- Albert Camus
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - I was left with a choice for the nightcap on Saturday. Coming from Murray State
, there were only two games I could reasonably hope to reach by their scheduled tip-off, both in Nashville: Butler at Vanderbilt and Eastern Illinois at Tennessee State in the Ohio Valley Conference opener.
Obvious choice, no?
Tennessee State. Duh.
Here's the thing: We love Butler, even as they ascend to heights that may take them beyond us and above the Red Line before too long. But they don't really need my help. In fact, they didn't need anyone's assistance, they trashed Vanderbilt 68-49 just a couple of miles away from where I was.
(Little known fact: I applied to Vanderbilt, and I didn't get in. Screw them.)
We'll see Butler again this season, hopefully we'll be seeing them deep into March. Or even April again? They've certainly looked the part thus far.
However, part of the reason for going to all these games is to see as many teams in as many places as possible. There are so many teams that get lost along the way in our journey that at least deserve their little piece of the Mid-majority story.
Some get lost in the geographic shuffle, but that's not the issue for Tennessee State, which sits on the outskirts of Nashville. It has a tremendous athletic history ... in track, at least. The Tigerbelles not only boasted Wilma Rudolph
, but the 4x100 meter relay team that won gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome were all Tennessee State women under legendary coach Ed Temple
Tennessee State is in a unique spot as the only HBUC school in Division I that is not in the SWAC or the MEAC, instead joining the OVC in 1986. Before last season, the Tigers went 16 years without a winning record, and you may remember them as the team that finally knocked Murray State from the ranks of the unbeaten last February (on the road). They met again in the OVC finals in Nashville (but not on the TSU campus), and the Tigers had a late lead until Murray State pulled it out, 54-52
So the country almost heard of them (they do have two appearances in the NCAA Tournament, last in 1994). But after posting a 20-win season for the first time since 1979-80, you know what coach John Cooper did, of course. He left for the greener pastures at Miami of Ohio
, with assistant Travis Williams taking over.
In reading up on the OVC final from last year, I was struck by one sentence: "Most of the fans at Municipal Auditorium dressed in Racers' blue and yellow."
In Nashville. Ouch.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into the Gentry Center and see there was a decent crowd for the women's game which was the first of the doubleheader. Built in 1980, it technically seats 10,500 people, although the space seems mostly to have it used as a multi-purpose facility and for indoor track than basketball. There are bizarre sightlines and tiny video boards that can barely be seen from the midcourt seating.
And, unfortunately, the crowd did not grow significantly from the time the women's game ended to tip-off of the men's contest. The PA announcer tried his best to engage the crowd, and because the students are on break, the band's music had to come from recordings.
"As is TSU tradition, we ask you to stand until the first basket is scored. So let's get up, up, up!"
A few people stood. I joined them, trying to be polite.
"C'mon, people, let's get up, up, up!"
A couple of more reluctantly got to their feet.
Luckily, it took only 54 seconds for the Tigers to jump on top. Although they lost Robert Covington to graduation, TSU has some talent returning, and looked to be clearly better than their guests. Back-to-back superhoops by Jordan Cyphers put the Tigers up 24-10 midway through the first half and they led comfortably 32-19 at the break.
While I felt some sympathy for Tennessee State off the court, EIU could use some as well. Jay Spoonhour, who went with the casual coaching attire for this one, was hired in March, soon after the death of his father, Charlie. He's got a big rebuilding job ahead of him, the Panthers came in at 3-10 with two wins over non-Division I teams and a victory over Houston Baptist. They dressed only nine players and didn't even have a full complement of coaches, one being assistant Dan Matic, who has an interesting story.
As the game progressed and TSU seemed firmly in control, there were a couple of other logistical problems at Gentry: the scoreboard buzzer likes to stick on substitutions and the PA system had feedback a few times when the music was started or stopped. Little things, but just signs of a facility that is not exactly modern.
Patrick Miller, one of the amazingly prevalent number of players on both rosters from Chicago (three for each squad), was the offensive star, finishing with 28 points, going 7-for-8 from the field (3-of-3 on #superhoops) and a perfect 11-for-11 from the free throw line. The Panthers also had no answer for senior Kellen Thornton in the paint, as Thornton went for 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Miller's layup gave TSU a 54-38 lead with six minutes left, but miraculously, the Panthers made a run, shaking Spoonhour from his despair. Freshman Alex Austin (from guess where?) had nine points in just four minutes and suddenly it was 59-54 with 1:05 left. Fortunately for the Tigers, Miller was 6-of-6 down the stretch from the line and TSU opened conference play with a victory to get back to .500 overall (7-7) on the season.
On a night where down the street 12,000 people watched Vanderbilt and Butler at Memorial Gym, the crowd at the Gentry Center was announced at 1,186.
I was proud to be one of the 1,186. In a city where Vandy, Belmont, and even Lipscomb get more publicity, Tennessee State trudges on, hoping for that one gleam of sunlight at the end of an OVC Conference title that they were agonizingly close to grasping nine months ago.Just as we trudge on, beneath the radar of most media outlets and most observers of big-time college basketball, trying to find our niche. But the fellowship with teams like Tennessee State and Eastern Illinois will always remain.