BROOKLYN, N.Y. - This fact was either disturbing or enlightening, or maybe a combination of both depending on your perspective, heading into Friday night's final Atlantic-10 quarterfinal between Temple and UMass. The two teams on the floor had combined for 23 conference finals appearances.
The other three teams remaining: Saint Louis, Butler, and VCU? A big fat goose egg.
Just a fact of life in Our Game, and - of course - this was Temple's last contest as a member of the Atlantic-10 as they chase their football dream in some yet to be named conference that will include such regional rivals as Tulane, SMU, and Central Florida. Shouldn't some big-wig that makes decisions on a high level have read the last two paragraphs before pulling the trigger on a decision like that?
We don't think about UMass and Temple as heated rivals, but they once met in four straight A-10 championship games (1993-96, ironically my four years of undergrad study) with John Calipari beating John Chaney in each. No wonder Chaney was so pissed
. By the way, wonder what Chaney thinks of conference realignment? The Owls, by the way, were a fairly outrageous 26-2 in A-10 quarterfinal games all-time until Chaz Williams and UMass knocked them off last season.
Anyway, preaching to the choir here about conference realignment, no?
Let's talk about Chaz Williams and Khalif Wyatt, shall we? Two of the most entertaining players I've seen all season. Just last month, Wyatt outdueled Williams with 24 points as Temple held off UMass in Amherst, 83-82, a game that might have changed both teams' NCAA Tournament resumes had a point gone the other way at some point. Small margins.
Unlike the diminutive Williams, Wyatt is a lanky guard who is more of a pure scorer, able to get to the basket and finish like few I've seen this season. In most of the games in Brooklyn this weekend, there has been a clear crowd favorite, at least in numbers, with the possible exception of La Salle-Butler, but in this game the noise was about evenly split.
The previous week at the MAAC Tournament saw very few neutral fans show up, but there were a decent number, especially on a late Friday night in Brooklyn, including the people sitting in the rows on either side of me. While they enjoyed the VCU show
, the action on the court was clearly secondary to whatever pressing social issues and office romances needed to be deliberated.
The action below us was entertaining to me, Temple got off to a fast start, but streaky Raphiael Putney and Freddie Riley hit back-to-back #superhoops
to put the Munitemen back on top. Neither team had more than a three-point lead for the rest of the first half, until Rhalim Hollis-Jefferson (whose name didn't eben come close to sitting on the scoreboard, let alone the back of his jersey) made big plays on both ends to put Temple up 38-33. However, Williams made two free throws and Trey Davis had a steal and layup to cut the Owls lead to 38-37 at the intermission.
With apologies to Hollis-Jefferson - who finished with 17 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists - and Wyatt - who did score 19, but had a miserable shooting night (4-for-19) - this night belonged to Chaz Williams.
At some point early in the second half, the people in front of me, evidently finished with the gossip, noticed on their I-phones that Williams was a Brooklyn native. And, of course, they noticed how small he was. Williams always puts on a a show, but clearly had a little extra motivation with his season on the line in the second half.
If there was one sequence that summed up the Williams Experience, it was early in the second half when he chucked up an ill-advised #superhoop, got sent tumbling into the press table at courtside, rolled around a few times, jumped to his feet, sprinted back to save a sure layup at the other end by tipping away the outlet pass. And then, of course, he started the break the other way.
The crowd - it is an NBA arena after all - began to react to everything Williams did, the anticipation when we would get the ball palpable. Unfortunately, because he plays so hard, coach Derek Kellogg tries to get him a rest here and there and every time he did it seemed, Temple would respond with a quick run, and Williams would be back at the scorer's table.
"How does he do that at that size?"
"This dude is awesome."
Williams clearly had more fans than when the evening had begun. His Atlantic-10 Tournament legend was growing, even though he did make the All-Tournament team last season in Atlantic City.
With 6:30 left, Temple led by three, but Williams scored four straight points, including his usual get into the lane and somehow find a way to contort his body to put the ball in the basket against the laws of physics. He added a pair of free throws, but in the process of getting to the line, he took a hard foul and got up slowly, clearly favoring one leg (it appeared to be an ankle injury).
But he soldiered on. Temple would dent the UMass lead, but never get over the hump thanks to some clutch shooting. Freddie Riley's #superhoop
with the shot clock running down put the Minutemen up 71-66 with 1:30 to go, and then it was Terrell Vinson who put the final dagger through Temple with a similar #superhoop
with less than 30 seconds left to get the lead back to five.
With a three-point lead and time running out, UMass beat the Temple press long, and Cady Lalanne's #omgdunx
clinched the victory, and let the crowd give Williams (who finished with 28 points, five assists, and four rebounds) and the Minutemen a standing ovation.
Their NCAA Tournament future (and UMass hasn't been there since 1998) was still extremely cloudy, but the Chaz Williams Experience would play for one more day off-Broadway.
And I knew I had a great seat.