First, a declarative: I hate the Wisconsin Badgers. I know our site's proprietor asks for objectivity and that we don't spend time bashing or boasting about any team, so I won't...but I'll let you keep that in mind while I recap their matchup today. I attended another Big 10 school to the Badger State's west, another with a rodent mascot and whose decidedly inferior play hasn't made it any easier to bear Wisconsin's prowess on the court. And, as I half-seriously texted a friend today, there's a better chance of me getting rabies from a badger than cheering for one anytime soon. Strong sentiments, but ones that I don't anticipate changing.
With that mindset intact, I had great anticipation for Thursday when I found out the matchups at the site I'd obtained tickets for; I had the chance to root against an archrival and cheer for another school, one below the Red Line, and one whose location in Missoula, Montana, brought images of A River Runs Through It, fly-fishing, and picturesque mountain streams nestled amongst alpine splendor. The Grizzlies, coached by a bear of a man in Wayne Tinkle, seemed a likely candidate to pull the 13 over 4 upset; peaking at the right time, Montana had downed Weber State and its wunderkind Damon Lilliard twice in the past fortnight to reach the Dance. Balanced and boasting a dynamic point guard in Will Cherry to offset Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, I was looking forward to the opportunity to see Bo Ryan and Company go down.
Taking a day off from work (who knew that teachers could play hooky as well?), I made the two hour meander east and after a brief search for affordable parking, found my way into University Arena, known throughout the world of college sports as "The Pit." The nickname befits the place entirely. When constructed, the roof was first erected, after which the floor was dug out. Bob King Court, named after a long-time University of New Mexico coach, is submerged thirty-seven feet below the earth. Sitting in it, one feels almost entombed beneath the surface of the earth, and with good reason. And while a neutral court would make the games today less rowdy, I still expected the place to be rocking if an upset lingered on the horizon.
This of course is the home of the Lobos, a place where over the past three years I've watched several contests involving squads that reside above the line battle New Mexico unsuccessfully - watching Jimmer Fredette's squad get court-stormed last season was a wonderful treat. Albuquerque, New Mexico is probably more famous for that Weird Al song about it than anything else. Unless you're a big fan of hot airs balloons or the cable shows Breaking Bad and In Plain Sight, you probably don't know much about Duke City. (A particularly cheesy show, In Plain Sight is about the Witness Protection Program, which ostensibly uses Albuquerque as a relocation point because no one knows anything about it. A line my roommate and I found hilarious from an episode was "Albuquerque? Does anyone even live there?" This is the sentiment I expect from outsiders.) Three years ago, I was no different - although when I had people ask me if I spoke Spanish and why I was moving to another country, I could answer those questions and also bemoan the state of geographical ignorance in the U.S. Apologies for the digression, we'll continue.
The fifth-largest state in the Union (unless you're from here I bet you had no idea!), New Mexico boasts incredible diversity, combining over four hundred years of Spanish presence with a proud Native American heritage amongst its nineteen autonomous pueblos and three other reservations. Officially known as the "Land of Enchantment" for its rugged red rock and unparalleled sunsets, many transplants wryly refer to it as the "Land of Entrapment" - a place one can't get out of. There's a sardonic touch to the sentiment - especially from the erstwhile transients whose relocation has startlingly become permanent - but there's also a steak of loyalty in defending a state that sometimes feels like no one else knows exists. I've been here three years, and while my location might change after June, I have a feeling I'll be back.
With personal departure a possibility and moreover another chance to see more action at the Pit, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the games so tantalizingly close. I walked in and found my seat just as the pregame clock struck all zeros, the arena still drowsy and half-filled at noon on a Thursday. Both Badger and Grizzly fans filled their sections and vociferously espoused optimism and the pep bands from each university readily served to rouse spirits, but most other folks appeared bleary-eyed and/or more concerned about the Lobos' game with Long Beach State out in Portland that afternoon.
