March Travel Madness
It would take a lot to ruin the fun of a Division II Championship game for me.
Warrior fans celebrate.
Last year's was the most inspirational game the Hoops Odyssey had the opportunity to witness. A more religious man would've labeled the contest's outcome divine intervention. Tiny Barton College, led by their bite-size star, Anthony "Ant" Atkinson, rallied in the last minute of play to knock off reigning champ Winona State. Straight out of a feel good movie, the game's ending couldn't have been scripted better.
Here's what I wrote in last year's blog: "With the score tied, Ant stole the ball at halfcourt and turned around to see 3.6 second left on the clock above the basket. He had 3.6 seconds left to put the ball in the bucket to beat the #1 team in the country and win the championship. What would you have done? Stopped and popped? Willing to roll the dice that you could make it to the rack in time? Ant had faith. He flew. With 1.8 seconds left he hit the arc. At .2, the ball rolled off his fingers. By the grace of God, Barton won."
Special moments like Barton's miracle ending played a large role in my returning to work the roadtrip again this year. It was everything I loved about basketball - small egos, big hearts, will rising above athleticism, David downing Goliath, basketball as a game not a for-profit enterprise.
Quincy Henderson hoists the championship trophy in the air.
So the D-II Championship game means a lot to me and, up until today, I was really looking forward to watching two teams battle to be this year's champ, but today's been a bad day, a really bad day. Last night's Kansas-Villanova game ended around midnight and by the time Cyrus and I escaped downtown Detroit, returned to our fleabag motel and posted the blog the clock read three. For reasons knowable only to those educated in the mindless ways of corporate travel arrangements, our flight this morning was scheduled to take off at six so we just packed our bags and headed straight for the airport where we flew to Chicago and then Hartford before renting a car and driving to Springfield. (Pretty awesome when after taking a six A.M. flight we arrive at our destination five hours before tip-time and we're so early the motel won't even let us check in. But hey, I'm young and I used to be healthy...)
Let me tell you, it's real hard to get pumped for a game, even a game with as much personal history as this, when you're shivering, curled up in the back seat of a rented Mustang on Main St. in Springfield, Massachusetts, just trying to catch a few z's so your head doesn't explode.
Halitosis. Major heartburn. Rotgut. And I stink to high hell. Not fun, just ask the old guy sitting next to me. But once I'm actually in the MassMutual Center and see Winona State and Augusta State warming up, all my hygiene issues and travel grievances seem to disappear. As much as I hate 6 A.M. flights, I love D-II Championship ball.
Augusta State fans had little to cheer about after the first half.
Similar to last year and, I would assume, the year before, the Winona State fans dominate the stands. Their team has been in the championship game each of the last three years and they're organized and loud and purple. On the other end of the spectrum, this is Augusta State's first trip to the D-II Finals and the team's brought along a smaller, more serene fan base.
One of the things that makes this setting distinct is that one half of the arena's filled with both teams' fans while the other half is filled with local basketball fans who are just out on a Saturday to catch a good game of hoops. So we've got basketball fans and Winona State fans and Augusta State fans and, in the end, two thirds of those fans are going to walk away happy. (Let's hope the unhappy third aren't the basketball fans.)
D-II basketball never fails to disappoint, not only in skill, but in competitiveness. While the top teams in D-II aren't quite at the talent level of mid-range D-I teams, they are far above anything D-III has to offer. (Cyrus felt that in his prime he could've played D-III ball. He has no illusions about being able to play D-II ball.) Players on Winona State and Augusta State are physically imposing and athletically dazzling.
That's one excited mascot.
The game is a tale of two halves. In the first half, Augusta State dominates. Tyrekus Bowman plays out of his mind, shooting 9-11 from the field and amassing 20 points. He can't miss. These are not easy shots. Half the time he's shooting one-handed falling away, but it doesn't matter. Bowman is on fire.
He can't keep it up in the second half, though. Winona State roars back, using great defense and a couple of timely threes from Jonte Flowers, brother of Wisconsin's Michael Flowers, who dropped thirty by game's end. As is pretty much always the case, it's the second half that matters most. Augusta State just can't hang with Winona State and the Warriors win 87-76, claiming their second Division II Championship in three years.
It doesn't matter how tired you are, championship celebrations are always fun. As the final buzzer sounds, the Winona State fans go nuts. I see painted faces screaming, neck veins bulging and misty eyes. Flowers grabs the championship trophy and holds it up in front of the Warrior fan section as "We Are the Champions" blares out of the arena's sound system.
When the celebration finally comes to an end, my mood deteriorates rapidly. It's only five P.M. but I've got to get back to our motel and hit the sack. For reasons still unbeknownst to me or my partner, we have another 6 A.M. flight tomorrow morning and even the residual effects of Winona State's championship celebration can't get me excited for an Elite Eight showdown between Texas and Memphis when I haven't slept in two days and I've got an early morning date with a middle seat in the back of a plane, near the bathroom.