Day Two in Hot Springs – From the Bird’s Nest
Staying at the Austin Hotel has its advantages and disadvantages. The internet connection isn’t great. There were a couple of times where my connection timed out at inopportune times. But, in the room, there’s a full sized coffee pot with Starbucks Coffee. That’s pretty cool.
After two cups Sunday morning, I headed down to breakfast. There weren’t many people in the restaurant, even though it was nearly 8am. Anthony Daniel, who among his sixty other jobs, takes care of the spirit groups at UL, joined me not long after I sat down. AD and I have known each other for twenty years, but it had been awhile since we really spent time together. I enjoyed the visit. In time, Coach Bob Marlin and Coach Kevin Johnson joined us. Coach Johnson is eggs and bacon. Coach Marlin is cereal and burned wheat toast.
After breakfast I went upstairs and wrote a little, showered and got ready to head to the Arena. Women’s quarterfinals were up first and I wanted to see some of those games. Also, the internet connection is better at the arena and it would make it easier to finish game prep.
There are some who go to the conference tournament and only get to the arena when their team is playing. That holds true for some of the media as well as the fans. Personally, I like going to the arena early and staying for the duration. There are lots of folks to visit with, rumors and facts to catch up on and usually some good basketball as well. Saturday was no exception. And, as long as I’m fortunate enough to be doing this, I don’t think my routine will change.
I set up my computer right next to TV-3’s Travis Webb and hooked up to the internet. It was easy to log on and I got a little bit of work done on the web and then used the game notes provided to get my scorebook ready. That having been done, it was time for some hoops.
If you read yesterday’s blog, you know of some tweeting by Adam Sparks of the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro concerning the awesomeness that is WKU men’s basketball coach Ray Harper. Sparks’ tongue-in-cheek remarks had anyone who follows him on twitter laughing. Just before tipoff I noticed on twitter that Sparks said WKU athletics director Ross Bjork had talked to him and took issue with some of the things Sparks said. The women’s game between WKU and Middle Tennessee had begun as I entered the arena. I scanned press row and found Adam and headed his way.
I squatted next to Adam’s chair and told him how much I enjoyed his humor the night before. Then I asked him about his tweet concerning the WKU AD. Adam told me Bjork had issues with a couple of tweets, afraid some fans might take it seriously. One of them was “when WKU football coach Willie Taggart is ready to call a play, he checks for a text from Ray Harper whether to run or pass.” Wait. What fans are going to take that seriously? I just shook my head and finished the conversation so Adam could get back to work.
I visited with some media members in the back during halftime, including Hank Dickenson, who does both play by play and color commentary for North Texas. Hank is also the Senior Associate AD at UNT. With all those hats, he needs a raise. He asked me about the upcoming game and I told him the same thing I told about twenty other people who asked: I felt the Cajuns would play hard. I felt they would play with passion. And, I felt they would play together. I just didn’t know if it would be enough. I also told him I liked our chances in a close game, but I just didn’t know what to expect as far as the quality of our performance was concerned.
There are quite a few good things about having the tournament in Hot Springs. One is the two-court system that’s used during the first two days of the tournament. They stagger the start times by about fifteen minutes and fans and media can go from one court to the other to check on scores. It’s not good if you want to see every second of every game, however.
In the main arena, Middle Tennessee was comfortably ahead of WKU, but the Lady Toppers rallied and cut the lead to single digits. But at the end, WKU paid the price for turnovers and poor shooting early in the game and finished their worst season in school history. A few minutes after the game, I sent a text to Lady Tops coach Mary Taylor Cowles. The game marked the end of her 10th season as head coach. She has 199 wins and a few championships to her credit. But the last couple of years have been tough and yesterday may have been her last game. Mary has been on the Hill since she was a player at WKU. If she leaves, it will be tough, on both her and the University. She’s meant so much to that program.
I checked the other court. It was in the final seconds and FIU was about to advance with a mild upset over Denver. That one was a bit of a surprise, but not a shock. FIU will now take on Middle Tennessee in the first semifinal.
I visited with a few people and then headed back to the Summit where UALR was about to start against South Alabama. Despite losing some very good players, the Trojans won the western division again and were favored to get to the semifinals. But then I saw Mary talking with someone in the stands. I didn’t realize she had finished her media duties already. So I waited for her to finish her visit and then she turned and saw me. She said “Hey!” and smiled and walked over. We hugged and I told her I was proud of the way her team battled back. She started to talk about the season in general and I could see the pain on her face. When you’re an alum, it’s personal. I mentioned the future and saw her eyes well up and just put an arm around her and told her I valued our friendship. We hugged one more time and I left her to visit with more well-wishers.
Back in the press area, I spoke with some media members about some of the rumors flying around the tournament. With conference realignment, the MWC/CUSA alliance and a change in commissioners, there were plenty of rumors to deal with. The most rampant rumor was the imminence of North Texas’ departure from the league. UNT officials were dismissing such talk, but most at the tournament believe the Mean Green is as good as gone. The rumors weren’t as rampant about FIU, but there was some talk there as well.
Another rampant rumor was the future of the tournament in Hot Springs. “Benson wants to move the tournament” was heard more than once. Commissioner Benson asked my opinion about the site the day before. I told him I generally liked Hot Springs. I also told him the conference several years ago had announced the tournament’s move to Biloxi just before Hurricane Katrina hit. But, the rumor this time was Benson prefers a larger city.
