Day One in Hot Springs – From the Bird’s Nest
Time to head to Hot Springs.
For the second consecutive year, the Cajuns had a first round bye for the tournament and that meant we’d have a day off on Saturday. Friday at noon we loaded the bus and headed out. And, Director of Basketball Operations Brock Morris had po-boys from Olde Tyme Grocery for everyone.
One reason to like Brock Morris.
The trip to Hot Springs is right around six hours. We got to Malvern just after six o’clock and stopped there so the players could have something to eat. There are restaurants within walking distance from the hotel, but most are the bar and grill type. So, it was Western Sizzlin’ for the players.
Afterward we finished the drive into Hot Springs and got to our hotel, the Austin, which was right next door to the Convention Center. I had stayed in the past at the Embassy Suites, adjacent to the Summit Arena, but those folks have just gotten totally unreasonable with their rate. Plus, they charge you an extra night if you leave before your departure date. They’re making a killing….but not off me….not this year.
The Austin isn’t the Embassy Suites. It’s an older hotel but the room was clean and comfortable. Not like I’d be spending a lot of time there. In fact, as soon as I got my bags in my room I headed out to Lucky’s Bar and Grill. The University of North Texas and Lucky’s adopted each other a few years ago. North Texas radio does a live broadcast from there on that Friday night. I’ve always been invited as a guest for the show and joined George Dunham, Steven Bartolotta and Hank Dickenson. We talked Sun Belt basketball and the tournament in general. Because it was a North Texas broadcast we talked about the Mean Green mostly. It’s always fun to be with those guys. Denver’s Mitch Hyder joined us near the end of the broadcast (he had come straight from the airport). Afterward, Mitch, Denver SID Mike Kennedy and I went out for dinner. It was after eleven when I got back to the hotel and probably close to 1am by the time sleep came. But that was okay. I was going to be a spectator on Saturday.
Breakfast Saturday morning at the hotel was great, because David Walker was there. The last time I saw the former AD was at the New Orleans Bowl. We got a chance to catch up a little and probably will again before the trip ends. I finished breakfast and went back to the room for a bit before heading to the Arena to pick up my credentials.
The Cajuns women were scheduled to play at noon, so I didn’t go back to the hotel. The women have had a really tough season. I thought they had a chance to maybe go .500 in the league this year, but when they lost Kimi Rotibi and Mercedes Johnson within a 24-hour period, that went out the window. But, I was there to show my support. They were playing FIU and as has been the case so often this year, the Cajuns hit a dry spell and before long, FIU was up by 20. The Panthers have a nice squad led by Player of the Year Jerrica Coley.
One of the good things about the tournament in Hot Springs is the two court system they use the first two days. They stagger the starting times by 15 minutes and fans can go from one court to the other. I saw the last five minutes of the first half with Western Kentucky taking on ULM. Over the years I’ve developed a friendship with WKU coach Mary Taylor Cowles. The Lady Tops have had a tough season and there’s a lot of whispering about Mary’s future on the hill. She didn’t exactly get a ringing endorsement from AD Ross Bjork during the week. But WKU had the lead at the half.
Then it was back to Summit Arena for the second half of the Cajuns’ game. They wound up playing FIU pretty even in the second half. Krystal Motley had a big game for the Cajuns and Michelle Brunker nearly had a double-double. But at the end FIU advanced in what could very well have been Errol Rogers' final game as head coach. Errol is a wonderful guy who always stays upbeat even during tough times. If UL makes a change, I wish Errol well. But I wonder if anyone will even notice a change was made. It’s not like women’s basketball is a priority among the fans.
Back to Convention Center court, where WKU had a comfortable lead. ULM actually cut the lead to nine but got no closer. It was barely 2pm on Saturday and, with the men prohibited from playing, the Warhawks participation in the tournament was over. WKU advanced to play #1 seed Middle Tennessee Sunday.
I didn’t have a real interest in the other two women’s games, so I went to the Embassy Suites where Alumni Director David Edmiston had a little reception. Karren and Tommy Hays were there and Dr. Savoie and his wife Gail weren’t far behind. Athletic Director Scott Famer was there as well as David and Bobbie Fontenot and Dr. Jessica Leger.
