It’s time to Break It Down!
Who knows? It’s a couple of days after the previously scheduled Final Four, which was slated for The Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta a couple of nights ago. My wife and I had planned to be there. It may not have lived up to the hype. It could have paled in comparison to last year’s event. But, had it been nearly as exciting and even half as entertaining as last year’s quartet of teams and trio of games, I would almost surely have written about it for today’s post. But, since COVID-19 intervened, and the entire NCAA Tourney was canceled four weeks ago, alas, that option is not available.
So, as the title above confirmed, I am re-posting my recollections and impressions from last year’s festivities. One final coda to acknowledge my affinity for hoops, and to denote how much I missed the staging of the Final Four, and determining the Last Team Standing.
Who Knew? The 2019 rendering of “One Shining Moment,” honoring the Wahoos of UVA will stand another year. One final word to underscore just how unusual the situation is this year. The NCAA began crowning Men’s Division I Tournament Champions in Evanston, IL, in 1939. Since that time, venues across the Continental U.S. from Los Angeles to New York, to Seattle to Charlotte, and numerous points in between have hosted the Tourney. One thing had remained clockwork consistent. Until this year, never-ever had there been a cancellation. Well, now we can scratch that off the “It Never-Happened” List! For the record, next year’s finale is scheduled for Indianapolis. Enjoy the reprised post.
OK, it’s Wednesday, April 10th and the CIAA, ACC, and NCAA Basketball Tournaments are history. But before I turn the page, I’ve got a few final observations to make about the NCAA Final Four.
First, to the University of Virginia Cavaliers, their students, alumni and fans, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Kyle Guy, and Coach Tony Bennett, congratulations on winning the 2019 NCAA College Basketball Division-I Championship! All praise coming your way, for this signal achievement is richly deserved. Moreover, your 85-77 victory in the Title Game stands as an Instant Classic.
From the agony of being the first #1 Seed to be ousted by the University of Maryland Baltimore County (affectionately known as UMBC), a lowly #16 Seed last year, Virginia completed the ultimate NCAA college hoops comeback by being the last team standing, triumphantly so, when the confetti settled and the speakers in the makeshift US Bank (Stadium) Arena blared the 2019 edition of “One Shining Moment.”
A year ago at about this time, I decided since I’d never attended a Men’s Final Four, I would enter the ticket lottery and roll the dice. When I received confirmation last June that I’d scored two tickets, my wife and I were set. The only question remaining was whether my beloved Tar Heels would be accompanying us.
Alas, despite the regular season hype, and the early Tournament anticipation of an ACC/Tobacco Road cataclysmic Battle of the Titans between Duke, and North Carolina, the Heels made it only as far as the Sweet 16, where their hopes and dreams were dashed on a Friday Night in Kansas City by a sizzling hot Auburn squad that dismantled and dismissed them handily in what would become their own run to the Final Four.
As it turned out, erstwhile devastating Duke would have its own issues. First, they escaped a last second tip in attempt as Krzyzewski protégé Johnny Dawkins’ University of Central Florida fought valiantly, but lost by a point, as the Blue Devils advanced to the Sweet 16. Then, in an ACC family affair, Duke faced Virginia Tech for the third time, after having split during the regular season. Duke won the rubber match, and advanced, but only after VA Tech missed its own tip in at the buzzer for a chance to send the game into overtime. However, as we know, a win, is a win, is a win.
After having demonstrated Houdini-like resilience in two successive games, I made myself comfortable with the notion that Zion and Company were fated, and poised to claim the Title. However, the Spartans of Michigan State University had other ideas, and ultimately, would have their say in the matter. In their third nail-biter in a row, College Basketball’s 2018-19 version of The Greatest Show on Earth faltered, as MSU prevailed, winning by a single point in their Elite 8 contest. So much for a Duke-Carolina Title tilt!
Moving ahead, this year’s setting for the Final Four was US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The successful quartet included Auburn University (Charles Barkley), Michigan State University (Magic Johnson), Texas Tech University (Patrick Mahomes), and the University of Virginia (Ralph Sampson). Yeah, I know Mahomes is a football player, but here is where I confess I don’t know any prominent Texas Tech alums who made their mark in the NBA. Besides, those four guys were actually at the Final Four.
Speaking of the NBA, while in the Twin Cities, we also took in two Timberwolves games at the Target Center. Saw them play the Miami Heat (Dwayne Wade’s last Minneapolis appearance as an NBA player) Friday night, and the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday afternoon. The T-wolves bested the Heat, but fell to the Thunder. In total, we saw 5 games ( 3 college and 2 NBA) in 4 days. We did all this, and still managed to escape Minneapolis-St. Paul ahead of a projected snow storm that could deliver up to 12-inches of frozen precipitation to the area.
Back at US Bank, two of the four teams, Auburn and Texas Tech, had never advanced to a Final Four. A third, Virginia, had never made it to the Title Game. Of the four, only the Spartans of Michigan State had previously appeared in and/or won a Title Game. The Spartans claimed the Trophy in 1979, in the famous Magic-Bird match-up, and again in 2000, with a squad lead by Mateen Cleaves.
The first semi-final game featured SEC Champion Auburn’s fast-pasted offensive juggernaut facing off against ACC Regular Season Champion Virginia, buoyed by its stalwart #1 ranked defense and a much improved, but often underrated offense. The game was a back and forth contest with a high drama ending. With Auburn leading 62-60, an Auburn player fouled Kyle Guy with 0.6 seconds remaining. Complicating matters for the Tigers, the shot, even though he missed it, was a three-point attempt.
