult for fans. Below is a shot taken near the end of the game that shows just how few seats were actually available. It would help if they opened the upper deck, but I understand that is a big area to clean afterwards. If you are attending a game that has limited capacity and unreserved seats during the pandemic, get there early!

With such a tight seating area, there are no bad seats in the place, at least in the lower bowl. The benches at the south end are for the cheerleaders while the yellow seats above that are where the band stands. However, there are seats at the north end (barely visible above) if you prefer the view from the end zone.

A closer look at the cheerleaders and band, in what is usually the student section I would guess. There are three types of spirit squads standing below the band: Ladies of G.O.L.D., who are hip-hop majorettes, a form of dance that I am happy to see more and more on my trips to the south; traditional co-ed cheerleading; and Sugar Mocs, a more typical dance team in athletic gear. Obviously they did not perform on the floor, but were active throughout the game.

Far above the spirit squads are the banners celebrating key accomplishments in the history of the program, including a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1997, when they beat both Georgia and Illinois before losing to Providence.

The Mocs are part of the Southern Conference, but those banners are also high up so a good picture is not easy to get. This was my first SoCon matchup; I had seen Mercer at home but they were part of the Atlantic Sun at the time. All of these conference moves are hell on my tracking efforts.

The scoreboard is actually just two very large TVs facing the sidelines, and two somewhat smaller ones facing the end zones. Typical basketball scoreboards with players, points, and fouls can be found in opposite corners.

Overall, McKenzie Arena quickly became one of my favourite college hoops venues. Good location, unique design, some history, and affordable. It would be interesting to see it with more fans, so who knows, maybe I will stop in again after the pandemic ends.

The Game

The Mocs were 6-5 in conference play, two games better than the Bulldogs, who had won the reverse matchup 92-87 a month prior. Chattanooga had revenge on their minds as they stormed out to a 9-0 lead and were up 28-13 after a layup by KC Hankton (#1 below). But they seemed to relax and The Citadel ended the half on a 12-2 run to go into the break down 36-34.

In the second half, the visitors started quickly and took a brief lead at 47-42, but the Mocs replied with some very solid play, enjoying a 19-3 streak over six minutes. Having another game in Jacksonville to see two hours away, I was happy to see that overtime was unlikely, but again Chattanooga let up too early. Leading 66-55 with 6:33 to go, they stopped scoring as the Bulldogs notched the only five points over the next four ugly minutes, with teams combining to miss 11 shots and turn the ball over a further four times. The teams then traded baskets to make it 68-62 and after Stefan Kenic missed for Chattanooga, Derek Webster Jr. (shooting below while guarded by Kenic) finished with a layup to get The Citadel within 4 with 54 ticks to go. Oh-oh. On the next possession, Webster stole the ball from Kenic but Hayden Brown (#33 below) missed a three and Webster missed a layup after grabbing the offensive board, forcing the Bulldogs to foul. The Mocs were only in the bonus and Malachi Smith missed the first. Seriously? Tyler Moffe (#13 below) quickly raced down the court for an easy basket to make it 68-66 with 12 seconds to go. Unbelievable!

After a timeout, Citadel's Kaiden Rice immediately fouled Darius Banks, but Banks somehow grazed Rice with his elbow and Rice flopped. You know what that means: time for a lengthy, pointless review. Just what I needed. It took nearly five minutes to determine that there was no foul on Banks, who then had a chance to clinch the game with a one-and-one. I was grateful to have a mask on, so fans could not hear me cursing the officials. Anyway, Banks made the first shot but unsurprisingly missed the second, giving the Bulldogs a chance to tie. With no timeouts left, they scampered down the court and Brown heaved a three that thankfully clanged off the rim. Hankton grabbed the rebound with three seconds left and was fouled. He made the first to finally clinch things as Chattanooga won 70-66 in a game that was far closer than it should have been.

Statistically, things were quite even, with turnovers the difference as The Citadel committed 11 miscues leading to 11 points for the Mocs, who themselves only made eight errors resulting in just four points for the Bulldogs. Rice led all scorers with 22 while Smith paced the victors with 17. 

I ran to my car and was back on the highway within minutes of the final buzzer, and despite a detour along the way, made it to Jacksonville about 45 minutes before tip. More on that in the next post.

Notes

Moc is the shortened version of the original nickname, "Moccasins", which was retired in 1996 along with accompanying Native American imagery. It also refers to the northern mockingbird, Tennessee's state bird, and the mascot Scrappy is styled as such.

This was my first visit to Chattanooga since 2003, when I saw the Lookouts play in Bell South Park. Now renamed AT&T Field, the stadium is just a few blocks west of McKenzie Arena and easily visible as you arrive into town. Sadly, the two sports are not played at the same time, so a doubleheader is impossible.

Best,

Sean


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Stetson Hatters 74 at Kennesaw State Owls 61 (NCAA Basketball, Atlantic Sun) - February 12, 2021

With the NCAA basketball season quickly coming to a close, I wanted to get at least one trip in so I could knock off a few more venues of the 297 I still have remaining to see. With the majority of gyms not hosting fans, it took a while to find three that were close enough that I could see games over a weekend. I chose Georgia State, Kennesaw State, and Jacksonville (AL) State for the weekend of January 24-26, only to have GSU cancel their game the day before due to COVID. So I moved the trip two weeks forward and replaced Georgia State with Chattanooga. In the end, I would see three games in three conferences in three states, all within 25 hours.