Finally, more than one person remarked there’s plenty of friction right now between Benson and outgoing Commissioner Wright Waters. I think, if true, that’s understandable. Waters announced his retirement, effective at the end of June. Benson then gets hired, but the hire date is moved to April 1 because of the landscape of realignment. Then, at his press conference Saturday, it is announced Benson will take over on March 15th. If I were Benson I’d want to hit the ground running. If I were Waters, I’d feel like I was getting pushed out. That would make for some tension.
South Alabama was being competitive with UALR, so I watched that game for a while. When it reached halftime I went and checked on the other game. North Texas was just hammering FAU. The lead at halftime was 17 points.
Back at the Summit, USA was giving the defending champions all they wanted and then some. The lead for UALR hovered around four points most of the second half. But the Trojans made enough plays and had it salted away in the final minute. They would advance to play North Texas.
Or would they?
Back at Convention Center Court, FAU had come back from the dead. They still trailed, but only by three with about 90 seconds remaining. They got the lead down to one and got a defensive stop. They were out of timeouts but came down and missed a shot with three seconds left.
Then FAU got the offensive rebound and a putback for their only lead of the game with 1.8 seconds left.
Chancellor Dugan is the head coach at FAU. She’s a tall woman, over six feet. When the bucket was made, I think Coach Dugan could have dunked a basketball. North Texas failed to get a shot off and FAU had a most improbable victory.
I had to wait for the FAU broadcaster to pack his radio gear before I could set up my equipment for the broadcast. His postgame wasn’t all that long and I got everything done just before 5:00. I was going to have to eat something quickly, since I had to record my pregame with Coach Marlin at 5:15. I wolfed down some pasta and went to meet with Coach.
Now I’m twenty minutes away from airtime. I got well wishes from Denver play by play man Mitch Hyder and South Alabama’s longtime voice, Lee Schirvanian. Then it was time to play.
I was right about what I thought I’d see. I saw the Cajuns play hard, play with passion and play together. And, in the end, it wasn’t quite good enough. As expected, the best player on the court was a freshman. But in this case, it was Cajuns point guard Elfrid Payton who had 13 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and five steals. The “other”freshman, Tony Mitchell of North Texas had a fine defensive game with eleven rebounds and six blocks. But he scored only five points and almost as many turnovers as he had points in the game.
But the Mean Green made the big shot and the Cajuns were done in the tournament. Meanwhile, at the Summit Arena, Arkansas State had fallen behind 10-0 but used a 12-0 run near the end of the first half to get back in it. That game was nip and tuck and at the end, the Achilles Heel that I alluded to in my tournament preview came home to roost. Middle Tennessee only made two of their last ten free throws, including six in a row at the end of the game and fell to John Brady’s ninth seeded Red Wolves. That news pretty much compounded the feelings I had after the tough loss. There’s no guarantee the Cajuns would have beaten ASU, but everyone wearing red would have loved to had the chance.
After the broadcast ended I packed my gear and went to the press room to write the story for our website. I spoke with at least a dozen people, all of whom raved about Payton’s performance in a losing effort. I was also told, by more than one media member, “you guys have one heckuva coach.”
I decided to stay for the final games of the night. WKU and UALR were already underway by the time I walked into the Summit. The Trojans jumped out to an early nine point lead and things looked good early. But freshman Derrick Gordon, who didn’t play particularly well in the win over FIU the night before, made his presence known and WKU got back in the game. At the half, I decided to watch Denver and South Alabama for awhile. Although that game started fifteen minutes after WKU/UALR, they were close to starting the second half. I watched the Pioneers stretch a four point lead to nine midway through the second half and went back to the Summitt.
WKU had trimmed the lead to four points with eleven minutes left, but UALR hit seven straight points to expand the lead to eleven. The lead stayed between seven and eleven for a couple of minutes before the Trojans had their biggest lead at 13 with just under seven minutes to go.
Back to the other court, where South Alabama had cut the Denver lead to four with eight minutes to go. So, I sat and watched that one until Denver once again got the lead to double digits with a minute to go. South Alabama quit fouling and it was back to the Summit, where WKU had gone on a 20-3 run in my absence and had taken a four point lead with under three minutes left. UALR tried, but never caught the Hilltoppers, who scored a major upset with a win over the #2 seed.
It had been one crazy day. The women’s side was close to being according to seed, with only FIU scoring an upset and it was a minor one.
But on the men’s side, for the second straight year, the top two seeds were gone in the quarterfinals, leaving the tournament open for the four teams remaining. As I walked back to Convention Center Court, I ran into Denver coach Joe Scott and congratulated him on the win. He complimented me on the tournament preview I wrote, which reminded me that it’s not just Cajuns fans that read my blogs.
Then I walked over to Mitch Hyder, Denver’s play by play man, who had just finished his broadcast. I told him, quite simply that the tournament was Denver’s to lose and he agreed there would be no excuses for the Pioneers. We shook hands and he said he’d call after the tournament.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see Mitch again. But I’ve made a friend for life.
And, as I headed back to the room at the Austin, I thought of a few things. I thought how fate can be cruel sometimes. The Cajuns had done everything Bob Marlin asked of them. North Texas simply made one more play. Middle Tennessee had one glaring weakness which got exposed. And, Marlin’s good friend Steve Shields and my good friend Robert Lee had their season come to an end in a game they had won.
Which reminded me of Adam Sparks’ tweets.
Maybe all that stuff about Ray Harper was true, after all.