My first two games as a High Point fan were both on the road, going to see HPU play at Charleston Southern when I was in high school. I finally saw High Point play at home first at the Millis Center in February 2004, when I saw the Panthers play UNC Asheville. Over the next four years, most High Point games I saw were in High Point. But after graduating in 2008, I moved back to South Carolina, 170 miles south of HPU and as a result I could not see the Panthers regularly at home anymore. But the Big South Conference means that we always will have four games in South Carolina I can go to. Tonight was one of those nights, as High Point would play Presbyterian.
Road games are never easy. When I was at High Point, we did not lose very much at home. In fact, we lost only two games my last two years as a student at HPU (2007 to Winthrop and 2008 to Coastal Carolina). This mark was so impressive that for the 2008-09 season we put up a banner above the student section that updated our home record over the past five years (we had to take it down at the end of the season, as the players who won those games graduated in 2008 causing that home record to look much less impressive in 2009). But occasionally we would take bus trips to away and neutral site games. The first of these was a game in December 2005 at Elon, where our student group the Hype would take a van 45 minutes away and see High Point squeak out a win. After that, all of our bus trips were to go see High Point lose. It became frustrating to see the team struggle after we were used to more successful results at home. And to make matters worse, we did not always get along with the other team's fans. At UNC Asheville in 2008, we had one of our fans try to pick a fight with a shirtless Bulldog fan. The Elon fans heckled not our team but our student body instead, in an incident I will talk more about when I go to Elon on Sunday. There were so many incidents at Winthrop that it could be a whole other recap by itself, so I will save that for when I see HPU play there later this month. The friendliest students were those from Liberty, who respected us for the most part and shook our hands after the game after we stood next to each other most of the game.
But all of that was when I was a student. Now I have to go on my own and see the Panthers play on the road by myself, an even tougher experience. In American-style football, colleges often reserve a large block of seats for the visiting team. But basketball is not like that. Between smaller arenas and the increased need for homecourt advantage, not many seats are reserved for the away team. Except for large venues with plenty of general admission seating and low attendance, the away team is only allotted about 50 seats that are distributed by players, coaches, and other team personnel. All other seating is usually taken up by the home team's fans. Even if you can pick your seat (not always an option), it might be difficult to fit in with the crowd. Schools like High Point do not have large fan bases, so sometimes I am one of very few Panther fans in the crowd. The others are usually relatives or close friends of those on the team, and as a fan I do not fit in with them either. They are not usually supporting the team through school loyalty, but personal attachments. If you sit with them, it is not a regular fan experience. These groups are usually closely-knit, not a group an outsider can just choose to be with. And when things go wrong, you don't want to act frustrated if the people you are with have personal attachments to the players and coaches. And then the other option of course is to sit with the home fans, who of course want your team to lose. No option is ideal when you are a fan on the road.
And then you have to deal with the home crowd, which is not a good experience if you are one of few fans for the visitors. At Coastal Carolina in 2009, I stood up and applauded during the team introductions for High Point. One elderly Coastal fan yelled at me "You better not stand up again! I'm serious!" His wife seemed to be embarrassed by her husband's behavior, but it was clear that I was not welcome at Coastal, and other fans gave me a hard time as well as the Panthers were going down hard. When I went with my dad to see his Southern Illinois Salukis play at Evansville a week ago, we had to deal with an Evansville fan who was shouting at the refs and generally complaining about a game loudly that her team was winning by 20 points. She also accused Saluki guard T.J. Lindsay of playing too rough when he was playing normal defense. And then another Purple Aces fan made borderline racist jabs at the name of Saluki forward Mamadou Seck.
But you can't do the same in return, you just won't get away with it. Two years ago I visited family in Northeast Ohio and saw HPU play at Youngstown State. One should know that in non-conference games, the home team is in charge of hiring the refs in most cases. And the officials in Youngstown were definitely not letting HPU have a fair shake, as is often common in guarantee games as well. I called the refs out on this a few times, which really irked the home Penguin fans. "Just let the refs do their job" they cried, while also giving the refs a hard time as well occasionally. Those same YSU fans also relentlessly heckled HPU coach Scott Cherry, who later got a technical called on him to delight of the home crowd who wanted him ejected as well. I always try to be more respectful of opposing coaches and players, even when my team is at home. But other fans do not always do this. Yet I think being angry about officiating favoring the home teams angers home fans more than heckling does. Home fans yelling at the refs is considered by some sports analysts I have read to be the biggest factor influencing home court advantage. Foul calls have a big influence on the game of basketball, and home teams usually get the benefit of these calls. This leads to the experience that makes being a visiting fan worse: the home team wins more than 60 percent of the time. To be a visiting fan, you must sit back, relax, and not complain as your team takes a beating. That is the life of the road fan.
