I get around quite a bit for the average college basketball fan. Last year, I managed to attend a solid 31 Division I games and this year I've already been to 21. In three years of travels, I've seen about a fifth of the teams in D-I. Despite this fact, I'd only ever seen one team from west of Iowa play before Tuesday night (San Diego State). As a result, the main draw for me going in to the game was being able to see a WAC squad for the first time. Previously, I had watched Idaho notch an impressive victory over Pac-12 contender Oregon State, and I told my accompanying friend to expect a somewhat competitive game but an Idaho victory. Only one night removed from my trip to Huntington, W.Va. for the Belmont-Marshall showdown, I assumed that I had used up my exciting basketball karma for the week. Luckily, I was very wrong.
I took my best friend along with me for this one, and I'm frankly not really sure why he came. An academic type with a serious disdain for sports, he postulated during the contest as to why sports provide an unhealthy distraction from the things that matter in life. I listened politely and considered his points, despite my obvious opinions to the contrary. Before long, I was thinking about why I love sports, and especially college basketball. What is it that keeps me coming back, night after night, to see something that "doesn't matter?"
I settled on two key ideas. The first is the unifying nature of all athletic contests, and especially college basketball. The 3,040 people that showed up Tuesday night really wanted to be there, and only about three were cheering for Idaho. The crowd was surly and partisan, euphoric at times, despondent at others. Each emotion I felt was magnified over 3,000 times by everyone else in the room with me. It's a unique feeling, and it makes me feel as if I'm part of an all-encompassing whole. "No man sports fan is an island."
Second is the curiosity of an uncertain outcome. College basketball is highly stratified, and there is a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots. However, it's also a sport notorious for monumental upsets. These upsets are made all the more valuable based on the size of the gap. Remember when Illinois-Chicago beat Illinois last year? Monumental. You may have an idea of who will win the game going in, but it's impossible to be certain. I keep coming back because I want to see an underdog win, and I want to see exactly how they did it.
Wright State was definitely an underdog coming in to Tuesday night. Their best Pomeroy win came over #185 Miami (OH). Idaho's best win was the aforementioned victory over #62 Oregon State. The two teams were rather evenly matched heading into the final minutes of the second half. When it seemed the outcome was assured in Wright State's favor, fans began heading for the exits. I never understood this practice, especially at a venue with a speedy and easy to navigate traffic pattern like Wright State's. Sure enough, with the Raiders up three in the closing seconds, Idaho's Landon Tatum sunk a halfcourt prayer as time expired to send the game to overtime. People who had been leaving turned around and returned quietly to their seats.
The overtime period was one of the most exciting I've ever seen. Seven lead changes are pretty impressive for at least one team that has notoriously had some trouble putting the ball in the basket this season. With four seconds remaining, a blown defensive assignment on the block allowed Idaho's Dazmond Starke to effortlessly lay the ball into the basket and give the Vandals a one-point lead. Out of timeouts, Wright State's Julius Mays took the ball up the court and heaved up an off-balance three from the top of the key as time expired. The shot was clearly long, and the Nutter Center held its collective breath hoping it would be long enough. With a thud and a swish the ball rolled off the glass and in.
As the Raider bench mobbed Mays in the corner of the court the entire building exhaled with a roar. The euphoria made me feel as if I was getting swept up in a grand wave of Raider fever. Like my previous night's adventure at Marshall, the outcome was uncertain until the final buzzer sounded. I had seen the underdog win in dramatic fashion. Maybe sports don't matter in the traditional sense, but as the elated crowd filed out of the building there was no question that tonight it certainly did.
at WRIGHT STATE 80, IDAHO 78 12/20/2011
IDAHO 7-5 (0-0) -- K. Barone 7-11 7-13 21; L. Tatum 4-5 0-0 9; D. Geiger 3-10 0-0 9; S. Madison 3-9 1-1 8; D. Bandoumel 0-6 4-8 4; D. Starke 5-8 1-2 11; M. Borton 3-3 0-0 9; M. Habeeb 1-1 5-6 7; M. McChristian 0-0 0-0 0; C. Hill 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-54 18-30 78. WRIGHT STATE 5-8 (1-1) -- J. Mays 10-18 6-8 28; R. Arceneaux 7-12 3-3 19; V. Hall 2-5 2-2 7; A. Battle 4-9 0-2 8; C. Darling 2-5 1-2 7; J. Mpondo 0-0 0-0 0; T. Sledge 3-6 0-0 6; J. Balwigaire 1-7 0-0 2; A. Pacher 1-2 1-1 3; M. Vest 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 30-66 13-18 80.
Three-point goals: ID 8-18 (D. Geiger 3-8; L. Tatum 1-1; M. Borton 3-3; S. Madison 1-5; C. Hill 0-1), WRIG 7-22 (J. Mays 2-5; A. Battle 0-3; C. Darling 2-2; V. Hall 1-4; M. Vest 0-1; R. Arceneaux 2-4; J. Balwigaire 0-3); Rebounds: ID 41 (K. Barone 14), WRIG 28 (T. Sledge 7); Assists: ID 18 (L. Tatum 8), WRIG 10 (J. Mays 4); Total Fouls -- ID 19, WRIG 26; Fouled Out: ID-M. Borton; WRIG-C. Darling.