Game 060: at Chattanooga 82, North Carolina-Greensboro 68Monday, February 14, 2005
McKenzie Arena - Chattanooga, TN
No news here, but this red state-blue state thing isn't a new divide by any means. Back in the 1860's, an invisible Mason-Dixon line separated America's two primary philosophical nation-states. There have been more than a few more union admissions since then, so the boundary line twists and buckles more than it used to. Dull gray has been replaced by vibrant crimson, but the map during the War Between The States matches up pretty well with the automatically-generated computer two-color maps we saw on Election Day.
Fifty-six years after the Civil War ended in the South's defeat, a new and more peaceful type of confederacy was begun in Atlanta. This group of rebels wielded basketballs instead of bayonets, and they created an athletic union of fourteen colleges they called the Southern Intercollegiate Conference. They were going to show all those Yankees (as well as the already-formed Pac-10 and Big Ten) what the southern spirit of innovation was really all about. The conference tournament concept, debuted in 1922, was born out of that spirit. North Carolina
were the first champions, defeating Mercer
in the final game 40-25.
Within seven years their ranks had swelled to 23, and they'd dropped the middle name. Looking over the early roster of the conference, it reads like the superleague that would result if the ACC and SEC ever decided to merge. There were Kentucky
and North Carolina
playing side by side, Georgia
and Georgia Tech
. But the union, like so many, was not forever.
In 1932, during the depths of the Depression, the league split into two. Thirteen of the schools could no longer handle the costs of traveling over the Appalachian Mountains to play the other ten, so they seceded and formed the Southeastern Conference. Geography also played a role in the league's second seismic event - seven seaboard schools left in 1953 to reform as the Atlantic Coast Conference, because they wanted to play more local rivalry games than the SoCon's schedule allowed. And so they left, paving the way for era upon era of Tobacco Road greatness.
The conference was left in tatters. Since the formation of the ACC, the only SoCon representative in the Final Four was 1959 national finalist West Virginia
- they would end up leaving too. While its two sons grew up big and strong, the enfeebled Old Man of the South stayed alive with the help of inland satellites of state schools, military academies, and sleepy yet well-endowed liberal arts colleges. But the league never lost its rebel spirit: in 1980, the Southern Conference was the first league to feature the three-point field goal.
These days, the basketball played in this league makes extensive use of that innovation, and no team survives the season without at least two potent outside threats. A typical contest is a blur of sinewy and tattooed limbs, featuring limber and hungry players who play a game that seems to hover an inch or two above the floor.
It's that eagnerness that makes SoCon ball so exciting, and it's also to blame for a lot of its aesthetic flaws. Players have the tendency to overreach, overextend, do too much. But for the passionate fans of the league and its teams, they would much rather blame that kind of thing on the officials.
"You couldn't call your dogs, ref!" a fan reports in a Tennessee-tinged voice.
A nearby attendee lets loose with a pitch-perfect hound call. "Aroooooo!"
SoCon fans love the game action, but just as with the region's true 1 sport (NASCAR, natch), they add entertainment value by losing themselves in the surrounding soap opera as well. That's easy to do in a league with historical characters like "Hot Rod" Hundley
and Keith "Mister" Jennings
"I can't believe that Murray Bartow," says a Chattanooga
Mocs backer who's apparently not impressed with last season's coach of the year nor his piloting of East Tennessee
to the 2004 NCAA Tournament in his first season at the Buc helm. He's concentrating on this year's lost campaign. "Those Johnson City boys oughta run that joker out of town."
And tonight's episode (held in a city where a Confederacy bloodbath signaled the beginning of the end) has solidly soapy storylines. The home team plays the traditional power; the role of fiesty, overachieving upstart who loves to ruin everyone's plans is filled by visiting North Carolina-Greensboro
. Two weeks earlier at Greensboro, the Spartans climbed back from an 18-point deficit and slipped by with a minute remaining, 62-57. Chattanooga was in first place at the time, and the result was crushing. They didn't know it at the time, but that come-from-ahead loss was the start of a five-game four-defeat stretch. The Mocs entered this game clinging to a share of the East division lead with a 7-5 record while UNCG lurked a game behind.
Chattanooga rushed out to an early lead once again, thanks to the perfect 6-for-6 shooting of post-force Charles "Big C" Anderson, The Mocs went into halftime with a commanding 15-point lead. The cushion ballooned to 18 just after the break, and hovered there until the half's midpoint. This was following the same script as the teams' first meeting, almost to the page and letter.
"Siddown, McCaffrey!" a fan yelled out towards the visiting coach, a Pennsylvania
man who used to walk the sidelines at Lehigh
. "Go back up north where you belong!"
And then the real
deja vu struck. Greensboro followed their coach's shouted instructions, and ratcheted up their intensity. They whittled the lead down to six at the 6:45 mark, powered by a stretch in which they outscored their homestanding opposition 25-12.
But the Mocs players refused to allow an end-to-end rerun of the earlier game, and the lead would not change hands. Chattanooga stridently pulled away on the scoreboard once again, due in large part to a flurry of free throws. When the buzzer sounded, Mocs coach John Shulman nodded in approval.
"We had a chance to fold, had a chance to tuck our tails, but we didn't," he said afterward. Shulman is one of those patient longtime assistants who's getting his first shot at a head-coaching job - Jeff Lebo created the vacancy last summer by leaving for Auburn
. Shulman explained his team's recent struggles, his cherub face fixed in a perpetually hopeful expression. "Most teams have been together since October. We've been going at it since August, since our Canada trip
. We just hit the wall lately, we were mentally and physically fatigued. It's been a seven-month journey, and that's hard."
It remains to be seen where Chattanooga's 2005 journey will end up. But while teams from the ACC and SEC will likely play deep into the bracket, this conference's representative(s?) will probably be watching the Tournament's second weekend on CBS like the rest of us. Nobody has spun much March magic here recently, since these same Mocs took a 14-seed on an improbable carpet ride to the Sweet Sixteen in 1997. On the whole, SoCon basketball remains an unguarded yet mostly unsought secret.
"Most of the teams in this league are good, but not good enough
," a grizzled longtime Chattanooga season-ticket holder wisely informs me after the game. And then he drops the one-liner on me, a phrase he's had years to perfect. "But mark my words, son... the SoCon will rise again." Photo Gallery