This wound up being quite a gathering. Cajuns softball and baseball had started and, thanks to radioPup, we were listening to both as we visited. And, there was basketball action on the television. It seemed as though almost everyone had an iPhone and we were able to keep track of both baseball and softball. We found out as we turned on the baseball game that head coach Tony Robichaux had been tossed early. The Cajuns had the lead and we paid attention to that game, while following the women at Lamson Park. They trailed Kentucky 4-1. We had a few cold ones (except for Jessica, who is expecting.) And, as you can imagine, the room just exploded as Nerissa Myers’ dramatic home run gave the Cajuns the lead at Lamson Park. And we followed every pitch in the bottom of the seventh as Shelbee Rodgers finished off the Wildcats.
Then it was back to baseball and Caleb Kellogg saved the win for the Cajuns over Kansas, 7-6. I was standing in the doorway of the room when I saw a man walk by and I recognized incoming Commissioner Karl Benson. I had exchanged emails with him and I introduced myself. He asked what all the ruckus was about and I told him about Myers’ dramatic home run. He came into the room and met everyone. He had a press conference scheduled for 5:15.
WKU Athletic Director Ross Bjork also stuck his head in the room. We offered him a beer but he declined. He asked if Scott was going to the press conference and Scott confirmed he was. We watched more basketball until it was time for the conference.
Benson’s press conference didn’t have any dramatics. He was asked some questions about the future of the league, but didn’t offer much more information than he did the day he was announced. He did mention, however, his starting date was pushed up to March 15th, which was new news.
Then it was time for men’s basketball action.
South Alabama and Troy started at Summit Arena. Arkansas State and FAU started about 15 minutes later. I watched the first half of USA and Troy. The Jaguars had a pretty good lead by halftime and I walked over to the Convention Center to catch the last part of the first half of the other game. Arkansas State brought a great crowd and the Convention Center stands were full. ASU had the lead and got a gift when Raymond Taylor fouled on a ¾ court shot with 0.1 remaining. FAU coach Mike Jarvis was furious, not at the officials, but at Taylor, who has been in the mentor’s doghouse most of the season. In fact, I don’t remember Taylor playing at all in the second half. FAU never really got back in the game and with ASU up by fifteen; I went back to Summit Arena where things were getting interesting. USA started turning the ball over and Troy coach Don Maestri went to a five guard offense and as time became a factor, Troy had come from 20 down to make it a one possession game. But South Alabama got just enough done to eliminate Troy and set up a showdown with Denver in the quarterfinals. Arkansas State ended FAU’s disappointing season and the Red Wolves will play Middle Tennessee next.
Then it was time for WKU and FIU. FIU has loads of talent. In fact, despite finishing tied for last in the league, they had three players make the All-Conference team, much to the consternation of some of the media and coaches in the league. (But someone had to vote for these guys, right?) They were very capable of knocking off WKU. The Hilltoppers opened up a ten point lead, but FIU came back and got it to single digits early in the second half. Then, with under eight minutes to go, the Panthers went on a 12-1 run to take a five point lead. But Khalil McDonald hit a couple of big 3’s down the stretch. The game was tied with 90 seconds to go, but WKU prevailed.
By the time the game ended, I was laughing hysterically.
Ray Harper was named the interim head coach of the Hilltoppers in January following the firing of Ken McDonald. And, the fans in Bowling Green really responded, coming back to Diddle Arena in droves. Harper had great success at Division II Kentucky Wesleyan in the past and was pretty well known in the Commonwealth.
Harper was named the permanent coach a couple of weeks ago and there was rejoicing on the Hill. Harper has almost achieved rock star status with the WKU fans. Adam Sparks, who is the Middle Tennessee beat writer for the Daily News Journal, starting tweeting about the phenomenon that is Ray Harper.
Here are just a few examples of what I was reading as the game went down the stretch:
#WKU's Ray Harper is ineligible for coach of the year. Such an award would imply his talent could be contained within a title and a calendar
#WKU beats FIU 67-63. Game was tied at 63 at end of regulation, but official scorer granted WKU 4 points just for Ray Harper's smile
If Coach K and Pat Summit had a baby, he would grow up, sign 12 McDonald's All-Americans and still lose by 20 to #WKU coach Ray Harper
Isiah Thomas just asked #WKU coach Ray Harper for an autograph ... and Harper turned him down
Adam Sparks is a funny guy. Don’t know how well this plays in Bowling Green, but he’s not trying to sell newspapers there.
WKU advanced and will play #2 seed UALR in the quarterfinals. With Arkansas State and UALR both playing on the main court tonight, that place should be rocking pretty good. WKU matches up pretty well with the Trojans and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an upset Sunday.
The games were done and it was time to head back to the hotel. I watched some of the BYU-Gonzaga game and then decided sleep was necessary.
Sunday, after all, was a work day.