Lethargy. As I made the drive to Lundholm Gymnasium on this beautiful, unusually warm New England day, I considered the nature of a Sunday afternoon basketball game in mid-November. At my unnamed Big Ten alma mater, early season Sundays gave rise to sloppy execution, uninspired effort and modest-at-best fan enthusiasm. Sundays were for gimme games that were never gimmes because the vastly undersized and less talented team always came to play, and my team, the one with all the apparent advantages, lacked motivation and cohesiveness. So when I entered the University of New Hampshire's tiny gym and examined the less than half-filled bleachers, I assumed this would be another lethargic basketball Sunday--perhaps worse, considering the weather. I took a seat, said 'no thank you' to the cheerleaders selling raffle tickets, and prepared for the sluggishness.
But as it turned out, I was wrong. Decisively wrong, in fact. The entire event--from over-the-top player introductions to final buzzer--was nothing less than intense. "WWWWELCOME TO WILDCAT COUNTRY!" the PA announcer growled like a professional wrestler. Loyola-Maryland appeared focused during warm-ups. On the heels of a tough loss at Boston College earlier in the week, UNH looked eager. These were kinds of teams that showed up to my arena on Sundays, the ones that always came to play.
The frantic pace of the first five minutes resulted in a series of back-iron clankers and loose-ball scrambles as the two teams exchanged inefficient offensive possession after inefficient offensive possession. They made up for it with aggressiveness on the defensive end, fiercely pressuring the ball and taking chances for run-out steals. UNH forward Brian Benson looked destined for another huge day on the glass as he snared two emphatic rebounds in the first minute, outwardly setting the tone for both teams. It was an exciting, anxious start.
This initial burst of energy could only be matched by the makeshift playground constructing itself behind me. I felt the kicking of bleachers from several rows down as five and six year-old kids assembled themselves in groups on top of the wooden structure. They ran around and played tag, hopping and crawling over stacks of bleachers. It seemed entirely unsafe, but the parents looked relieved to have a moment away, focusing on the game and remaining disingenuously unaware that their children were fully entering Lord of the Flies mode.
By the time I managed to ignore the screaming and stomping--and one responsible parent finally put an end to the madness--the game itself had settled down. The intensity was still there (Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos appeared well on his way to an aneurism--more on that in a moment), but the teams started hitting shots and executing in the half court. Wildcat point guard Chandler Rhoads was in command as he knifed through the lane, finishing around the rim or making crisp passes to open shooters on the perimeter. On the other end of the court, Maryland transfer Shane Walker and Erik Etherly, donning an odd-looking face mask, out-bodied the less physical UNH frontcourt. It went back and forth, the benches stood up and cheered on every made basket or forced turnover, and the fans made certain their team heard their support.
UNH took a slight lead into the half and the cheerleaders/dance team, all 30-plus of them, made their way onto the court for a routine. The routine was set to LMFAO, a group, or something, that makes music, or something. I am young and fresh out of college, but I find myself asking condescending old man questions like "what kind of crap are kids listening to these days?" when I hear this type of music. Still, the routine passed the time and before long basketball activities resumed. Loyola came out of the locker room with a swagger that demanded attention during lay-up drills.
While both teams looked sharp to start the period, nailing shot after shot and running their offenses beautifully, the second half became the Jimmy Patsos show.
As his team continued to make key plays down the stretch, Patsos became ever more animated and infuriated. He screamed and screamed, and by the 8:30 mark had completely lost his voice. And then he kept on screaming. Each time a player made a mistake, or even missed a shot, it seemed Patsos would whip around, point to a guy on his bench and send him out to replace the wrongdoer.
Behind me, a young kid kept asking his dad basic basketball questions like "how long is a timeout? Are we the team in the white? What's a charge?". But when Patsos began to steal the spotlight, the questions changed. At one point the boy asked, "why is he so angry?", to which his father replied, "because it's his job to get angry." This baffled the young son, who of course took it literally. Why would it be someone's job to get angry? That would make no sense.
