Game #9-250: Florida International Golden Panthers at Western Kentucky HilltoppersDecember 27, 2012 8:00 pm
E.A. Diddle Arena
During the Holidays, there are not many games to go to. Out of all 52 weeks in the calendar year, the week from December 22 through December 28 is the emptiest stretch of the sports calendar for me. A big reason for this personally is because I am traveling with family, and that reduces chances to see sports. And I am far from the only person in this situation. Most families around the countries are traveling, and that includes the players and coaches of Our Game. I know of some non-Division I schools with more extensive breaks, such as at the NAIA school my dad teaches at where the basketball team does not play any games from the time finals start until about when classes start back up for the next semester. The only Division I basketball games between December 24 and December 26 that I know of are the Diamond Head Classic games out in Hawaii. There are also generally very few games on either December 23 or December 27. Because of travel and a lack of games, when December 27 came around I had not seen any basketball game in six days, with the last game I attended being December 21 at a high school multi-team event. It had been eight days since my last college game, which was the men's/women's doubleheader at South Carolina
on December 19. So needless to say I was hungry for basketball.
But while making travel plans are always challenging, they are even more challenging when coordinating around others. I hoped to go to a game on the way to Illinois, but the only game available on December 22 was a Citadel game at Georgia Tech which my dad rejected due to Georgia Tech's downtown Atlanta location. Southern Illinois was not at home this week at all, having played in a tournament in Utah the weekend before. My dad was fine with the Dr. Pepper Classic in Chattanooga on the 28th and 29th, as Chattanooga is about exactly halfway between southern Illinois and central South Carolina and yet we had never gotten to a sporting event there. My dad had wanted to see a high school tournament in Carbondale where his old high school would be playing in the arena of his old college. But Carbondale is 20 miles west of Marion, which would not be progress towards Chattanooga. With my dad's old school Marion not playing until 6 PM that would complicate getting out of town and to Chattanooga just over five hours away.
It turned out that the tournament would not be feasible at all with the traveling teams not able to begin travel until the 27th. As I wrote my challenge essay
on Christmas night, there was a blizzard warning that as I mentioned excited my 11-year old cousin Jackson. The snow was expected to come in at about 10 PM, possibly as early as 6 PM on the 25th. But as I was writing the essay late at night from the hotel, I was worried about Jackson getting to see the blizzard he wanted to see. Looking out the hotel window just after midnight, all I saw was a few flakes mixed in with a driving sleet/rain mix. I considered taking out the ending of my essay, fearing that the hope for a blizzard would just end with not much happening. But as I went to bed after posting my essay, magic happened as I looked outside the window and saw snow! It was a lot of snow at once, piling up in the parking lot. When I woke up at 10 AM, the blizzard was just starting to finish, leaving a foot of snow. While Jackson got the blizzard he wanted, the intersection of Interstates 24 and 57 were left in a mess. My aunt who lives in Nashville took six hours to get home that day (twice as long as it usually takes from southern Illinois to Nashville). This also meant that the teams playing in the tournament would not be able to travel on the 26th, and with games starting in the morning on the 27th the schedule had to be pushed back a day. So the high school tournament in Carbondale was out of the question, which pleased me since I wanted another game to write about on here even if the high school MTE would have provided more games in terms of quantity. The only challenge was now convincing my dad that the best route from Marion to Chattanooga would be through Bowling Green, Kentucky. My dad despite growing up three hours away had never been to Bowling Green before, and thought it was an out of the way place inaccessible to other cities. But once I showed him that Bowling Green was just an hour north of Nashville on Interstate 65, he became okay with the idea to see college basketball on the 27th. The blizzard would work out just fine and not be a problem at all. To celebrate it, here is a snowman my younger cousins made outside my grandpa's house, complete with a Southern Illinois hat.
