With apologies to my team, who secured the 1 seed by a 2 game margin and earned the right to host the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the Horizon League tournament in my home town of Valparaiso at the Athletics Recreation Center (ARC), I still miss those extended weekends in Kansas City or Tulsa spending 50 bucks to watch 14 basketball games, hanging out with fans of other teams. More importantly, I miss being able to watch every single game of a conference tournament without having to multi-task. The Summit League (formerly Mid-Continent Conference) will start their tourney tomorrow in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and if Valpo were still in that conference, that's where I'd be. So help me, that's March Madness heaven for me. I was privileged to have a front row seat in Tulsa in 2005 when Pierre Dukes buried a 3 from the corner to break the hearts of the hometown fans and send Oakland University to the P.I.G. There's nothing like it.
For two nights, the HL does sort of get it. Tonight four teams not named Valpo will square off in two contests. Both Youngstown State (YSU) and Detroit brought their pep bands, cheerleaders, and mascot (for some reason, the Penguin mascot is a cute Penguin couple). The ARC is all decked out with special areas for media and so forth. Extra end bleachers have been installed. Still, hanging around the arena are banners that remind everyone that this is Valpo's house. The ARC is kind of sparsely occupied with 15 minutes remaining before opening tip between Youngstown State and Detroit. The Detroit fans outnumber the Penguin fans significantly. However, when Valpo joined the HL, they explained how beneficial it would be for Valpo because now the longest bus trip would be to Youngstown State, so it stands to reason that if any fan section might travel a little light it would be YSU.
It will be interesting to note what public address announcer John Bowker is not allowed to say or do tomorrow night when the Crusaders take the court against the winner of tonight's other game. Which is to say that the HL is slightly wishy-washy when it comes to the home team enjoying all the perks of home court advantage. No screaming out those Centier Bank "1-2-3!!!"s. For that matter, the Valpo pep band and student section is not allowed to be near the visiting team's bench, as they normally are. No special video/light show for Valpo starting lineups, etc.
But that's for another game report. For now, there is no home court advantage. There's just two teams pitted against each other. Each won a home game to get here, of course, but now it's a level playing field, and it's win or go home. Survive and advance, or lose and hibernate. Detroit, being the closer school, has a bit off an advantage in fan support, but otherwise, the decision for who advances is left entirely up to the players. And I can't get enough of that purity.
We have two first teamers guarding each other tonight: Kendrick Perry of YSU and Ray McCallum, Jr. of Detroit. The Titans are generally considered to be the most talented team in the conference. The Penguins have been the most explosive team in the conference at times, with 4 of 5 starters able to explode from behind the arc in any given game.
Midway through the first half, it appears the Titans came better prepared (but then they are the 3 seed). Youngstown State (6 seed) looks out of sorts. It's always hard for me to tell this just by looking at a player, until I see the other team pass them by in the paint like they are just standing there. I'm seeing a lot of that tonight as Detroit has jumped out to a 29-12 lead. This could be a massacre. YSU has not yet caught fire from behind the arc. Detroit, on the other hand has had easy shots all over the court and has made most of them. They've had their way with the Penguins. More evidence that YSU isn't all here yet: Detroit has picked their pocket in the backcourt numerous times for easy steals and points. Detroit's Donovan Foster has been fiercely guarding the man receiving the inbounds pass, practically living in his shorts.
YSU has picked up their game a bit since then, but now they are just playing even with them, and that's not going to work. The only interesting thing that happened was that Detroit missed 3 dunks to end the half... or so we thought until the referees called a foul on McCallum with .5 seconds to go. Both teams had to be called back from the locker room to reassemble on the line as DuShawn Brooks drained both FTs to cut the lead to 50-34. Detroit inbounded the ball, stood there, then trudged back to the locker room. Restus Interruptus?
During halftime, I roamed around the familiar surroundings during half time and said hello to some Milwaukee fans that are friends of mine. I worked my way back around to say hello to a former VHS grad who was a starter on Virgil Sweet's Valpo High Vikings and made it to the IHSAA Elite Eight during Coach Sweet's final year as head coach (I was a sophomore there at the time). He and I used to sit together at the Mid-Continent conference tourney in Tulsa and watch basketball and reminisce about our high school days.