Yet Patsos did nothing to prove otherwise. Loyola point guard Dylan Cormier, who played a solid game by most measures, was lambasted by Patsos nearly every time he made an offensive decision. At one point, as Cormier dribbled the ball at the top of the key trying to decipher the instructions of his frantic coach, the guard dropped his jaw in bewilderment, turned his non-dribbling hand palm-up, shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, as if to say "nothing I do is right." With just over five minutes remaining, his team leading by a game-high seven points, Patsos delivered his magnum opus, smacking his hand on the press table--narrowly missing a MacBook Pro--crumpling a piece of paper (which probably belonged to the owner of the MacBook Pro), and slamming it to the ground. His assistants stepped in front to calm him down and avoid a technical foul. The kid behind me rattled off question after question, amazed at what he'd just seen.
The final five minutes were highly contested, but ultimately owned by the more talented Loyola team and their incensed coach. Etherly delivered a key dunk late in the game and UNH was on the wrong end of a bad intentional foul call. The Wildcats narrowly missed an and-1 opportunity with a minute left that would have kept them in the game. The crowd surged and then released a collective sigh as the ball rolled around the rim, only to lip out.
The buzzer sounded, the teams shook hands, Loyola gave a few fist pumps as they excitedly walked to the locker room. It was a well-earned victory. For UNH, it was another hard-fought loss. The fans seemed satisfied that they were given a good game.
There was nothing extraordinary about any of the performances, the attendance, or box score. This was merely a well-played basketball game between two teams that wanted a win heading into Thanksgiving break.
What should be noted, however, is the energy that pulsed through Lundholm during this afternoon. There seemed to be more focus, effort and passion poured into this game than in any previous November Sunday basketball contest I can remember. It was a true delight. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe the gym's intimacy--in sharp contrast to the impersonal grandiosity of a Big Ten arena--skewed my perception. Maybe I am giving these teams more credit than they deserve, or am too harsh on the big schools.
Or maybe, just maybe, these teams care more. Maybe they don't take games off, aren't looking ahead to the next big opponent. Maybe playing college basketball was a dream of these players, and they fully understood they were living their dream on this sunny Sunday in November.
Whether it was Patsos, the nervous excitement, the kicking of bleachers or the LMFAO, the game was a truly enjoyable experience because of the energy--something that cannot be manufactured and bought. The day embodied everything great about mid-major hoops, and I look forward to returning to Durham for another game in the near future.
Hopefully on a Sunday afternoon.
LOYOLA (MD.) 66, at NEW HAMPSHIRE 60 11/20/2011
LOYOLA (MD.) 3-1 (0-0) -- D. Cormier 5-11 5-8 16; S. Walker 6-8 2-3 15; J. Drummond 4-12 5-7 13; E. Etherly 4-10 3-3 11; R. Williams 2-4 1-2 5; A. Winbush 2-3 0-0 4; J. Latham 0-3 2-3 2; J. Hall 0-0 0-0 0; P. Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-51 18-26 66. NEW HAMPSHIRE 1-2 (0-0) -- A. Abreu 5-12 0-1 11; C. Rhoads 5-10 4-6 14; P. Konan 5-11 1-2 12; J. Bronner 2-4 0-0 5; B. Benson 3-6 0-1 6; F. Myrick 3-7 2-5 10; C. Matagrano 0-2 0-0 0; J. Trotman 0-0 2-2 2; S. Morris 0-0 0-0 0; G. Jones 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-52 9-17 60.
Three-point goals: LMD 2-7 (S. Walker 1-1; A. Winbush 0-1; D. Cormier 1-3; J. Drummond 0-1; R. Williams 0-1), UNH 5-16 (A. Abreu 1-4; C. Rhoads 0-1; F. Myrick 2-4; C. Matagrano 0-1; P. Konan 1-4; J. Bronner 1-2); Rebounds: LMD 35 (E. Etherly 9), UNH 23 (B. Benson 9); Assists: LMD 7 (S. Walker 2), UNH 6 (C. Rhoads 5); Total Fouls -- LMD 20, UNH 23; Fouled Out: LMD-None; UNH-None.