From the Bird’s Nest: Sunday in Hot Springs
Sunday morning arrived in Hot Springs. Temps belied the name of the city, as the thermometer dropped into the upper 30's overnight. I had breakfast at the Embassy Suites with Interim Athletic Director Scott Farmer and his son Kyle. T. D. Smith joined us as well. It was great to see T. D., the former Cajuns' public address announcer now living in Florida. But ever since the tournament was held in Lafayette a few years ago, T. D. has been the PA voice of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. Commissioner Wright Waters thinks T. D. might be the best in the country, and I won't argue with him.
There were a full slate of games scheduled, with four women's quarterfinals during the day and then the four men's quarterfinals. I wouldn't get to see a lot of women's basketball since the Cajuns would be playing at 6:30. But we were all curious. The first women's quarterfinal was scheduled for noon and it featured Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State.
You know the feel-good story, don't you?
A team loses a player to a great tragedy. The team meets and decides to keep playing. The fallen comrade serves as an inspiration to the team that wills its way to a championship.
Not in Hot Springs. Not this year.
It was an incredibly emotional pregame. The MTSU women wore black T-shirts with the 20GETHER logo on the front. On the back was the name STEWART and the MT logo. All that, of course, to honor Tina Stewart, the victim of a senseless fatal stabbing just a few days before. Coach Rick Insall and his staff wore buttons with "20", Stewart's number on their lapels.
There was a moment of silence and lots of tears in the Summit Arena. The MTSU players were still obviously shaken. They presented the academic and all conference awards and the East Division Championship trophy. Then it was time to play.
And the Lady Raiders had nothing.
Insall called his first timeout less than a minute into the contest. He sensed it right away. Arkansas State built the lead to double figures. Middle cut it to six at the break and tied the game three times early in the second half. But each time, ASU had an answer and Middle's tournament run had come to an end. As the regular season champion, an NCAA at-large berth is a possibility, but a quarterfinal loss may have ended that as well.
I don't want to imagine what that locker room was like after the game.
In retrospect, that storybook ending may have been a bit much to ask. Middle Tennessee is a very young club, with eleven freshmen and sophomores. Perhaps a senior-laden team may have gotten through it, but it was too much for these youngsters.
Meanwhile, Western Kentucky defeated the #2 West seed Denver. The other side of the bracket held seed with UALR and Florida International victorious.
I headed back at halftime of the women's action to get some pregame work done and made it over to the arena about 4:15. I set up equipment and got something to eat before meeting Coach Marlin for our pregame conversation. Coach Darby Rich, who served briefly on Marlin's staff before leaving for family reasons, made it in and was in the locker room with us.
All day long, everyone asked what I thought about the game. I honestly didn't know. The Cajuns had won the regular season meeting two weeks before. In that game, the Cajuns held WKU to just two baskets from three-point range. J. J. Thomas had a career night with 25 points. La'Ryan Gary stayed in foul trouble and scored just three. Randall Daigle didn't score. I had a feeling that the game would be much different as far as contributors were concerned, but just didn't know how the game would go.
The Cajuns jumped out to an early lead and led by 11 at 30-19. But then Sergio Kerusch took over the rest of the first half. He hit three trifectas (he had none in Lafayette) and scored 17 first half points. The Cajuns led by three at the half.
Western scored the first six points out of the locker room to take the lead and it was back and forth after that. My whole analysis of the game boils down to this: WKU has the best front line in the league. Kerusch and Steffphon Pettigrew are first team all-conference players.
And Sunday night, they played like it. Pettigrew took over the second half and Juan Patillo had a great last 12 minutes. The Cajuns had a chance late to cut the lead to two, but Josh Brown's off glass attempt went around the rim and came out. Pettigrew scored on the following possession to make it a six point game and that was pretty much it.
J. J. Thomas only played 14 minutes because of foul trouble and scored just two points. The three Cajuns seniors, Travis Bureau, Randall Daigle and La'Ryan Gary all scored in double figures. Brown may have had his best game of the season, with 19 points and 14 rebounds. But Kerusch had 25, Pettigrew 26 and Patillo had a double double. Western was simply a little better.
And just like that, the streak, and the season, was over.
And so was the trip to Hot Springs. Way too early.