Days Like These

I love days like today. With no NFL playoffs, the name of the game today was literally college basketball. I started watching at 1 PM when Oregon tipped off at Pauley Pavilion and only finished when I looked across the kitchen from fixing a late dinner to see a man with two last names steal an inbounds pass and launch an absolute last-possible-second floater to seal a win in one of the closest games I’ve ever watched in one of the greatest venues in college basketball. It was quite a day, indeed.

I apologize for my extended absence: I made the mistake of spending time with a very ill friend on the way to the Oregon-UA game, got pretty sick myself, and didn’t help matters by shooting two games in two days later that weekend. I don’t get sick very often and I almost always push through it when I do, but the downside fothat is I take a while to get back to feeling like myself, particularly in terms of my writing chops. I was barely able to get it together to write my column last week for RTC, and I wasn’t very happy with it. I’m not sure I would have been happy with anything I wrote that encompassed that night at MKA. But it’s good to be back, and today seemed like as good a day as any to get back into the swing of sports writing. Boy, was I right.

The Ducks obliged me with an excellent contest down in L.A. It was close most of the way, with the Ducks owning the glass and giving the Bruins plenty of turnovers to work with. In a game with 16 lead changes, the Bruins trailed by low single digits most of the second half before Oregon simply pulled away when UCLA’s shooting went stone cold. Oregon’s size not only got them gobs of rebounds, it got them 12 second-chance points and held the Bruins to 2, that basket coming very late when it didn’t matter. That’s right, for the vast majority of this game, the Ducks held hot-scoring UCLA to zero second-chance points. Oregon won 76-67 to cement their rise to the elite ranks of the Pac-12.

What I notice more than the games I saw were the games I missed. While I did catch most of Michigan State taking out Ohio State at home in another nail-biter, I missed all of Syracuse knocking out top-ranked Louisville, though I did catch some snippets of Rick Pitno’s cranky press conference after the game. I almost always like to see #1 lose (unless it’s Duke) and I really didn’t think the Cards had any business being #1 in the first place, but this wasn’t even the game I was most disappointed to miss. Nor was it Creighton getting squeaked by the Wichita State Shockers (great mascot, no?). It was #25 Marquette’s OT loss to Cincinnati. I’ve yet to see the Golden Eagles sans Jae Crowder, and I’m really not sure when I’m going to get a chance to now. And even though I’d rather they have beat Cinci, it looks better for the teams Oregon lost to to do well, and the Eagles losing makes for that much more interesting of a race in the Big East, the quality of which should not be forgotten by latter-day adherents to the Big 10.

The game I’m really glad I didn’t miss was Gonzaga vs. Butler. With Rotnei Clarke on the bench after his frightening injury, I was seriously wondering whether or not the Bulldogs would be able to beat the visiting Bulldogs (I love it when two teams with the same mascot play each other.) But I had forgotten not only that this one of those Brad Stevens teams that scraps and works and finds a way to win, but I forgot that this was Hinkle Fieldhouse. Hinkle is right up there with the Palestra and old McArthur Court as one of the hallowed halls of college basketball, and it’s truly a magical place. Combined with a rabid fan base like Butler’s, and the home-court advantage is moving beyond daunting and right into the realm of truly terrifying.

Nevertheless, it was a very, very close game all the way through. The runs were short for each team, and the Bulldogs (both sets) always seemed to be able to catch up. After a traveling call on an inbounds pass cost Butler the ball with a few seconds left and the home side down by one, I thought it was over. But ‘Zaga made a rare and costly mistake on their inbounds pass; the lob went directly to Roosevelt Jones of Butler, and he ran down the floor, attacked the lane, and got the floater with a tenth of a second left.

The shot came off, the lights went on behind the backboard, the shot went in, Hinkle went berserk. The review confirmed what the screaming crowd at one of basketball’s most historic places already knew: Butler had triumphed. The fans rushed the floor and stayed on long after the team had left. I could feel the energy all the way through my TV, probably because I knew the feeling from just ten days ago.  To witness a contest as well-fought and close and epic as Oregon-UA or Butler-‘Zaga, then get to see that outpouring of human emotion that is so great that it can’t be contained by seats or bleachers, but it literally flows out on to the swath of hardwood where it was created.

I wish with all my heart that I could have been at Hinkle tonight, because I want to feel that in person again so very much.

I really like the NBA, and I really like baseball, and I like soccer and hockey and yes, even football. But days like today remind me why I love college basketball.

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