Game #9-257: Samford Bulldogs at Tennessee-Martin SkyhawksDecember 19, 2012 8:00 pm
Calling the University of Tennessee at Martin "off the beaten path" is being a bit generous. The next D-I university "within a two-hour drive in any direction"
of Martin is Murray State, still over an hour away. Going to Martin means going purposefully, as Pierce Greenberg did in #TMM8
, and as my girlfriend (who still thinks planking is cool) and I did on a chilly Wednesday before Christmas.
With our vacation entering its second leg and a trip from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Nashville on the horizon, I decided to forego the more obvious hoops stopovers of Belmont and even Arkansas State in favor of this somewhat secluded hamlet in northwestern Tennessee. I can't say what draws a person to the far reaches of D-I, but it's within these places a fan often finds the most memorable experiences
Our trip began innocuously enough, with steps down a darkened sidewalk to an arena entrance that looked neither official nor active. Inside the dimly lit hallway sat a woman at an information desk of sorts. I asked her where I could get tickets for the basketball game, which was set to tip in a little less than forty minutes.
"I've got them here. Will call?"
"Uh...no. Two please."
She seemed visibly surprised by my request, and why not? We look like Yankees and sound like Yankees, two young adults purchasing walkup tickets for a midweek game featuring the 314th ranked KenPom team hosting the 316th. The woman shuffled around on the desk, and twenty dollars later we held these beauts in our hand.
Nothing hammers home the rarity of a walkup purchase quite like tickets emblazoned with "GOOD AT ANY ONE HOME GAME." Sufficiently charmed, we entered the Elam Center's Skyhawk Arena, a rather temporary looking setup that seems to be constructed in the rec center's gymnasium and torn down after every home game. The most noticeable permanent fixture is a bright, Orange Crush-themed scoreboard hanging from the ceiling.
We walked the track on the upper level and watched the two teams warm up, each of us commenting on how this was unlike any school we had visited previously. Even in its emptiness, the arena held a quirky charm. After a quick trip to the building's lone operational concession stand, we sat down on the bleachers at center court, nachos and soda in hand, and watched the chairbacks on the opposite side of the floor pepper in. Our bleachered side remained conspicuously empty.
Just as we were chuckling that we didn't get the memo about which side of the court to sit on, a woman approached and kindly asked if we were rooting for Samford. We told her no, we were here as neutral fans. She smiled and asked if we'd like to sit in "the best seats in the house", and motioned over to the omnipresent pair of recliners that can be found in nearly every mid-major arena. Jaclyn accepted the honor with excitement, and we moved to occupy our new seating area. Unlike many "best seats in the house", these recliners were even on risers, elevating the occupant to a perch above the other people sitting on the baseline. It was a nice touch, and one that I appreciated. Within moments the good people in marketing had also treated us to free concessions, free swag (including two TMM Holiday Shoppe approved foam fingers), and an uncommon kindness that made us feel right at home.
A few minutes later the woman returned and began to ask us our names. We shared them, and I prodded Jaclyn to explain where we were from. After telling her that we had come all the way from Ohio, she asked the obvious:
"Well what are you doing in Martin?"
I excitedly explained the Mid-Majority, and gave my standard spiel about how I spent almost all of my free time traveling from school to school to partake in the exciting under-the-radar basketball that gets played across the country on a nightly basis. She furiously scribbled a few notes and instructed us to smile and wave at the next timeout, because we were going to be announced over the PA. Sure enough, at the next break we were pointed out to the assembled crowd, and the public address announcer gave a nice plug for this site. We sheepishly grinned and waved. An hour prior we had walked in as the goofy tourists looking for signs of life and now we were guests of honor. I tweeted out my excitement
as the teams ascended the stairs to the locker room at half.
Endearing uniqueness - like stairs to the locker room, recliners on risers, and having the women's head coach do color commentary for the men's games (and vice versa) - is what takes these occasional blurs of basketball experience and crystallizes them into wonderful memories. I don't remember too much about this particular game itself, but I don't feel I've lost anything. Instead I have the memory of coming upon a place untouched by arrogance, jersey-popping, image obsession, and all the other things that can taint "big-time" basketball.
Near the end of the break, a man came over and introduced himself as Joe, the sports information director. He thanked me for tweeting about the Skyhawks, and we chatted about UTM, sports information, and the OVC.
"Coming back from Hot Springs I would've thought you'd be in Jonesboro tonight."
Murray State's shadow looms large in these parts, even with the Racers across the Mississippi and 150 minutes away at Arkansas State. I grinned and shook my head.
"No way. I wanted be here
Joe looked me square in the eye and smiled.
"Well thanks for coming to Martin."
As the game wound down and the Skyhawks slipped further and further behind, not a single person left the arena. Everyone's presence was important and appreciated; we were in this together. Only when the final horn sounded did people gather their coats and climb the stairs to the exit. Not a second before.
In an episode of HBO's hit series "Girls," Lena Dunham's main character returns from New York City to her childhood home in Michigan, and is struck by the contrast between the two locations.
"Why doesn't everyone just move here and start the revolution? It's like we're all slaves to this place that doesn't even really want us."
The people at UT Martin were genuinely happy to have us there. I was not a slave to the cult of Big State School X. As we left, we walked past the scorer's table and thanked everyone for having us. They stopped what they were doing, turned around, and thanked us back.
SAMFORD 75, at TENNESSEE-MARTIN 62
SAMFORD 3-10 (1-0) -- R. Kelly 6-13 1-2 16; W. Cook 7-9 3-5 18; C. Geffrard Jr. 4-8 2-5 11; C. Miller 2-4 4-4 10; T. Williams 6-11 4-5 16; B. Hayman 1-1 0-0 2; R. Wilson 0-0 2-2 2; H. Bailey 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-46 16-23 75.
TENNESSEE-MARTIN 3-9 (0-0) -- M. Liabo 7-18 4-4 23; J. Washington 3-7 1-2 7; J. Childs 4-9 1-2 9; B. Jones 1-5 2-3 5; M. Taylor 3-6 5-6 11; D. Richardson 0-1 0-0 0; D. Oldham 2-4 0-0 5; B. McLaughlin 1-1 0-0 2; T. Dowdell 0-0 0-0 0; O. Minor 0-0 0-0 0; P. Mopo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-51 13-17 62.
Three-point goals: SAMF 7-17 (W. Cook 1-3; R. Kelly 3-6; C. Miller 2-4; C. Geffrard Jr. 1-4), UTM 7-18 (M. Liabo 5-12; B. Jones 1-3; D. Oldham 1-3); Rebounds: SAMF 27 (W. Cook 7), UTM 27 (M. Taylor 8); Assists: SAMF 17 (R. Kelly 6), UTM 12 (M. Liabo 4); Total Fouls -- SAMF 18, UTM 22; Fouled Out: SAMF-None; UTM-None.
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