This week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. March Madness! The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament! College basketball games all day Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday! It’s a sports fan’s nirvana! Like most college basketball fans, I love the first weekend of the tournament because of its unpredictability. There are always a few upsets, a few games where lower-seeded teams from mid-major conferences – teams that only got in because they got the automatic bid that winning their conference tournament affords them – beat schools from the power conferences, like the Big East or the Atlantic Coast Conference. Us Americans love underdog stories and the best chance to see a David slay a Goliath in the NCAA Tournament is in the tourney’s first weekend, before the field is pared down to 16 teams from 68.
However, no one wants to see their team fall victim to a lower-seeded team. Upsets are fun and delightful and a great story until one happens to your favorite squad. So, fans of the Goliaths of the college basketball world love the Davids…as long as they beat all of the other Goliaths.
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I was worried as soon as I saw it on Sunday.
My beloved Syracuse Orange basketball team got off to a 20-1 start in the 2004-2005 season, only to struggle down the stretch before regrouping to win the Big East Conference Tournament, their first conference championship during my time as a fan. I knew they’d probably be a three or four seed and I was right; they earned a four seed. I was happy they’d be playing their first- and second-round games on Friday and next Sunday, respectively, in Worchester, Massachusetts. Syracuse, located right in the middle of New York State, draws quite a few of its students from the New England region, so I knew there would be plenty of Syracuse fans at their first two tournament games.
Then I saw the 13 seed we’d play in the first round.
The University of Vermont.
I knew about the Vermont Catamounts; they’d been one of the better mid-major basketball programs the last few years and I’d seen them play a handful of times on television. The state of Vermont isn’t known as a basketball hotbed, but it did produce Taylor Coppenrath, the Catamounts do-everything, 6’9” forward who was the nation’s second-leading scorer that year and one of the best players in the country, at any level. He’d led Vermont to their third straight America East Conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance, so I knew they wouldn’t be intimidated by big and bad Syracuse. Also, Worchester is closer to Vermont’s campus in Burlington than it is to Syracuse’s campus, meaning plenty of Catamounts fans would be able to make the trip to the game.
Everything was set up perfectly for David to slay Goliath. I worried about Vermont all week. I was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the time, but was less than two weeks from moving to Binghamton, New York for a new job. I decided to watch the Vermont-Syracuse game at one of my favorite hangouts – a place that had a room with eight televisions and would be showing every tourney game uninterrupted – and many of my friends and co-workers showed up to watch the game with me, the gathering turning into my impromptu Kalamazoo send-off.
The game was close from the start. Syracuse just couldn’t seem to get any traction offensively. Vermont wasn’t playing particularly well, but they just kept hanging around, which is exactly what an underdog needs to do. Syracuse was playing sloppily and committing too many turnovers; most of the turnovers were the result of careless play, as opposed to stifling Vermont defense. The Orange led by four at the half, but I still felt uneasy.
As halftime progressed, I noticed a few Michigan State University fans filtering into the bar. Kalamazoo’s about a 90-minute drive from Michigan State’s East Lansing campus, so the Spartans had plenty of alumni and fans in the area. The Spartans were scheduled to take on Old Dominion in Worchester, right after Vermont-Syracuse ended, and the winners of the two games would play each other on Sunday. So, Michigan State fans had quite a bit of interest in the outcome of Vermont-Syracuse. And, they’d rather see the Spartans face the lower seed on Sunday.
Coaches will tell you basketball games are often decided in the first few minutes of the second half and I knew Syracuse needed to start the half strong, grow their lead into double digits and put Vermont away. The second half opened with the two teams trading baskets before Coppenrath converted a three-point play to make it a one-point game. Syracuse was up by three when Vermont got the ball back and T.J. Sorrentine, the Catamounts pesky 5’11” guard and second-leading scorer, drilled a game-tying three from NBA range that nearly made my head explode; Sorrentine, Vermont’s best shooter, hadn’t hit a three the entire first half. But, shooters often need just one make to get them going and I feared for the worst when I saw Sorrentine’s three go through the bottom of the net. My fears proved to be correct, as Vermont hit a three on their next possession to take their first lead of the half. Syracuse, to their credit, didn’t allow Vermont to pull away, but the tables were turned. It now looked like Syracuse was the underdog and Vermont was the favorite; the Catamounts seemed to have all of the confidence Syracuse lacked and the Catamounts played with a lead most of the half.
My palms started to sweat as the game moved into the final two minutes. The contest was tied before Hakim Warrick, who’d been named Player of the Year in the Big East Conference the previous week, unleashed an emphatic dunk, giving Syracuse a two-point lead with 90 seconds left. On Vermont’s next possession, Syracuse inexplicably left Coppenrath – a great mid-range shooter – wide open on the right elbow and, not surprisingly, the senior buried a 17-foot jumper, knotting the score with less than a minute remaining. We need to win this game right now, I thought to myself. Syracuse followed by going to Warrick in the left post, his favorite spot on the floor. However, Warrick, perhaps a bit overeager, threw an elbow into the Vermont defender as he began to make his move to the hoop and was charged with an offensive foul with about a half minute left. The bar erupted in cheers as I screamed at all eight of the televisions. In the closing seconds, it looked like Vermont had the game won, but Germain Mopa Njila, the Catamounts Cameroonian forward who averaged less than six points per game but torched Syracuse for 20 points that night, stepped on the baseline just before hitting an acrobatic layup.
The game was headed to overtime. Now, I was certain Syracuse was going to lose.
I felt a little better when Gerry McNamara, Syracuse’s sharpshooting guard who’d been firing blanks all evening, stole a pass and went coast-to-coast for a layup and a two-point Syracuse lead with just over three minutes left in the five-minute overtime session. But, with two minutes remaining, Mopa Njila drilled a three to put Vermont back up and excite the Michigan State faithful once again. “Germain Mopa Njila with the game of a lifetime!” exclaimed broadcaster Gus Johnson. Why did he have to have the game of a lifetime against my team? I thought. I had less wholesome thoughts when Warrick turned it over on Syracuse’s next possession, followed by Vermont milking the clock and Sorrentine hitting a three from – no exaggeration – 30 feet out; he was a step or two in front of the half-court circle. A minute remained. A deafening cheer went up in the bar. The television cameras caught Vermont coach Tom Brennan with his arms raised in celebration. My head dropped into my hands, where it shook slowly; I wanted to crawl under the bar. Syracuse had a couple more opportunities after that, but it didn’t matter. They were toast after Sorrentine’s deep three. I slipped out of the bar as soon as the final horn sounded without saying goodbye to anyone; I didn’t want to watch Vermont celebrate. I haven’t seen most of the people who were there to see me off since that night.
This season, Syracuse is a one seed in the NCAA Tournament and a national championship contender; they will be the favorite in nearly every game they play from here on out [This was written before Syracuse center Fab Melo was declared ineligible for the tourney]. In a field with many Goliaths, they are one of the biggest of them all. And, hopefully, they will break all of the Davids’ slingshots in half.Follow @raford3