The first of these was Friday night at Kennesaw State, a university about 20 miles northwest of Atlanta. The Owls play out of the KSU Convocation Center, colloquially known as the Convo. It is a large building right next to I-75, with a free parking deck to the south. The shot below is from the west side...

...while the one below is of the main entrance on the north side of the building, with the box office to the left. 

Tickets are $15 for general admission, but you cannot just sit anywhere. The vast majority of seats are tied down, while those that are not have stickers encouraging you to sit there, as you can see below. With attendance at 354, there wasn't a problem finding a seat, but if you showed up late with a group of four or more, you might have had trouble finding an acceptable spot.

KSU won the 2004 Division II men's basketball title and that trophy has pride of place in the display case that you will see immediately after you enter. The year after, the Convo opened and then the school moved to Division I, and has been a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference since then. Notice the different ASUN logos on the trophies below; the conference updated their brand in 2016.

There are also a number of placards that describe the university beyond its athletic accomplishments and these are worth a read to see how the institution has evolved over the years (below). A small concession stand was also located in the lobby but was not doing much business.

Inside, the gold and black seating arrangement matches the school colours. Although the venue is 15 years old, it still looks brand new.

There are a few rows of permanent seats near the top, with the more colourful seats actually on a movable base as you can see below. This does allow them to be very close to the court, although the first couple of rows were closed due to COVID-related restrictions.

At one end is a video board, below which the band stands. I was impressed that they all had special adjustable masks that allowed them to play without having to remove it every time. Cheerleaders are not allowed on the floor and sit in the stands with the fans as part of COVID protocols. Whenever KSU hit a three pointer, a cheerleader would run over to the next section to toss a t-shirt as part of the Tees for Threes promotion.

The other end has some offices above the basket but is otherwise similar. A colourful, compact court with a capacity of 4,600 in normal times.

Of course, cutouts get the best seats, but I had no trouble finding a good spot, having arrived an hour before the game.

The school has had success in volleyball and those banners are above the west seats.

Across the way are the conference banners, which I always enjoy studying. There are nine schools in the Atlantic Sun, with NJIT having left for the America East this season. Thus this venue becomes my first active ASUN gym. 

Overall, the Convo is a wonderful little facility that makes mid-major basketball so enjoyable. I had a great time here. It was thrilling to be handed a hard ticket, my first box office purchase since nearly a year ago in Hartford, and to sit and watch some live sport from up close.

The Game

KSU came in with a 3-15 overall record but all three wins were against lower division schools, so their KenPom ranking (349 out of the 357 Division I teams) seemed accurate, and was perhaps helped by travelling to Omaha to play #9 Creighton back in December, a game they lost 93-58. Stetson was 4-6 in the conference and 7-10 overall, including three losses to Miami, Florida, and USF. The original opponents for this one had been Florida Gulf Coast, but the Atlantic Sun was altering the schedule so teams would play approximately the same number of games, thus the Hatters made the trip from Florida instead.

Things got off to a quick start and by the time the first foul was called, over six minutes had passed and KSU was up 14-11. They increased that advantage to 18-13, but Stetson went on a 12-0 run and took a 35-31 lead into the half.

The Owls continued to keep things close, and were within a point at 46-45 after a Spencer Rodgers trey with 13:20 to go. Kasem Jennings then had a chance to give KSU the lead after being fouled, but he missed both free throws and when Rob Perry grabbed the rebound and quickly ran the length of the court to drain an uncontested three, it was the beginning of the end.

Chase Johnston (#11 above), who holds the high school record for three pointers, potted nine points for Stetson, while Mahamadou Diawara (from Mali, who only started playing basketball at age 14) added another four as the Hatters went on an extended 21-10 run down the stretch to win 74-61.

This was a well-played game with only 18 total turnovers (just 7 for the Owls) and both teams shooting 50% or better inside the arc. KSU struggled on the defensive glass, giving up 12 of 26 rebounds that led to 12 second chance points for the visitors, if they could improve that aspect of the game, they might even win one. Stetson's Christian Jones led all scorers with 20, while Diawara finished with 12 points and 10 boards; Rodgers was the only Owl to finish in double figures as he notched 17 in the loss.

By the way, you can see me in the picture above, sitting alone in the yellow seats taking the picture above. 

Notes

Stetson was the first college hoops road team I saw during the life of this blog, and that was also in Georgia as they played Mercer over 11 years ago. Mercer has since left the Atlantic Sun, moving to the Southern Conference in 2014.

Kennesaw State was victorious in the second game of the series on Saturday, 83-75, thus avoiding the ignominy of a winless conference campaign.

The Owls are coached by Amir Abdur-Rahim, brother of Sharif, who was Vancouver's first-round pick in 1996, the last year I lived there. Sharif is now president of the G League.

Best,

Sean