BAYAMON, Puerto Rico - The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a place that is incredibly hard to explain. This island is home to almost 4 million people, has a higher population density than India, has over 500 years of "Euro-American" history, and humans have inhabited it and its surrounding islands for approximately 4 millennia. It is home to rain forests, bio-luminescent bays, 16th and 17th century forts and buildings, pristine beaches, and an extremely diverse culture. If there is any "license plate" motto that could appropriately describe this place, "Isla del Encanto" (Island of Enchantment) is it.
Game #9-077: Akron vs. North Carolina-Asheville BulldogsNovember 16, 2012 1:00 pm
San Juan, PR
The culture of Puerto Rico is truly an example of the American "melting pot" our elementary school social studies teachers used to describe the United States. While the continental United States has established more of a "chunky stew" of a culture, Puerto Rico seems to be the mix of many different cultures, races, ethnicities, languages, music, dance, foods, and drinks. The start of this mélange can be traced back to the European discovery of the island in 1493 by none other than Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. I'll save describing and discussing the extreme negative effects of European discovery and colonization on places like Puerto Rico and instead focus on the current experience.
You truly cannot escape 400 years of Spanish rule and influence in Puerto Rico. The food, music, and dance all show the Spanish parts of their lineage, but the most noticeable for a suburban Ohioan like me was the language. Puerto Rico officially has two official languages Spanish and English, but Spanish is definitely the preferred language of Puerto Ricans. This is most easily seen in road signs. Everything is in Spanish. My wife can read Spanish, but as I learned on this trip only at about a 5th grade level. Going into this trip, our honeymoon, I was pretty comfortable that I had at least a live English to Spanish dictionary traveling with me. Her comprehension was definitely helpful in restaurants, but not as useful at 65 mph. The experience of trying to read signs at speed, all while navigating big city toll roads and expressways gave us a few of our first marital trials and tribulations. I'm proud to inform you that our marriage is still strongly intact.
I'd like to take a moment from this visitor's guide write up of Puerto Rico to explain a little bit about my new wife and use it as a transition to describing the purpose of this essay, and the reason you are reading this, a mid-major college basketball game. For the purposes of my writings on college basketball, I'll call my significant other "non-sports wife." In previous phases of her life, she promised herself and many of her friends that she never wanted to date a boy that wore a baseball cap. In previous phases of my life, I wore baseball caps almost exclusively. Of course the experiences and relationships in life change you in certain ways, and in our case we have opened ourselves up for new ideas and interests for our mutual enjoyment. She loves to travel the world, hang out with her tight-knit group of friends, and enjoy the arts. She previously had almost no contact with sports other than the occasional baseball game with a beer, or football tailgate with a beer. The sporting event was not about the game, but rather about the fun with friends.
I, on the other hand, had worked my life to be completely centered around sports. Watching and reading and listening to sports related media was what I did. (And its one of the reasons I found The Mid-Majority) I also have attended almost all (approximately 80%) of the home games the Ohio Bobcats have played since I was a freshman in 2002. I have whittled down my overindulgence of sports to mostly just and overindulgence of college basketball. All of this is important because you have to understand what sort of "upset" it was to attend a game, in Puerto Rico, with my non-sports wife, featuring two teams that we have little connection with... on our honeymoon.
The aforementioned game pitted the Akron Zips versus the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs in the second day of play in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off at the Coliseo Rubén Rodríguez in "suburban" Bayamon. Both teams had missed their opportunities for red-line upsets in their losses to Oklahoma State and Tennessee respectively, and were now in the consolation side of the bracket. Akron took eventual tournament champion Oklahoma State to OT, even with shooting only 30% from the field. Both teams have paced their conferences recently with UNC-Asheville winning the Big South Tournament the last two seasons, and Akron playing in the MAC Championship game in each of the last six years. As an Ohio Bobcats and MAC fan, getting a look at the Bobcats' main rival early in the season was a treat.
The game itself was interesting, to me. Close, gritty play throughout most of the first half led to 37-34 Zips lead at the half. Akron shot threes early and was led by the play, energy, and emotion of Junior PG Alex Abreu. Abreu was playing in front of 25 or so family and friends as Bayamon is his hometown. A school can have a "home team" advantage 1,800 miles from their campus when every Puerto Rican in the building seemed to be pulling for Abreu and the Zips.
As a rival fan, Abreu is one of those players you "like to dislike," and as a local said to another in the seats behind me, "Bayamon isn't known for its kind people." But he's an undersized point guard that earns your respect with his quality play and intensity that makes up for what he lacks in height or length. He's a scrappy defender that finds way to create a steal, but more importantly when he's "on" he's a double threat to either dish, or drain a #superhoop. He also knows how to draw a foul, as he did with Asheville's Jeremy Atkinson technical for an elbow to Abreu's upper chest. Now I'm not saying the technical wasn't deserved, but if it occurred in the NBA, the league would have reviewed it under their new anti-flopping rule. Akron seemed to enjoy some delicious Puerto Rican "home cooking" the rest of the afternoon.
