About two hours before Wednesday night's tip-off between #19 Creighton and Missouri State, I entered JQH Arena and saw a flash of one of my favorite scenes in the movie "Hoosiers."
In preparation for the state championship, Coach Dale brings his small-town Hickory team to the luxurious Hinkle Fieldhouse in that scene, and the players enter the building with wide eyes and intimidated looks. Empty and dead quiet, you can hear the most subtle of sounds in the arena: sneakers squeaking on the floor as the players walk, running water in the background and noise from heating vents. It was as if Hickory had entered a basketball sanctuary.
That's how I felt as I sat at the very top seat of JQH around 5 p.m. on Wednesday. After driving to Springfield, Mo., from Columbia, I had a seat on press row to work on a story about the Missouri Valley's success in 2011-12, but I wanted a different perspective on the game before it began. As I walked up the bleachers to the worst seat in the house, I felt about as peaceful as any man could ever feel. When I sat down, this is what I saw:
No basketball players. No crowd. No band, no student section, no Top-40 hits blaring over the sound system. I count five other people in that picture -- a security guard, a scorekeeper, and the Creighton radio team chatting with Bluejays coach Greg McDermott. The JQH staff hadn't even turned on the Jumobtron at this point. Even from the highest seat in the stadium, I could still vaguely hear McDermott's interview several hundred feet below me. This is what a sanctuary should feel like. It should have no distractions.
As I Iooked out on the court, I imagined what this place would look like when it filled to capacity for Missouri State's most important home game of the season. Two hours later, I got my answer:
From about 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the intensity at JQH skyrocketed. Creighton and Missouri State played every possession with an air of desperation. The Bears needed a victory to stay alive in the MVC race, while CU needed a victory to avenge an earlier loss in Omaha to MSU. All-American candidate Doug McDermott and reigning MVC Player of the Year Kyle Weems guarded each other for most of the game, and you could not have asked for a more competitive matchup. The two players battled each other so hard that Greg McDermott said after the game he thought they expended too much energy on defense to score. Neither player had a particularly impressive offensive game, but that matchup was the beauty of college basketball. Weems and McDermott have been working their whole lives for this moment. They have dedicated thousands upon thousands of hours to Our Game, and they played every second of Wednesday night's game like it was the most important thing in the world.
That's how the entire game felt. Back and forth they went for 40 minutes, until Creighton made a few plays down the stretch to hold a slight advantage in the final few minutes. Missouri State rushed its shots and missed an opportunity to take the lead on four occasions, ending in Anthony Downing's missed jumper as time expired. Creighton celebrated as if it had won the National Championship; for Missouri State, it looked like the world was ending. The crowd of more than 9,000 people filed out, most with their heads down after yet another heartbreaker. The Bears had now lost three straight games by a total of four possessions, and this missed chance against a top-25 opponent hurt the worst.
Within an hour, JQH Arena transformed from a frenzy back to a sanctuary. After all of the post-game activities ended, I took a small glance at the court one more time. I saw nobody. After Creighton and Missouri State played as hard as they possibly could for two hours, they both exited the arena and moved on with their lives. The place was empty again.
It was the calm after the storm, and it looked the same as the calm before the storm at 5 p.m. No players, no music, no crowd. The way it was meant to be.