But tonight homecourt advantage would not be much of a boost to Presbyterian. Students are still out for Winter Break, and just like a couple of weeks ago against Furman the PA announcer was making desperate pleas for the crowd to get more involved. I found a good seat, behind where the HPU team passes were and to the right of the PC season ticket holders. The crowd was sparse enough for HPU to carve out its own cheering section, but some PC fans sat behind the HPU bench anyway. Other than that, I had no problem with the Presbyterian fans who were a pretty quiet bunch, perhaps too quiet for their team's own good.
To get a road win, I felt that HPU needed to do three things. The first was to win on to get off to a good start, and not get run out of the building early. But HPU got off to a really poor start, not getting back on defense and not making shots. At the first media timeout, the Blue Hose led 14-2. It looked like it was going to be another bad night to be a Panther fan on the road. But the Panthers steadily over the rest of the half climbed back in the game. This was similar to what happened to Wofford when they played at High Point, and Wofford would still end up losing.
For High Point to have a different fate, they would need to play defense. I was worried that HPU would give up open shots to Pierre Miller and Josh Johnson like they did to Kevin Giltner of Wofford, and Miller and Johnson were getting their shots early. But improved defense and a slow PC offense helped reduce this problem. By the second half, it was Nick Barbour who was making shots and High Point was able to take the lead in the second half.
I also hoped that foul-prone Al'Lonzo Coleman would get into trouble, and reduce any size advantage Presbyterian had. But this time Coleman got HPU in foul trouble instead, as both Travis Phillips and Corey Law picked up their 4th fouls midway through the second half. Yet the Panthers held steady on the road and got big plays from seniors Nick Barbour and Shay Shine when needed. Unlike most road games I have seen, the Panthers were able to get a hard-fought 63-57 win. Both teams had only 56 possessions in the game, and the slow tempo may have helped High Point prevent Presbyterian from getting any home court momentum.
Following a team on the road is tough. It is tough for the players as well, for similar reasons. You have to go into a hostile crowd and adjust from what you are normally used to. Many fans only see their team at home, and do not know what this is like. So I encourage all mid-major basketball fans to have the experience of rooting for your team on the road. Your team will appreciate it, especially if your school is not in a position where it can attract many fans wherever it goes like a big school can. It is a tough challenge, but it will give you an understanding of what Our Game is like half the time.
HIGH POINT 63, at PRESBYTERIAN 57 01/05/2012
HIGH POINT 6-8 (2-2) -- B. Mikulic 1-6 1-2 3; S. Shine 6-9 0-1 14; N. Barbour 11-14 2-2 27; X. Martin 3-10 0-0 7; J. Cheek 2-3 0-0 6; T. Elliott 0-1 0-2 0; C. Law 1-3 0-0 2; J. Simms 1-2 0-0 2; D. Wallace 1-4 0-0 2; L. Harris 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-52 3-7 63. PRESBYTERIAN 8-7 (2-3) -- K. Mutakabbir 8-15 4-4 20; E. Washington 2-10 2-2 6; P. Miller 3-6 0-0 9; J. Johnson 3-7 2-2 10; A. Coleman 3-9 2-7 8; J. Reynolds 0-1 2-2 2; J. Clyburn 1-2 0-0 2; R. McTavish 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 12-17 57.
Three-point goals: HP 8-16 (N. Barbour 3-3; J. Cheek 2-2; X. Martin 1-2; S. Shine 2-3; D. Wallace 0-1; B. Mikulic 0-5), PRES 5-19 (A. Coleman 0-1; J. Johnson 2-6; P. Miller 3-6; K. Mutakabbir 0-3; E. Washington 0-3); Rebounds: HP 26 (B. Mikulic 7), PRES 28 (A. Coleman 8); Assists: HP 5 (J. Simms 2), PRES 11 (E. Washington 4); Total Fouls -- HP 17, PRES 12; Fouled Out: HP-None; PRES-None.