I have only been to a sporting event once before in Kentucky, which was a basketball game at Murray State seven years ago. What excited me the most about this game was to see basketball in a place that cares about basketball. That is definitely not true in South Carolina, a state focused on football and baseball. Even basketball-centric North Carolina is very unfriendly to Our Game, being too much focused on the four ACC schools in the middle of the state. Kentucky does of course have two elite powerhouses above the Red Line that get a lot of attention (and who would be playing each other two days from this game), but away from the center of the state Kentucky cares very much about its five mid-majors. Western Kentucky does have FBS football, but unlike its Sun Belt brethren WKU is a basketball school first. The Hilltoppers have a rich history that includes a national finals appearance in 1971 and making the Sweet 16 as recently as 2008. WKU averages about 4,000 fans a game and can bring in more for big games. The only comparable South Carolina mid-major is College of Charleston.
I also liked the fact that Western Kentucky was a part of Hoops Nation I had not been to, and I always want to see different places when traveling. It is funny to think that with all of the SoCon and Big South schools I visit that the first conference game I would attend during Season 9 would be a Sun Belt game. Western Kentucky would be taking on Florida International, a Sun Belt school that mostly focuses on football and baseball like many others in the conference. The only times I have seen FIU play in sports before is when the Golden Panthers play at South Carolina in soccer. Like the SEC, the Sun Belt schools generally do not sponsor men's soccer, which means that when FIU of the Sun Belt plays South Carolina of the SEC it counts as a conference game in Conference USA. The only time I had seen the Hilltoppers before was in last year's Charleston Classic
. So this was a game between unfamiliar faces in an unfamiliar face. And that's the way I like it.
The only problem from that is I do not know how best to get around Bowling Green, Kentucky. When we first arrived in Bowling Green, I wanted to get to E.A. Diddle Arena immediately despite the game not starting for another four hours. This was to visit the box office early and secure tickets. But the box office was not open, at least not on the side of the arena closest to the main road and it was too cold to walk around the entire arena. Then it was back towards the Natcher Parkway where we entered town to get a motel. The only problem however is that the Natcher Parkway goes through a run-down side of Bowling Green and has no services. To get a motel and find a place to eat, you have to head out to Interstate 65 on the east side of town which is several miles away from the WKU campus, where we were able to find an outdated Comfort Inn.
Once we got back to E.A. Diddle Arena, it took a few minutes to get to the right parking garage. But after that, everything went well. Our seat for the night was in what would typically be towards the back of the WKU student section, located about five rows behind the pep band. WKU had some in its student section, mostly concentrated towards the front end behind the basket. I liked the concourse area, where you can find a pretty well detailed history of Hilltopper athletics by walking around the arena. Most of the concessions stands aren't too great, but there is a pretty good area on one side of the arena that includes pizza and seafood, which is not too common at mid-major arenas. E.A. Diddle Arena is of a good size with a solid atmosphere, part of the reason, Western Kentucky has been able to prolong its success.
The other thing to pay attention to at Western Kentucky games is Big Red. I mostly know of Big Red because of how often he is featured on SportsCenter commercials. Pretty much all commercials and promos that focus on college mascots feature Big Red, which is an unusual amount of attention towards a mascot underneath the Red Line. Part of why Big Red is so famous is because of his ambiguous nature. Is Big Red supposed to be a hill, or just some big blob? Big Red's outfit has a big gap between the head and the rest of the body, and it looks almost like the person in the suit enters the outfit in some way through that gap (or at least communicates through it of some type). But what matters about Big Red is that he is as much a part of the WKU identity as any college mascot. Big Red travels across the arena to visit each fan multiple times at a game, much in the same way Cocky does at South Carolina (another mascot close to the school's identity). I was glad to finally see Big Red up close in person.
I figured that the game itself would probably not be that great. Florida International is not a basketball school and usually struggles in the Sun Belt. Western Kentucky of course is a Sun Belt power, and was at home. This seemed like a conference game that would end up lopsided. But that did not turn out to be the case. Western Kentucky is still pretty good, winning the P.I.G. in Dayton last year after starting the season poorly. The Hilltoppers are once again on the rise. But WKU is also not where they were in 2008, when they had future NBA player Courtney Lee to lead the team to success. The success of that team led Darrin Horn to make an ill-fated move
above the Red Line to South Carolina. Horn's successors (and for that matter Horn) have not gotten WKU to the level of their glory days, even if they do well in a football-centric conference. FIU is finally however rising, having its recruiting boosted by the presence of former NBA star Isaiah Thomas as its coach. Thomas was fired after last season, which means that this FIU team can benefit from his presence while not having the problems associated with Thomas' tumultuous post-playing career.
