As someone coming from a non-military family, I was a bit in awe when my girlfriend and I arrived at VMI on New Year's Eve. To call the Virginia Military Institute your nontraditional college would be a bit of an understatement. Cadets stay in prison-style barracks instead of posh student housing. They sleep on bedrolls that look unfit for an adventurous mountain climber instead of warm, cushy beds. The houses that line the parade, or courtyard, denote their inhabitants with ranks like Colonel and General. Since we went while the cadets were on break, the campus was eerily quiet. We walked around in near silence, taking in the institute that has touched and been touched by some of the greatest military minds in the history of the South. I've been to quite a few schools in my travels, but VMI is certainly the most unique.
I've wanted to come here for quite a few years, ever since their historic 111-103 victory at Kentucky in the 2008-09 season opener. As a fan just beginning to dig deeper into the other 24 conferences, the ability to score 111 points in a D-I vs. D-I game boggled my mind. The fact that the other D-I team was Kentucky shocked me even more. Sure, they aren't classic Loyola Marymount numbers, but they are impressive nonetheless. To score so many points, a team would have to play at a pretty blistering pace. Tempo fascinates me, and I knew I had to see the team that not only played blindingly fast, but also relatively efficient basketball (no offense, Houston Baptist). After three years, I finally had the chance to see them for myself.
As luck would have it, the team VMI faced off against was fellow Big South member Presbyterian. I was thrilled. Far from just another Big South matchup, this game would be TempoFest 2011. The two schools are diametrically opposed: VMI plays the quickest tempo in the nation, Presbyterian ranks 334 of 345 in that category. The pace of the game would be the easiest eyeball metric to determine which team had the edge. Best of all, I had procured a courtside seat at the three-point line by sheer luck and online ticketing karma. To call this the greatest $12 seat I ever purchased would be an understatement.
Cameron Hall is a bare-bones venue whose only flair is requiring patrons to enter a portal (not kidding) to reach their seats.
Music during the game was minimal, in-game promotions were nonexistent and no merchandise was available for purchase. If you weren't there for the express purpose of witnessing a basketball game, you were in the wrong place.
Our seats were right behind the Presbyterian bench, and with the arena relatively quiet in the absence of the cadets we were able to hear a great deal of what Coach Nibert told his team during timeouts. At the start of the game his message was simple: defend the three-point line.
The Blue Hose responded by blanketing the three-point line. The Keydets responded by scoring eight of their first nine field goals from literally within the semicircle. The pace held at quick but not blistering, favoring VMI without making the game unreachable for Presbyterian.
With the Blue Hose forced to spread their defense out, VMI began to get the perimeter game going. Exploding for a 9-1 run, the Keydets held a 14-point lead with 4:47 remaining in the first half. The pace at this point was frantic. It's difficult to get a sense for the breakneck speed on television, but when the players are mere feet away it becomes incredibly apparent. The well-conditioned cadets zip up and down the court with a barely contained, almost reckless sense of purpose. Out of control, and yet perfectly controlled. Seemingly scattered, secretly disciplined. Try and catch the defense by surprise. If the ball doesn't go in the basket, it's okay. If you just keep running, there's another chance right around the corner.
Presbyterian realized they were losing the chance at victory and came back with a volley of their own. The slow burn. Rebound well and make every possession count by working the clock until you see the best possible shot. When the opportunity presents itself at the end of the play, pull the trigger. Resiliently digging deep, the Blue Hose went to halftime down only eight.
In the second half, it seemed Presbyterian's primary motivation was to control that very tempo. For the remainder of the game, Presbyterian alone dictated the pace. Still trailing by eight with about 15:30 to go, the Blue Hose called a timeout. "Take some charges," instructed Nibert. His players began to do exactly that. As foul after foul piled up against VMI the Cameron Hall crowd began to grow irate. Still, with about five and a half minutes remaining, VMI led by nine. Combined with some good shooting and forced turnovers, Presbyterian hung with the Keydets but couldn't quite break through. Timeout Blue Hose.
I absolutely love sitting courtside for moments like this. The moments where the coach doesn't have to say a word and just lets his seniors do all the talking. Where those seniors lift their team, encourage them to play up to their potential, and choose to take over the game. As has been detailed by more sports movies than I can count, this moment either causes a team to rise to the challenge and emerge with a hard fought victory or crumble under the pressure. Each member of the much talked-about senior trio of Coleman, Miller, and Johnson was very vocal in the huddle, and the rest of the team followed suit. Much to the chagrin of every Keydets fan in the building, the Blue Hose clawed back and took their first lead of the game with 3:02 remaining.
Leading by two with a half-minute left in regulation, Al'Lonzo Coleman went to the stripe with a chance to essentially ice the game for Presbyterian. With two chances to extend the lead, he missed both. A Keith Gabriel jumper on the opposite end tied the game for VMI, and with a missed shot at the buzzer Presbyterian doomed themselves to overtime. In the extra period, VMI trounced the Blue Hose, and that was that.
As the athletes gathered at center court and sang the VMI alma mater to the assembled crowd (none of whom even thought about leaving until the number was finished), I thought about how I came into this game firmly focused on VMI, and how my perception had changed over the course of the contest. I saw the resilience of the Presbyterian Blue Hose, a team whose upset over Cincinnati is still the biggest of the season. Although I'm still very partial to VMI, I came away with a newfound respect for Presbyterian, the smallest school in D-I. A few Blue Hose fans complained about Coleman's missed free throws as they left the building, but they must have forgotten about his two made free throws earlier that sparked Presbyterian's run to the lead. He'll bounce back. In fact, he already has. Resilience can't be taught, so it's good to have it in spades.
at VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 78, PRESBYTERIAN 70 12/31/2011
PRESBYTERIAN 7-6 (1-2) -- J. Johnson 5-11 0-0 14; P. Miller 4-8 0-0 12; K. Mutakabbir 9-18 3-6 24; A. Coleman 3-9 7-10 13; R. McTavish 2-9 0-0 4; E. Washington 1-5 1-2 3; J. Reynolds 0-0 0-0 0; R. Hargrave 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-61 11-18 70. VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 6-7 (1-2) -- R. Burks 2-4 0-1 4; S. Okoye 8-13 9-10 27; K. Gabriel 7-11 2-2 17; Q. Upshur 2-6 3-3 7; M. Sparks 1-1 0-0 2; N. Gore 0-1 2-2 2; R. Glasgow 2-3 4-5 9; J. Weethee 2-4 0-0 6; D. Covington 2-3 0-0 4; W. Whiting 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-47 20-23 78.
Three-point goals: PRES 11-29 (A. Coleman 0-1; J. Johnson 4-7; P. Miller 4-8; R. Hargrave 0-1; K. Mutakabbir 3-9; R. McTavish 0-2; E. Washington 0-1), VMI 6-17 (K. Gabriel 1-4; S. Okoye 2-6; R. Glasgow 1-2; Q. Upshur 0-2; J. Weethee 2-3); Rebounds: PRES 29 (A. Coleman 8), VMI 29 (S. Okoye 9); Assists: PRES 17 (K. Mutakabbir 7), VMI 14 (R. Burks 4); Total Fouls -- PRES 21, VMI 21; Fouled Out: PRES-A. Coleman; VMI-R. Burks.