FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- The Athletics-Recreation Center at Valparaiso is a brick multipurpose sports facility, and at its heart is a fieldhouse-style gymnasium where the hooping Crusaders play. Most of the time, when Horizon League teams like Youngstown State and Green Bay visit, the place might fill to half its capacity. But on Tuesday night, all 5,432 seats were occupied, and press row was standing room only. A television crew beamed the action to households across Hoops Nation and America at large. The opponent was one of the most storied programs in the state of Indiana and the Big Ten, Purdue University, in imposing black jerseys. This was undoubtedly important.
Schools in the Other 25 don't get opportunities like this too often. When they do, it's almost always because of rare, imbalanced scheduling agreements that give a power-conference school two home games (and sometimes three or four) in return for a one-night-only marquee event in a minor gym. Big Ten institutions like Purdue are less willing to enter into contracts like these with good, consistently NCAA Tournament-caliber teams -- mostly for fear of taking an early-season loss that would tarnish recruiting efforts and draw ire from national journalists-slash-professional hecklers. So Valpo, with a single 20-win season in the most recent eight, was a good choice. On Tuesday night, the Boilermakers visited the ARC as the third leg of a three-year agreement after two wide wins in West Lafayette (2008: 59-45; 2009: 76-58). Matt Painter's team is nationally ranked, with a single loss against seven wins. The Crusaders are a young, slightly overachieving team still working through shooting issues. Still, thousands of students and alumni wore their brown and gold shirts and screamed their lungs out, and some even painted their bodies, even though the game's outcome was virtually assured. It would have been far easier to watch on ESPNU or #pixelvision, and turn it off at the right time. Far easier than to trudge through a 10-degree night to the ARC, and then walk right back home across a sub-zero lake effect landscape with broken hearts.
What brought them out through the cold was the chance and the opportunity to witness a moment they'd never forget. Coming into this game, Valparaiso had a chance. Ken Pomeroy had it quantified at a slim 17 percent, but that was enough. And early on, the home team hung around by slapping the ball away from Purdue players and getting out in transition for layups and threes. On several occasions during the first half, the crowd rose as one to offer the Crusaders hearty standing ovations. At halftime, Purdue's lead was just two, at 30-28.
But games like this require 40 minutes of pure perfection, and Valpo blinked for three. Just after the second half began, a slim 34-33 Crusader lead became a 42-36 Purdue advantage, just like that. The mass exhale was palpable; the cloud of carbon dioxide hung like an invisible ghost over the floor. With six minutes left, and the game well decided, more than a few gathered their coats and silently moved towards the exits. The final moments were played out in something close to silence. Purdue won by 18.
After the game, I hung out in the tunnels with @adamamin, Valparaiso's fine radio analyst. The ESPNU contingent, the army of Purdue beat writers and the Boilermaker Express bus had all left, some before Crusader head coach Homer Drew's press conference began ("If we want those fans to come back, we have to win"). "It's amazing how fast these games can turn," said Adam, shaking his head.
"If you aren't manic depressive already, Our Game will do it to you." It was a thought I hadn't quite had before, all gallows. I had become emotionally invested in this too, held my own temporary certificate, allowed myself to hope. Nobody was paying me to be impartial, so I became a Valparaiso Crusader for a slim, brief moment. We all do this, each of us and all of us, over and over, and especially in March. We place chips on squares and lose to the house almost every time, we go all in, we get so high and then so low. Sometimes we wonder why we do it.
Hope is the glue that binds us to the future. Hope is the tip of the arrow at the end of the Incomplete Circle, poised and pointed into the negative space, towards a closed conclusion and an unbreakable ring. Hope is that the end will be The End, and not something else.
Red Line Upsets
Saint Bonaventure 67, at Saint John's 66 -- Andrew Nicholson nailed a game-winner with five seconds left at Carnesecca Arena in Queens (which was reviewed and called good), and SBU earned their first RLU since a similarly close 64-63 win at Rutgers on Nov. 23, 2008. This was the B-side of an odd "home and home" schedule agreement in which the Johnnies played the Bonnies in Rochester last year. That was a close one too. And so we've reached 60 Red Line Upsets for the season, out of 441 chances, for a winning percentage of .136. the rate is not quite what is was last year on this date (72 of 487, .148), but we've got the holiday trap games coming up. The Other 25 will get back on track soon, we hope.
Game! Of! The! Night!
Manhattan at Fordham Rose Hill Gym - Bronx, NY 7:00 EST
The annual game between Manhattan of the MAAC and current Atlantic 14 member Fordham is one of the hidden treasures of the New York sports calendar. It's also the emotional centerpiece of this 2009 feature on this site, and there's a full history of the matchup somewhere deep in the 2005 ESPN archives that I once wrote. It went something like this.
The annual "Battle of the Bronx" is a basketball war that pits brother against brother and father against son, but everybody still has to sit together. There are no separate cheering sections for Fordham and Manhattan fans; instead, the overflowing stands become a sea of clashing bright green and dark red.
The two schools are separated by three angry miles in the northernmost borough of New York City. These two schools can't even get their subway stations to agree -- Manhattan is on the red-colored 1 line, while you take the green 4 train to get to Fordham -- and there's no way to transfer cleanly without dipping down into Harlem.
The Red and Green resumed a bitterly-contested 98-game series, one that dates back to 1911, on Friday night at Manhattan College's Draddy Gymnasium. Draddy is a gymnasium in the classic sense, an enclosed running track with a court set up in the middle, surrounded by oversized, low-hanging green championship banners. All that extra room behind the temporary bleachers gives rival fans lots of room to mill about and exchange hoop smack.
"'Ay, Lucky Charms," said a Fordham fan. "No handling our Bryant Dunston kid. He's goin' off for 25 tonight."
"Yeah, call me when your boys make the NCAA Tournament," responded a loyal Jasper. "We'll be there waiting for ya."
This version will be played at the oldest active arena in Division I, beautiful Rose Hill. And with the sad current state of Big Apple basketball, winning a borough is all the pride either team will likely get in 2010-11 (Manhattan is 2-6, Fordham 3-4).
But the real reason this is the G!O!T!N! is because it's the first Battle of the Bronx since the passing of Freddy "Sez" Schuman. Freddy was most famous for being a Yankee supporter, but he was the biggest fan of both Manhattan and Fordham basketball, both men's and women's teams. He was one of the most hopeful people I've ever met. His beloved Bronx baseball team gave him all the championships he needed to fend off heartbreak, and he would bang his lucky pot at Rose Hill and Draddy with the full knowledge of what those wins he hoped for felt like. Freddy was a guy who had it all figured out.