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"Sometimes A Game Is So Good It's A Shame Anyone Loses": Gators Nip Badgers in Sweet 16 Classic

I haven't brought myself yet to watching a rerun of Wisconsin's heartbreaking buzzer-beating loss to Florida in a Sweet Sixteen classic not decided until the early hours of Sat morning March 25.

I was lucky to be in attendance at the sold-out Madison Square Garden. After watching an open-to-the-public practice of my Badgers Thursday afternoon, I went to the box office and picked up a suite ticket at the face value of "only" $175.

Maybe the ticket was still available because fans of Duke and Villanova, regional favorites knocked out a week ago by South Carolina and Wisconsin respectively, decided not to show up in New York.

Whatever the reason for my good fortune, I relished the great enthusiasm from the fans of teams that did make the regional. All four schools brought their bands and cheerleaders and mascots.

During one of the interminable built-in commercial breaks, there was early in each game a battle of the mascots. Cocky, South Carolina's gamecock, easily outperformed Baylor's Bear. It was an augury of the whipping that South Carolina put on Baylor in the uncompetitive first game.

When Bucky Badger outperformed Florida's Gator early in the second game, I hoped it was a good omen for my side. And for the first 15 minutes of the game, Wisconsin outplayed Florida, looking like the more composed and more defensively adept team.

Things changed when Nigel Hayes went to the bench with his second foul, a call he mildly disputed with the ref. Then DeVaughan Allen, Florida's sophomore guard who had slumped in earlier rounds of the tournament, took over.

Allen hit a wave of threes and even worse got fouled on two attempts. He calmly sank all 6 free throws, giving Florida a two-point halftime lead.

I've long felt that in basketball the two key parts of any game are the last minutes of the first half (when stamina after nearly 20 minutes of play is a big factor). And the first minutes of the second half when the best teams pick up their momentum despite resting and perhaps losing their intensity.

The second point is especially important in tournament games when the normal 15 minute intermission is increased to 20 minutes. Florida came out blazing and never let Wisconsin recapture their early dominance.

I didn't realize that Wisconsin's best shooter Bronson Koenig was ailing with hamstring issues. Yet suddenly he caught fire and after a couple of stops and a big shot by another senior leader Nigel Hayes the Badgers grasped a one-point lead.

It didn't last one possession as Florida quickly hit a three to reclaim the lead. They built it back to over 10 points and led by eight with under two minutes to go.

Then the Badgers showed their heart and will to win. Florida helped by not running their offense, just running out the clock and playing not to lose.

Still with just six seconds to go, the Gators held a 3-point lead. Koenig's cramps now kept him on the bench. It was up to another senior Zak Showalter to play hero, hitting an off-balance three to tie the game and force overtime.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was at the game sitting next to Andy North, former US Open champion. Showalter gave Rodgers the "double check" salute popularized in the State Farm insurance TV commercial.

Once the overtime started, Showalter got called for a controversial foul that the refs debated for a long time while being cascaded with boos from the crowd.

The call is something I want to see again - I guess they ruled Zak pushed the Gator defender out of bounds.

Still, Wisconsin took control in the overtime, leading by 5 points at one point. Nigel Hayes missed some key foul shots but it looked like the game would be cemented with a dunk by Ethan Iverson after catching a floor-length pass.

Iverson, an extremely athletic swing man, is another Badger spirited from the state of Ohio by savvy recruiters - Hayes, senior Vitto Brown, and freshman D'Mitrik Trice are there more.

Here is a painful irony - I've often wished that Iverson didn't dunk so much.
But in a play that I need to see again, Iverson took his time and elected to lay it up.

Out of nowhere sped Canyon Barry, Rick's underhanded-foul shot shooting son, to block Iverson's layup. Florida scored on the other end with reserve Chris Chiozza making a layup. Remember that name in infamy, Badger fans. Of course we will.

When Hayes hit two free throws (the ones I will remember as clutch forgetting the other misses), we led by two with four seconds to go and no time outs for Florida.

But Chiozza drove the floor tightly guarded by Hayes for some of the time. Yet he broke free enough near the top of the key to hit his off-balance shot to win the game at the buzzer.

He turned Showalter's shot into a footnote, but for me the memory of this game will be its all-out intensity and brilliant play. And eternal kudos to Florida coach Mike White who said that he was heartbroken for his rival coach Greg Gard. Indeed it was a game, he said, that no one should have lost.

