The large endzone scoreboard reads 3:33 until game time as I enter Strahan Coliseum for the first time. I'm disoriented by the horseshoe shape of the arena, but simultaneously struck, as the scoreboard clearly states, that I'll be watching "Bobcats" face off against "Bearkats". There's poetry beneath the red line, even where you least expect it.
I dig through my pockets for the ticket I purchased just moments ago, wondering why there was no gate, no ticket scanner, no turnstile. Section K is just above me and I shuffle up the stairs stopping at Row 5. Not because my ticket officially anointed this row, but rather it was the closest row to the court for which I didn't need a stranger to uncross their legs for me to pass. Perhaps it was chance, or maybe the odds were stacked against me all along, but this seat places me one row removed from a group of elderly railbirds, spaced evenly in a calculated fashion with one seat between each of them.
At first, Row 4 and I have an innocuous relationship, but as I slowly settle into my traditional basketball-watching position, my senses heighten for the excitement of tip-off and I'm suddenly overwhelmed by a distinct odor. I've experienced this sensation a time or two before and it is unmistakably the musk of Texas barbecue. At least one of these gentlemen has settled into a barbecue pit today and the overwhelming smell is a mixture of day-old campfire and freshly opened beef jerky.
There's 14:47 on the clock, and Sam Houston State has roared to a 15-5 lead.
Row 4 has lost interest in the game at hand and discussion turns to football. They try desperately to remember the running back's name from 2005. They discuss the merits of hiring an Aggie coach (not Utah State nor New Mexico State, from what I gather). There are discussions on depth charts and seating charts and position battles. This is, unquestionably, a college basketball game in the state of Texas.
There's 8:38 on the clock, and a pair of Reid Koenen free throws has given Texas State a 20-18 lead.
Row 4 is perked up by a shrill cheer from the section of sorority girls across the gym as they realize the home team has taken the lead. Discussion turns to play on the court, but strictly in numbers.
"Number 21 can play"
"Too bad we lose number two next year"
Coaches often remove names from the back of jerseys to re-enforce the concept of team, but in this case it's led to each Texas State player appearing with only the last name "Bobcats". Without names to lean on or a readily available program, Row 4 speaks only in numbers.
The clock hits 0:00 as Sam Houston's Konner Tucker clanks a 35-footer off back rim. Texas State heads to the locker room with a 34-30 lead.
"Close call" emanates from row 4, followed by a long silence. "Well, time to hit the little Bobcats room"
Both teams fight back and forth as the second half begins and the game finds itself in a 39-all stalemate at the first media timeout. Both coaches appear to have placed an emphasis on including the largest men on the floor in the second half and this leads to a slower, more deliberate pace than the first half.
In this case, it's 6-foot-8, 230-pound junior Steven Werner for Sam Houston State, whose 62.1 percent field-goal percentage ranks in the top 20 nationally, against 6-foot-10, 220-pound junior Matt Staff for Texas State, who compensates for his lack of bulk on the offensive end with a deft touch from outside. Row 4 decries these long range efforts from a 6-foot-10 center, but Staff plays to his strengths, nailing three of four superhoop attempts.
Now 6:08 on the clock, and Marcus James follows his own miss with a layup to give Sam Houston State a 55-49 lead.
Row 4 is furious with the officiating, but the complaints carry an undertone of frustration in their own team, as Sam Houston has grabbed 11 of the last 13 rebounds and appear to be outworking the home team.
The clock reads 3:08, as Texas State has cut the lead to a single point and center Matt Staff is called for a hack on yet another Sam Houston rebound.
This time, Row 4's frustration has manifested on the court and Staff lets out a poorly-timed string of expletives towards the head official. He's immediately hit with a technical foul, and it takes a moment to realize the personal plus the technical has left him fouled out of the game. Sam Houston State is the worst free-throw shooting team in the Southland Conference (one of only seven in the country shooting below 60 percent at the line), but all that matters now is that head coach Jason Hooten can choose his shooter, and Konner Tucker (a 73 percent shooter on the year) drains both. It matters little that Staff's counterpart Werner subsequently misses both of his attempts on the personal foul, because Sam Houston grabs yet another offensive rebound and draws a fifth foul on senior Travis Jones. In a single possession, Texas State has lost a precious minute off the clock and two starters have fouled out.
There's 24.5 seconds left on the large endzone scoreboard and Texas State has the ball, trailing once again by a single point. Senior Brooks Ybarra, the most efficient scorer on this Bobcats' team, commits a rare turnover and immediately fouls his defender. This is Ybarra's fifth foul of the game and he joins Staff and Travis Jones as spectators for the finish.
Now 4.6 seconds on the clock, and Sam Houston's Demarcus Gatlin hits one of two free throws to stretch the lead to 63-61. After a timeout, Texas State inbounds to point guard Vonn Jones, who carries the ball diagonally cross-court and deftly uses a pump fake to draw both defenders in the air, but three of his four leading scorers have fouled out of the game, and the career 29 percent three-point shooter is forced to heave his own attempt towards the basket to save the Bobcats' season.
Row 4 stands looking blankly at the Sam Houston celebration at midcourt. The Kats with a K will head east to face Stephen F. Austin (bonus Texas history lesson: Sam Houston was the first president of the Republic of Texas and Stephen F. Austin served as his first secretary of state) and the Cats with a C will face a long offseason preparing to join the WAC.
I sit in my self-assigned seat wondering for a moment if they'll strike up a conversation on propane and propane accessories, but slowly and deliberately each member of Row 4 gathers his belongings and walks silently towards the aisle, carefully waiting for others to uncross their legs and join the exodus.
In the end, it always ends with a loss. For Row 4, that loss was today.
SAM HOUSTON STATE 63, at TEXAS STATE 61 03/03/2012
SAM HOUSTON STATE 13-18 (7-9) -- D. Gatson 3-9 0-0 9; K. Tucker 5-14 4-7 17; D. Gatlin 2-3 5-7 9; M. James 3-9 0-4 6; S. Werner 5-7 4-7 14; M. McKinney 1-2 1-3 4; A. Harwell 0-3 0-0 0; A. Bootle 1-3 2-3 4. Totals 20-50 16-31 63. TEXAS STATE 13-17 (5-11) -- V. Jones 2-11 4-6 9; M. Staff 6-9 3-4 18; R. Koenen 5-12 4-4 16; T. Jones 1-6 0-0 3; B. Ybarra 1-3 0-0 2; W. Davis 2-5 2-2 7; J. Bowman 1-7 0-0 2; G. Ball 1-1 0-0 2; X. Dade 1-1 0-0 2; B. Brown 0-0 0-0 0; N. Hinton 0-0 0-0 0; J. Kirschke 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-55 13-16 61.
Three-point goals: SAMH 7-21 (K. Tucker 3-9; M. James 0-1; A. Harwell 0-2; D. Gatson 3-6; M. McKinney 1-2; D. Gatlin 0-1), TXST 8-25 (B. Ybarra 0-1; J. Bowman 0-3; M. Staff 3-4; T. Jones 1-3; R. Koenen 2-7; V. Jones 1-5; W. Davis 1-2); Rebounds: SAMH 38 (M. James 8), TXST 25 (M. Staff 9); Assists: SAMH 7 (D. Gatson 2), TXST 13 (V. Jones 4); Total Fouls -- SAMH 21, TXST 22; Fouled Out: SAMH-None; TXST-M. Staff.