The early game action bode well for Montana - Wisconsin, omni-patient on offense, made a couple poor decisions leading to Cherry steals, and the Grizzlies' resident lumberjack, Derek Selvig - sporting a stalwart beard - drained a 3 to give them a 5-2 lead. Unfortunately, those early few moments of promise proved the Grizzlies' last lead of the day; Ryan Evans and his high-top fade sank three consecutive jumpers, then banged home a three. The precise drive and distribute gameplan of Wisconsin made the Grizzlies appear overmatched. (A great pic of Evans' haircut and Selvig's beardage can be found here.)
Methodically and hypnotically the Badgers slowly eroded away Montana's spirits. Cherry's second foul with 5:41 left in the half took away the only player Montana had that could create his own shot, and the lack of post presence forced the Grizzlies into poorer shot selection. When they penetrated, Wisconsin's superior bulk and brute strength down low resulted in several blocks and altered shot attempts.
While the lead felt larger than eight with less than a minute to go before half, I hoped Montana could end the half on an uptick. Unfortunately, they already looked haggard; failing to help on defense, they gave Evans a wide open layup just before half and went into halftime down 39-29. Against Wisconsin's stymieing defense, it felt like 20 points.
The second half proved a continuation, rather than contrast, to the first. Glimmers of optimism - a heady Selvig play, back-to-back threes from Mathias Ward and Cherry to cut the lead to ten - were offset by machine-like precision from the Badgers, effectively using clock, working the ball around, and finding open shooters to stifle any prolonged runs. As the under-eight TV timeout commenced, Montana trailed by 16.
That timeout would be the last time Montana's band could play and salute its horde of fans who made the trip from Missoula, to valiantly attempt to coax a miracle from their players. But Wisconsin's cheer team decided it was much more important to create human pyramids and lead cheers, even out of turn. (Another reason to disdain those Badgers, dadgummit.) The disheartenment was complete. For the the Grizzlies, robust until this day, it would end in - well, you already know.
With 1:28 left, Hinkle called off the dogs. Selvig and Cherry, resolute but resigned, came to the bench to hugs and realization that another season was over. Selvig, a senior, had played his final moments of basketball. Perhaps next year, the Big Sky could break through again, but not today. I looked on to the next game, where Harvard would test its mettle in tournament action for the first time since 1946.
WISCONSIN 73, MONTANA 49 03/15/2012
MONTANA 25-7 (15-1) -- A. Steward 6-10 6-7 18; K. Jamar 3-8 0-0 6; W. Cherry 3-14 2-4 9; D. Selvig 3-7 0-0 7; M. Ward 1-5 2-2 5; S. Stockton 1-1 0-0 2; K. Henderson 1-1 0-0 2; M. Weisner 0-0 0-0 0; E. Hutchison 0-0 0-0 0; K. DeShields 0-1 0-0 0; J. Gregory 0-0 0-0 0; J. Wood 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 18-47 10-15 49. WISCONSIN 25-9 (12-6) -- J. Gasser 3-6 4-4 12; J. Taylor 6-10 2-2 17; R. Evans 6-8 5-6 18; R. Wilson 2-5 5-5 10; J. Berggren 2-9 1-2 5; M. Bruesewitz 3-5 0-0 8; B. Brust 1-3 0-0 3; D. Dukan 0-0 0-0 0; T. Jackson 0-1 0-0 0; F. Kaminsky 0-0 0-0 0; E. Anderson 0-1 0-0 0; D. Fahey 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-48 17-19 73.
Three-point goals: UMT 3-9 (D. Selvig 1-2; M. Ward 1-1; W. Cherry 1-3; K. Jamar 0-1; A. Steward 0-1; K. DeShields 0-1), WISC 10-19 (R. Evans 1-1; J. Taylor 3-5; R. Wilson 1-3; J. Berggren 0-1; M. Bruesewitz 2-3; E. Anderson 0-1; B. Brust 1-2; J. Gasser 2-3); Rebounds: UMT 19 (D. Selvig 4), WISC 32 (R. Evans 8); Assists: UMT 8 (D. Selvig 4), WISC 15 (J. Taylor 6); Total Fouls -- UMT 16, WISC 15; Fouled Out: UMT-None; WISC-None.