I was 0-2 in NCAA games for Marquette in the past when personally attending them, but I thought I would bring my son this time around for some good luck. A 7 vs 10 seed against an SEC team that beat NCAA teams Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, and Arkansas was going to be tough. Nevertheless, we were favored by a whopping 1.5 points.
My son and I left at 5:45am to make the trip from Orange County to San Diego. He was decked out in his MU shirt and I in my Warriors garb that had us undefeated this year when watching the boys on the tube with that shirt...superstitions are key for fans....especially this one.
Arrived at the Red Lion hotel at 7:15am, almost two hours ahead of the pep rally. Immediately ran into Athletic Director Bill Cords who I had not seen since New Orleans. He was gracious as always as he remarked at how big my son had become. We spoke for about 10 minutes. Bill was in his element to be sure. We are in the Big East and this is where we belong. He believes it, he lives it and he is very proud of this accomplishment. He should be. He arrived in 1988, a year after I started at MU as a student. Our program was mediocre at that point in just about every sport. Not enough money, no facilities, no belief by the administration in terms of long term vision and athletics. Cords in almost 20 years has seen us go from arguably a low Division I / high Division II calibre endeavor to a fine athletic program in the Big East in many sports.
After parting with Bill we had some breakfast at the cafe and bumped into some of my very favorites from the athletic department when I worked there....Ingrid and Jim in particular. Both working hard as usual, both doing well. Special thoughts for Jim as his son-in-law heads over to an Iraqi deployment in April. God's speed and safety to him and the family. I was able to pick up my tickets from Ingrid...row 13...not a good sign from a superstition standpoint, but great seats...we were lucky and thankful.
The pep rally began at 9:00am as we congregated with Dr. Childs and his three sons. Jack Harbaugh gave a rah rah speech which was great. You can tell this guy has done a few of these at halftime of a few football games he coached. For those that don't know, he was the coach of the Division I-AA national champions Western Kentucky just a few years ago. Interestingly, coach Harbaugh probably had more than a few chances over the years to jump to bigger schools...sometimes coaches and institutions are a good fit for one another. Jack expressed that specifically about Coach Crean later that morning. His son Jim Harbaugh, yes that Jim Harbaugh (QB of Michigan, Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers) was there as well. Real good guy, very nice, very "every day" kind of guy. He later sat in the front row at the game and was going crazy for his brother-in-law Tom Crean and Marquette.
At about 9:30am we headed outside to huddle under the overhang of the hotel for the team and staff to board the busses. The band was playing, the fans were geared up. Father Wild was there, the mascot, the cheerleaders. Everything going well and fans are feeling good.
As the players came through our human guantlet that we had created they appeared calm, but who knows what truly was going on inside. The younger players were quiet, not showing much emotion. Senior Steve Novak had a huge smile on his face as he acknowledged the fans with high fives and best wishes. Coach Crean came out last. He stopped along the way to acknowledge a few fans specifically. As he came to the bus, he saw Father Wild and gave him a hug before boarding. This was it, we were ready to go to Cox Arena and get this baby started....or so we thought. 10:20am or so at this point.
After 45 minutes or so, the players got off the bus which I was thankful for. They began to walk around and stretch their legs. We definitely weren't going to tip off at 11:40am. In fact, there was talk the morning session could be cancelled all together and moved to Friday. No one knew for sure.
About 5 minutes after the bus had been boarded it was clear that they weren't leaving immediately... if at all. Five more minutes passed, then ten. Word came through to the fans that a bomb threat of some kind was the reason for the delay. Apparently a police dog had smelled something and it wasn't San Diego's famous fish tacos. The arena was evacuated while the authorities could search the facility. This can't be good. Row 13, I'm 0-2 at NCAA games and now we have a bomb threat at a sports facility just days after Al Qaeda had threatened to go after sports stadiums.
Finally, the all clear and the bus was on it's way at around 11:45am if I remember correctly. Quite a start for the freshmen players, you wonder what they are thinking. We boarded our buses as well and made the 10 minute trip to San Diego State. Upon arrival...chaos. Thousands of people standing outside the arena that were evacuated earlier trying to get back in. What a zoo.
Upon entering the arena I remembered all of the red seats...superstitions again. I hate red seats, makes me think of the BADgers. I had visited the 2001 (I think that was the year) NCAA tournament at Cox Arena when St. Joseph's played there. Jamir Nelson was a freshman and everyone was amazed at how good he was.
Had not been back since, however. It seats about 12,000 or so. Great site lines everywhere. I immediately noticed the NCAA banners and appropriately Marquette and UCLA were next to each other. The two greatest programs of the 1970's. I was very excited about a possible matchup with the Bruins, one that had not taken place since 1964 between the two schools. First things first... a very tough Alabama squad which was going to give us fits inside. My son and I found our way down to the 13th row on the end of the aisle. Great seats. Thank you Sarah and Ingrid or the ticket fairy that randomly pulled these out.
As far as the game goes, we were either flat or
neverous or flat-out nervous for the first half. Alabama was more aggressive, killed us on the boards and dominated us the entire 20 minutes. Crean called a timeout and really seemed to chew on his guys for the easy rebounds we were giving up inside for second chance points. We trailed 44-30 at halftime. I turned to Bill Robers who went to the Final Four with me in New Orleans and we had that deja vu feeling all over again. Of course, MU had been a second half team most of the year so we still had a chance.
The final 20 minutes was probably the best basketball MU played offensively all year long. Unfortunately Alabama played well too. MU scored a whopping 55 points and took the lead three different times late in the game but could not put the game away. Bama just kept hitting three pointer after three pointer. It came down to two possessions in the final 30 seconds where we put the ball into Steve Novak's hands. Once on a turnaround shot that he had hit many times this year on the block...it hit the back iron this time. With Bama now up three, MU needed a trey to tie. A perfect play was drawn up for Novak in the corner. He was so wide open. Too wide open. It was directly in front of me, I watched the shot as straight as an arrow and thought for sure it was in...but not to be. Novak was human after all. We are going to miss this guy incredibly. Great person, great player. I wanted it to go in so much for him and selfishly for myself and son, too. Just not to be. I'm 0-3 now at NCAA games involved MU. I guess I should take the hint.
We will be back in years to come, I am convinced of that. After the game I watched the courtside closely. Chapman and James were distraught. I couldn't find Novak but I felt so badly for him. After the players shook hands and walked off the court I noticed the three freshmen standing together by the bench by themselves. Crean walked by and stopped. He grabbed the three and you could only guess he was saying "guys, this is what it's all about...now you're veterans and we are going to come back and advance next time."
I cannot wait until next season. I will miss Grimm for his class, his perseverance and his character. Joe Chapman...the same. Always came to play whether he was forced to play point guard while puking his guts out on the sideline or whether he was hitting big shots and playing scrappy defense. Novak. Maybe the best pure shooter I will ever see. Incredible. What a career. May he make millions in the NBA!
VIDEOS FROM YESTERDAY
Pep Rally 3 (James and Matthews)