And so despite a hot start, the Hilltoppers would end up struggling most of the first half. FIU had plenty of good shooters on their team to carry them, and the superhoop would keep the Golden Panthers in the game. WKU shot pretty well too, but Florida International would keep coming back with superhoops to get a run going at the end of the half and tie the game at 33-33. The crowd was decent for a Christmas Break game, but it could not energize the home team enough on defense. The fans at E.A. Diddle Arena would however be rewarded with some pretty good basketball for this time of year. Both FIU and WKU would come out disciplined and would take care of the ball before taking a good shot. Both teams had a pretty good offense with good shooting. The difference however would be the inside game, which would save the Hilltoppers. Big man George Fant (a Bowling Green native) would control the glass and make high percentage shots, both in putting back misses and getting the ball with his back to the basket. FIU could counter the hot Hilltopper shooting, but not Fant. The game would go pretty cleanly for the Hilltoppers, except for one weird play that was initially called an and one superhoop for FIU that was changed to a three with the foul coming after the shot (meaning a one and the bonus free throw rather than an and one). This confusion meant that the initial free throw made by the shooter of the three pointer had to be waved off, and a different FIU player who was fouled would take the bonus (he made the front end and missed the back end, so either way it was a four point possession). But that would be the last stand for FIU, as Western Kentucky went on one last run at the end to finally get separation and win 76-63.
The Hilltoppers had won, but not as easily as I had expected. It would be a good night for basketball in part of Hoops Nation that is good for Our Game. My dad now felt that we had made the right choice in how we planned our day. With four games the next two days in Chattanooga, I would see as much college basketball as I do most weeks. And with few games this week, that is pretty good. I was fortunate to have a feasible game to go to on the 27th. There were barely over ten eligible games this night, about half of which were in the Sun Belt. The SBC has a 20 game conference schedule, forcing a weekend two-game conference swing for most teams before most conferences start. This got me to a basketball game when most did not have a college basketball game in the area. I noticed there were no eligible games in the Northeast, so I would be getting to a college game when Raymond Curren
wouldn't! Maybe the Hopping Cats would still have a slim chance of catching Hickory Picket Fences.
Then later this evening, I saw this recap come in
. Turns out the whole time, Ray was right behind me! You can see my dad's red cap in the bottom left corner of Ray's picture at the top of his recap (I am two seats to the left of my dad).
at WESTERN KENTUCKY 76, FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL 63
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL 4-6 (1-2) -- T. Murphy 6-11 2-2 14; M. Smith 6-13 3-4 20; T. Akomolafe 1-4 2-4 4; J. Frink 6-7 1-2 15; G. Belardo 0-5 0-0 0; J. Ferrales 3-6 0-0 6; M. Porcher Jimenez 1-4 1-2 4; D. Hill 0-0 0-0 0; J. De La Rosa 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-50 9-14 63.
WESTERN KENTUCKY 9-5 (3-0) -- B. Harris 2-4 7-8 13; K. Kaspar 6-10 0-0 17; T. Price 4-14 2-4 12; G. Fant 9-12 6-6 24; S. Drane 3-4 2-3 8; A. Rostov 1-1 0-0 2; O. Akamune 0-1 0-0 0; P. Blade 0-0 0-0 0; T. Akol 0-0 0-0 0; E. Alcantara 0-0 0-0 0; S. Sheldon 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-46 17-21 76.
Three-point goals: FIU 8-21 (G. Belardo 0-1; T. Akomolafe 0-3; J. Ferrales 0-1; J. Frink 2-2; T. Murphy 0-1; M. Porcher Jimenez 1-2; M. Smith 5-11), WKU 9-22 (K. Kaspar 5-8; T. Price 2-10; B. Harris 2-4); Rebounds: FIU 26 (T. Murphy 8), WKU 27 (B. Harris 10); Assists: FIU 10 (G. Belardo 5), WKU 15 (B. Harris 6); Total Fouls -- FIU 20, WKU 14; Fouled Out: FIU-T. Akomolafe; WKU-S. Drane.