The rest of the game featured stellar performances by Akron's Chauncey Gilliam and UNC-Asheville's Keith Hornsby, who both scored 22 points to lead their teams in scoring, and Akron slowly built a lead that Asheville couldn't counter. However, much more interesting than the game was the "latin" experience of attending on in a pretty foreign locale. It was quite the mix of local flavors and big time college basketball.
Entering though the ticket gates to the concourse, you are in the coliseo but not really inside, as it is open air (a perk of being located in the tropics). The staff was exceptionally kind in directing you to, and even opening for you, the door to the enclosed part of the arena. The portal leads down to the floor level and the tickets we purchased were for general admission on that level. The capacity for Rubén Rodríguez is listed at 12,000 but probably 8,000 were blocked by a black curtain. My wife and I made our way to a completely empty row about 5 behind the Akron bench. Not too bad for an $18 ticket (which included the earlier game between Oklahoma State and Tennessee).
The crowd was sparse but spirited, and definitely favored Akron and it's local player. It was one of those games where, when the crowd is quiet, you can hear almost that happens and is said on the court. Sitting on the Akron end, I only noticed a handful of Asheville faithful while the Zips added another 25 or so fans in addition to the Abreu contingent. Like most neutral site tournaments, the promotions staff tried to find equal representation for each team in each game, but the only Asheville fan they seemed to find was a guy working for ESPN and wearing UNC-Chapel Hill gym shorts. The arena host was great and despite not speaking the most fluent English, performed well in pulling the double duty of announcing everything in both languages. The games were the same ones we all normally see, shooting contests & kids in oversized uniforms, but the highlight was contestant "Carl from Akron" becoming "Carrrrrrrrrrlos!" pronounced with an impressive and extended roll of the "r."
"Non-sports wife" and I had been shopping in Old San Juan all morning and didn't have a chance to eat lunch. As it was almost 3 p.m., our blood sugar levels declining, and "Non-sports wife" not very interested in the game, she decided to find the concession stand. A few possessions later she returned with an assortment local fried fare and two local beverages, frozen Pina Coladas con Rum. Needless to say, I made a return trip myself in the second half. Later in the second half there was even a vendor walking around with tray with "virgin" Coladas, but an Akron student was able to persuade him to return with a shot of rum. This situation sums up the great hospitality we experienced our entire week.
After the game ended, we all shuffled out of the arena as normal, but unlike games in Ohio, we were greeted by beautiful sunshine on a tropical 85 degree afternoon. Just like the rest of our week, we'll never forget the experiences we had, the flavors we tasted, the kind hospitality we received, on the Isla del Encanto.
AKRON 82, NORTH CAROLINA-ASHEVILLE 63
AKRON 2-2 (0-0) -- A. Abreu 3-10 5-6 12; B. Walsh 3-5 0-0 8; Z. Marshall 2-4 2-2 6; J. Kretzer 2-4 0-0 6; D. Treadwell 3-7 0-0 6; C. Gilliam 7-9 3-3 22; N. Harney 2-3 3-4 8; C. Betancourt 1-2 2-4 4; P. Forsythe 2-4 1-2 5; D. Ibitayo 0-1 0-0 0; R. McAdams 1-2 2-2 5; B. Justice 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 26-53 18-23 82.
NORTH CAROLINA-ASHEVILLE 1-3 (0-0) -- D. Cunningham 1-9 7-10 9; K. Hornsby 9-12 2-2 22; T. Meyer 2-6 0-0 5; J. Atkinson 5-6 0-0 10; W. Weeks 1-3 5-8 7; J. Nwannunu 2-4 2-3 6; S. Hughes 1-2 0-0 2; C. Littlejohn 0-2 2-4 2; M. Neely 0-0 0-0 0; D. Combs 0-0 0-0 0; Z. Davis 0-0 0-0 0; J. Roberts 0-0 0-1 0. Totals 21-44 18-28 63.
Three-point goals: AKR 12-24 (C. Gilliam 5-6; B. Walsh 2-3; A. Abreu 1-5; N. Harney 1-2; B. Justice 0-2; J. Kretzer 2-4; R. McAdams 1-2), UNCA 3-5 (T. Meyer 1-2; K. Hornsby 2-3); Rebounds: AKR 28 (Z. Marshall 8), UNCA 24 (J. Nwannunu 5); Assists: AKR 17 (A. Abreu 9), UNCA 8 (T. Meyer 5); Total Fouls -- AKR 22, UNCA 18; Fouled Out: AKR-N. Harney; UNCA-W. Weeks.