Undoubtedly, by now, you know what happened next. Despite Bruce Pearl calling a timeout after Guy’s first two free throws, hoping to ice the shooter, Guy swished the third attempt, just as he did the first two shots. For all practical purposes, game over. In fact, the game, 0.6 seconds remaining, notwithstanding, was over. Final score, Virginia 63, Auburn 62.
In a 20/20 hindsight world, Samir Doughty would have assumed a stout hands in the air defensive stance, and made Guy hit or miss a tough shot and trust his teammates to corral the rebound. If he made the shot, congratulate him on hitting an acrobatic game winner. If he missed, celebrate Auburn’s win with his sure to have been exultant teammates. But college basketball isn’t played in hindsight. And in real time, Kyle Guy may have lost the battle (missed the shot), but he won the war (and the game), nailing a trifecta of foul shots to transform a two point Wahoo deficit into a one point lead with less than a second remaining, and Auburn needing to traverse the 93 feet length of the court and score in 0.6 seconds or less. Uh, game over.
In Saturday night’s second semi-final contest, Texas Tech, with its #3 ranked defense squared off against perennial Big 10 Power, Michigan State. It was another game in which the momentum and the lead swung back and forth. With less than 3 minutes remaining and Texas Tech clinging to a 52-51 lead, the young men from Lubbock dug in and leveraged the phase of the game that had kept them relevant all year. Defense!
They held the Spartans scoreless for the remainder of the game, while they went on to add 9 points to their own total. With that 61-51 victory, they launched themselves into Monday night’s Title Game. The combatants were set, Virginia, from the ACC, and Texas Tech, from the Big 12; marking both teams’ first Title Game appearance.
Monday night’s matchup between Texas Tech and Virginia pitted two of the top three defensive teams in the country against one another. Virginia allowed opponents only 55.5 points per game. Texas Tech was not far behind, allowing only 58.8 points per game. Only the Wolverines of the University of Michigan separated the two, barely edging the Red Raiders, allowing opponents 58.3 points per contest.
Here in Minneapolis there was an ever so slight Texas Tech vibe. Largely, I think, it was a root for the underdog kind of thing. Although, as we were taking the Blue Line Train back to our hotel after the Title Game, I did hear one local say he had pulled for Texas Tech “because of the stigma associated with Charlottesville.” The reference, of course, was to the Unite The Right Rally, which featured neo-Nazi and alt-right protests, and which resulted in counter protests on August 11th and 12th, 2017. There were any number of infamously memorable events that weekend in Charlottesville, including white men in Khakis and sports shirts chanting Jews will not replace us, two law enforcement officers killed in a helicopter crash, and the President of the United States asserting, “There are very fine people on both sides.” Even with all that, perhaps the incident that gained the most notoriety was James Alex Fields, Jr. running into a crowd of counter protesters with his car, killing activist Heather Heyer on August 12th.
Of course, I’m not a yahoo fan, but I don’t hold the events of that weekend against UVA students and/or student athletes. That’s a narrative with a host of sources, but the UVA Family is not one of them…in my humble opinion. But I digress.
Back to the Title Game, my own assessment is that while they were both stellar defending teams, Virginia probably had just a little too much offense. As it turned out, for 40 minutes, it was a draw, as the two teams played to a 68-68 tie, and overtime. For those who were rooting for Texas Tech, if you quickly revisit the world of 20/20 hindsight, two plays should standout. The first, with halftime nearing, and the score tied 29-all, Virginia with the ball, Ty Jerome found himself all alone at the 3-point line. Predictably, soon afterward, the ball joined him. In the blink of an eye, shot taken, shot made, halftime, UVA up three. Remember that sequence!
With Texas Tech leading 68-65, with 14 seconds left, the ball found De’Andre Hunter alone in the corner. Déjà vu all over again! With no closeout in sight, Hunter squared up and casually sank a 3, tying the game, and ultimately leading to OT. In hindsight, in both instances, the defense should have forced a contested two, rather than giving up an open 3. In any event, after having witnessed, and survived the halftime dagger, both Texas Tech’s coaches and their players should have insisted on creating a different response (and hopefully a vastly distinct and discernibly dissimilar outcome) at the end of the game. But…that’s the difference between hindsight and real time. After trailing briefly, Virginia took command during the overtime period, and went on to win with minimal stress, and little apparent resistance in the extra period.
As is often the case, some folks will second-guess the officiating. I’ve been known to look askance at a call or two here and there, myself. Others will suggest the Wahoos were simply lucky. Carolina fans, think Dean Smith’s Heels in 1982 when Georgetown’s Fred Brown mistakenly threw the ball to James Worthy instead of a fellow Hoya, and again in 1993 when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout when he and his Wolverine cohorts did not have any. People who default to those “what ifs” fail to take into account a couple of key considerations. In both cases, Carolina was ahead at the moment of the ill-timed miscues. Therefore, both teams would have had to design and execute a play (remember UM had no timeouts), take…and make…a shot, score, and prevent Carolina from doing the same thing. No sure thing in either case.
By the way, next year’s Final Four is in the ATL. I’m just saying. But again, I digress. This is about Virginia…and Texas Tech.
At the end of the day, it is my opinion that the team that was the best team in the country all year long won the tournament. Duke did beat them twice, of course, but as I mentioned earlier, Duke had its own issues. The Cavs were stout on both sides of the ball, refused to fold under pressure, survived, advanced, and withstood whatever their opponents threw at them. They executed a perfect fairytale ending, including making clutch free throws, three on one possession to seal Saturday night’s game, and 14 in a row down the stretch Monday night in the second half and overtime to secure the Title. They also played enough defense to weather the storm both nights. “From Outhouse To Penthouse: ‘Hoos Win – Reprised!”
I’m done; holla back!
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