That's all for now. Next time - baseball and more baseball.
Always remember, as both Wisconsin and Florida did this memorable March 24-25, 2017, take it easy but take it!
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Pitchers and Catchers Have Reported, but I Must Admit College Basketball Still Grabs My Attention

The Northeast has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. Well, "heat" is a bit of an exaggeration - temps in lower 60s - but I've been parading around my Upper West Side NYC neighborhood in my Cape Cod Summer Baseball League sweatshirt without need for an overcoat.

(The CCBL, by the way, should be on any baseball fan's bucket list: Games at no cost from early June to early August with some of the best amateur players in competition - many of them are on the cusp of pro careers. More info: check out www.ccbl.org)

The main thing about spring training is to get and keep everyone healthy before the season begins. In the days of the reserve system when players had to work in the off-season, spring training was a time for getting into shape and losing weight.

Today, the six weeks or more in Florida or Arizona might seem excessive because smart players stay in shape all year round. But who wants to give up the relaxed environment of warm weather climates?

Just don't believe any spring training stats esp. during the first few weeks of exhibition games. Yes, exhibition games were what they used to be called and should still be called. "Pre-season" sounds more serious and it allows ticket prices to reach the ridiculous $40 and $50 range and even higher.

Turning to the hardwood game, the Wisconsin Badgers broke their two-game losing streak with a much-needed home win on Sunday Feb 19 over the Maryland Terps.
The two big Badger frontcourtmen sophomore Ethan Happ and senior Nigel Hayes led the way in scoring.

But it was the second half return to form of senior leader Bronson Koenig that triggered the Badger victory. A calf injury caused Koenig to miss the loss at Michigan earlier in the week, but after not scoring in limited first half action Sunday, Koenig hit a couple of jump shots that really triggered the comeback win.

As Koenig goes so goes the Badgers is the short story of the 2016-2017 squad. He has much on his plate as he is also an activist in the native American movement against the Dakota pipeline.

I noticed today huge tattoos on his chest honoring his Ho-Chunk heritage. The team has been supportive of his commitment because there is no doubt that he remains a court leader in the Badgers' quest to go deep into the post-season.

Yet winning the Big Ten title and hoisting another banner at the Kohl Center home court means a lot to the team and to me as a semi-fanatical alum. Wisconsin is tied with Purdue in the Big Ten title race with Maryland a game behind with four games to play.

The Big Ten may be down this year according to the pollsters and the tournament seeding mavens, but the competition level remains high. I only wish the refs would use more restraint in their dishing out technicals to benches.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon got one in the Wisconsin game, and it was nice to see his assistants calming him down to keep him from being ejected. The T did not affect the final outcome because Wisconsin controlled the game from the middle of the second half.

The T on the Michigan bench in the tough struggle against Minnesota at Minneapolis Sunday night basically determined the outcome. Though Michigan gallantly fought back to force overtime, the Wolverines would have won except for the technical.

In the Ivy League, home of my other alma mater Columbia, the Lions have lost excruciatingly close games the last two weekends. After an 0-5 start Penn has roared back into playoff contention.

The Quakers jumped ahead of the Lions for the fourth and last spot in the first-ever Ivy League tournament. It is coming up the second weekend of March at Penn's legendary home court the Palestra.

Columbia meets the Killer P's, Princeton and Penn, at home this coming weekend.
Odds are long now against the Lions but they will compete and compete hard. Of that I am sure. How well and how smart is another question that will decided on the court.

On the women's side, Columbia broke a three-game losing streak Saturday night by thumping Dartmouth 69-48. Picked for last in the Ivy League, the Lions under new coach Megan Griffith has won 3 games in the league and lost some very close ones.
They need one more win in their last four games to be assured of an overall winning record for the season.

Junior Camille Zimmerman is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate as a consistent 20-point scorer who tries her hardest to work within the team framework.

Perhaps the most optimistic event of the weekend was the play of first year guards Janiya Clemmons and Maya Sampleton. Rushed into action because of injuries to upperclassmen, they both performed with poise.

Clemmons has a chance to be an electrifying player because she always keeps her head up and is eager and willing to drive to the hoop, not afraid of making mistakes.
As long as the Lions keep playing outstanding defense, they have a real chance in future seasons to crash the Ivy League women's cage elite.

That's all for now - until the next time, always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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