No matter how lopsided or sloppy a particular quarterfinal game might have been, this is the kind of thing that made it all worthwhile: the chance to connect with fans of other teams, and frankly just to watch teams I wouldn't have normally gotten to see. By contrast, in the HL, the first round games all are played at the same time at four different venues, then there are two days off, then comes two days of four games. Furthermore, the women's HL regular season isn't even over yet, so my enjoyment is cut in half just by that fact alone.
I was so lost in making connections that the second half almost started without me, and before I could get settled into my seat again, YSU had cut a 16-point lead down to 10 and turned this into a game after all. A flurry of baskets offset by a McCallum 3-point layup and all of a sudden it was 53-43. The Penguins aren't dead yet. The two teams traded baskets for a little while after that. However, YSU is showing more life in this half. They're pushing the ball up the court. Ray McCallum, Jr. got caught enjoying a 3 too much, and Ashen Ward took a full court pass and fed Damian Eargle for a dunk-and-one. They are still trading points, but now they are only 10 behind instead of 20. Each time the Titans score, the coaching staff is urgently imploring them to hurry back because the Penguins are definitely looking for the quick outlet to catch them napping. YSU is now in a zone defense, but the Titans are still hitting most of their 3s, so they are still keeping the Penguins at bay.
After the under 8 media timeout, Detroit finally started to put the hammer down and play defense like they did in the first half. A few 3s (one even from Evan Bruinsma) and some clamp-down defense and the Penguins started to crumble again. With 5:15 to go, the lead was back to 20 at 84-64. The ARC is starting to fill up more as more Milwaukee and Butler fans arrive, and they may all get to see the Titans break 100 the way this one is going.
At one point, Jason Calliste committed a flagrant foul with a 17 point lead which could have energized YSU again, but the Penguin player split the FTs, and Ray McCallum, Jr. stole the inbounds pass while doing a tightrope on the end line, pretty much killing any buzz from that moment. With 1:06 to go and Detroit up 91-76, YSU coach Jerry Slocum emptied his bench. Somehow Ashen Ward and Donovan Foster were assessed offsetting technical fouls as Ward was slumping toward the bench, underscoring some kind of bitterness between these two teams, probably stemming from the frustration felt by YSU. Detroit's bench appears to be short for some reason I hadn't noticed before, but they slacked off a bit and held it at 93-76 for the final score. They will take on Cleveland State tomorrow night in the first of two semifinal games, and I plan to write about that one, too. But now, on to Milwaukee-Butler (the Panthers have already begun their shootaround, and here come the Bulldogs).
In another 30 minutes there will be another neutral court game between two teams I have never been able to see play each other in person. Again, this is what I live for come March.
DETROIT 93, YOUNGSTOWN STATE 76 03/02/2012
YOUNGSTOWN STATE 16-15 (10-8) -- K. Perry 7-11 3-5 18; D. Brooks 6-12 4-4 19; D. Eargle 10-14 5-10 25; B. Allen 1-6 0-0 3; A. Ward 2-5 0-0 5; N. Perry 0-1 0-0 0; J. Amiker 0-0 0-2 0; J. Chojnacki 2-2 0-0 4; D. Cole 1-1 0-1 2; C. Morgan 0-0 0-0 0; M. Podolsky 0-0 0-0 0; D. Reese 0-1 0-0 0; C. Zuiker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-53 12-22 76. DETROIT 20-13 (11-7) -- R. McCallum 7-12 6-6 22; D. Foster 3-6 1-2 7; J. Calliste 3-6 1-2 9; C. Simon 4-6 3-4 14; E. Holman 5-8 1-2 11; D. Anderson 3-6 5-6 11; E. Bruinsma 2-4 1-2 6; L. Lowe 6-7 1-1 13; P. Boutte 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 33-55 19-25 93.
Three-point goals: YSU 6-20 (A. Ward 1-3; B. Allen 1-6; D. Brooks 3-7; K. Perry 1-3; N. Perry 0-1), UDM 8-17 (C. Simon 3-4; J. Calliste 2-4; E. Bruinsma 1-3; R. McCallum 2-5; D. Anderson 0-1); Rebounds: YSU 21 (D. Eargle 7), UDM 28 (E. Holman 10); Assists: YSU 16 (K. Perry 5), UDM 16 (R. McCallum 7); Total Fouls -- YSU 20, UDM 21; Fouled Out: YSU-None; UDM-None.