NEW BRITAIN, Conn. - My original schedule from way back in November had the Central Connecticut-St. Francis Pennsylvania game - a concoction and confluence of directions and names you might only get in the NEC - slated for Thursday night, with the original intent to try to stay local on NEC Thursdays to give myself a bit of a rest heading into the weekend.
But as the season wound down, the eyes of the NEC turned to Smithfield, R.I. Thursday where Bryant hosted Robert Morris in what likely would decide the winner of the regular season, perks of which include a nice banner, home-court throughout the NEC Tournament, and an automatic NIT bid should you falter in said tourney.
I've tried to chronicle the Bryant turnaround story
, and I knew the Chace Athletic Center and its wooden bleachers would likely be rocking more than it ever had in its history (Division I at least). So I did my damnedest to rearrange my schedule, move appointments yup, eschew sleep.
I just couldn't make it work. By the time work/school duties were complete, there was no guarantee I would make it by tip-off and I didn't have the foresight to buy a ticket in advance.
So I buried my sorrows in a meatball grinder from the local place that still has a working Ms. Pac-man game. I don't want to tell you how rusty I was on that machine.
But there was still the back-up plan, no matter how unattractive, not because I don't appreciate it, but because the game meant nothing. Central Connecticut was virtually locked into the No. 7 seed in the NEC Tournament, while St. Francis was long since eliminated, although it hadn't embarrassed itself after losing its first 13 to start the season, winners of five conference games coming in.
There was an added bonus. A teammate of mine on my Over-30 baseball team had a son who was a freshman at the University of Hartford and was taking a introductory journalism class. The assignment was to shadow a journalist, interview them, and discuss.
I explained that I wasn't really a journalist anymore, but he asked, "You go to basketball games and wrote about them, don't you? Isn't that journalism?"
Ah, this 21st century can be so confusing. I figured at the least, I could introduce him to a couple of the real journalists I did know at CCSU, so I agreed, and young Alex met me in the stands for the game.
"Unfortunately, this isn't a really good game, and I don't even have a real good story to go with here. I've seen Central a bunch of times, St. Francis' season will end Saturday, and neither team is great to begin with, these might be two of the smallest teams in Division I."
Alex asked me about the Mid-majority, and I unconsciously paraphrased Arlo Guthrie by proceeding to tell him the story of the 27 eight-by-10 glossy game stories
with the circles and the arrows and paragraphs on the backs of each one. I talked about how I wasn't really in it for the game stories, why Central was Title-R compliant, why Joe Arnone is a legend, why a three-pointer is a #superhoop.
Basically trying to justify clinical insanity as the temperature in Detrick Gym began to rise as it always does, and I was wearing long sleeves because I never got to go home after work.
Alex nodded politely and wrote a couple of things down, but surely his diagnosis of me had long since been made.
It's funny when you're talking that your concentration lapses. I've often seen other fans do that during games and internally mock them, but as the first half closed with Central leading 39-30, all I could remember was: Kyle Vinales hadn't gotten hot yet, Matt Hunter played well, St. Francis has nice uniforms and takes a lot of #superhoops.
While the game might have been meaningless in the standings, the St. Francis coaches were fired up from the opening minute. I'm not a huge fan of the Red Flash because of some apparent shenanigans at the end of last season. I attended what turned out to be Don Friday's last game
as head coach last season, in which I talked about how hard it is to recruit to Loretto, Pa.
Firings happen, but when St. Francis turned around and hired the son of the athletic director, Rob Krimmel, without even conducting outside interviews
, my eyebrows were more than raised.
Now Krimmel played at St. Francis and was an assistant there for a decade (under a couple of regimes), but just the appearance of nepotism is usually enough to make me cynical.
To Krimmel's credit, his team has fought hard at the end of the season, even without their best player - Umar Shannon - who has now been injured for the better part of two consecutive seasons.
Freshman Ben Millaud-Meunier, playing for St. Francis University of Pennsylvania (gratuitous use of characters: bad journalism), got red hot and many of those missed #superhoops
started to connect. Somehow, by the way, Millaud-Meunier was wearing long sleeves throughout this game when the temperature had to be above 80 in the gym. That's how they do it in Montreal, I guess.
When Greg Brown and Dominique Major hit #superhoops, the Red Flash's fifth and sixth in a seven-minute span, St. Francis had climbed all the way back to a tie at 66 with 3:30 left. You figured this was Vinales' time, and sure enough, he hit a jumper while triple-teamed to put the Blue Devils in front 72-70, but impressive sophomore Ollie Jackson got to the basket with 1.5 seconds to go for a layup to tie it. On to overtime.
Neither team has been much for defense this season, and oddly, there were only eight fouls called in the entire second half and both teams went to overtime with four time outs each (three plus one).
"You can go if you want, Alex."
"No, this has turned into a pretty good game."
"It has. Who knew?"
I have no idea where they were previously (infer what you will), but mysteriously, the CCSU student section grew significantly as the overtime progressed. The Blue Devils did not score a field goal, but the Red Flash had only one of their own, so when Malcolm McMillan was fouled attempting a #superhoop
with 11.1 seconds left, he calmly (against my prediction) made all three to tie the game at 65. Whatever Krimmel drew up didn't work, Greg Brown attempted an impossible shot that wasn't close, and we were headed to my first multiple overtime game of the season.
"You sure you want to stay?"
"I can't leave now, can I?"
Central finally went up five midway through the second overtime, St. Francis got the ball back down 84-81 with 1:22 left. There would be no whistles and Central wouldn't touch the ball again until there were four seconds remaining, yet didn't give up a point.
The Red Flash had four attempts, none of them connecting. The last two were #superhoops, Krimmel - again - tried to let the play flow by not calling a time out, but his team wasted a ton of time trailing by three and never did get a good look at the basket to tie the game.
Central gained some revenge for losing to St. Francis in January, the first win of the season for the Red Flash in which Earl Brown grabbed a ridiculous 25 rebounds. He had only eight to go along with 12 points in this one.
The Blue Devils continued the balanced scoring that kept them in the playoff hunt: Vinales had only 19 (to go along with 11 turnovers, how's that for a double-double?), while Central's lone senior - Joe Efese continued his hot play with 16 points. St. Francis shot 38 #superhoops
in all, connecting on 14.
Alex was walking out ahead of me when I stopped quickly in the crowd to grab a picture of the final scoreboard before departing.
"What do you have to do that for?"
"Just one of those things. Kind of proves you were actually at the game, I guess."
He stood for a second. His eyes closed a little. Then he nodded.