SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - One the first Tweets from the Hickory Picket Fences account last fall was a picture of my car. "Might be the biggest key to the Picket Fences season," it read.
And this is what the Toyota Camry in question looked like at noon on Sunday:
I'm barely an amateur auto technician, but it seemed like an ignition issue of some kind, the car would turn over, but not really start (possible fuel injection). Once it got going, it was fine. It had been doing that on and off for a month or so, but I was always able to finagle it to get it into gear and on its way.
Wasn't happening, though, on this day, no matter what I tried. I was two hours to tip-off in the MAAC semifinals and half that time to Springfield from my house.
I called my sister to see if she was using her vehicle for the day, and I might be in luck, she was headed to the New Haven St. Patrick's Day parade downtown. But she couldn't get to my house until about 2 p.m., meaning - at the very least - my streak of making tip-off for every game this season would be gone, and I'd probably miss the entire first semifinal.
Then there was the matter, of course, of what to do about the car going forward. It was hard to be angry with it, an aging veteran, it had performed spectacularly this season, playing minutes it never though it would have to at this stage of its career and doing so without complaint.
On a whim, I tried to start the car again half-an-hour later. And it went into gear. Huh.
I drove to the mechanic down the street, pulled in and shut the car off. It started again three times.
I sat, looked at a couple of birds on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and contemplated. Do I risk going all the way to Springfield with this car?
Well, it's March and I've come this far, right? If I'm going to go out, might as well do it in a blaze of glory.
As of Monday afternoon, the car is still running. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, when my basketball season has been run, I'll bring it in to diagnose the problem. But at this time of year, there's no stopping to diagnose anything, most times you are what you are.
What you are in the college basketball world, however, can be completely different than you were in November or even January. Last season, immensely talented Iona rolled into the MAAC semifinals as heavy favorites to win the conference title before they ran into a wall in Fairfield and then - given a reprieve by the NCAA Tournament Committee - collapsed against BYU in a Dayton play-in game.
This season, not quite as proficient, but still perhaps with the most individual talent in the MAAC, the Gaels hit a lot of walls, some of them you might have read about here
. But, mysteriously, when push has come to shove at the end of the campaign (in a 180-degree turn from last season), those walls have seemed smaller.
Sunday afternoon, Iona advanced to the MAAC title game thanks to a monster performance from a kid who didn't start the season on its roster. Well, it's hard to call a 22-year-old a kid, but if you think someone like me has been travelling around a lot, check out this story on David Laury
Top-seeded Niagara, still a very young team, went on a big run and led 24-19 behind Antoine Mason and Marvin Jordan, who had lost his starting job earlier in the season to Tahjere McCall, but with McCall injured the day before, Jordan stepped up from behind the arc, even taking the time to get a small taunt in to Momo Jones, who still looked less than 100 percent, but still a better scorer than most.
As for Mason, a day after I praised his famous father for his restraint, he vehemently showed his disapproval with a blocking call on Antoine late in the first half (I did probably agree with Anthony from my seat, which was much improved thanks to the MAAC inviting the upper bowl to the lower bowl with the semifinal games on television; don't have to ask me twice).
gave Niagara a four-point lead to open the second half, but slowly Iona - led by Laury - was coming, and the Purple Eagles didn't have an answer for him. The dagger came when diminutive point guard Tavon Sledge took his only #superhoop
of the contest and drilled it to put the Gaels up 70-61 with 6:30 left.
Sophomore Juan'ya Green was in the running for MAAC Player of the Year (which went to Jones), but never showed his best in Springfield, unable to find the range from the outside. Green finished with 11 points and four steals, but was just 5-for-17 from the field and 0-for-7 behind the arc.
Still, Green's driving layup got the top seed within three with three minutes left, but - for the second consecutive day - Iona looked like masters at closing out a game, nearly impeccable at the free throw line (18-for-22). How does a team that gains a reputation for blowing leads and losing close games suddenly become a late-game lock?
Well, other than the sweatsuits the coaching staff wore again, of course.
Luck? Regression back to the mean? Confidence? If you knew the secret, you could make millions by speaking to a bunch of college basketball teams this month.
While it marked a tough end for Niagara (who will get an automatic berth to the NIT), Iona is one game away from returning to the NCAA Tournament and will enter Monday night's final as the favorite. Uh oh, favorite?
Of course, someone like Laury doesn't know much about Iona's past, nor does he much care. He finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in this game, and after he surely thought his chance at big-time college basketball was long gone, he will be on national television with a chance to lead his team to the Big Dance.
How much fun will that be for him?
How much fun will it be for me to watch? As long as my MVP can make it there to transport me.