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Saturday, Mar. 12, 2005 - 12:39 p.m.

Big East Blog: Semifinals

Cups, bump guy and Warrick FT

West Virginia 78, Villanova 76
The Mountaineers have become the darling of the tournament. They needed to win at least one game to solidify their NCAA Tournament bid, and they did that. Then they won two more, against top-seeded BC and last night against Villanova, another nationally ranked team. Again they did it with hot shooting (a shade under 50 percent at 28-for-57), particularly from three-point range (13-for-25). After building a solid lead, West Virginia found itself in a tight game at the end, trading baskets to have it tied at 76 with 10 seconds to go. A three-pointer missed, but Mike Gansey snatched the air ball near the basket and put it up with less than a second to go. The layup missed, but perhaps only because Villanova's Allen Ray blatantly pushed him toward the end line. College basketball officials don't like to call fouls in such situations unless it's an obvious violation, which is what Ray did. Gansey went to the free-throw line with the clock showing 0.2 seconds, and hit both free throws. The Wildcats' heave downcourt for an unlikely tip-in was batted away and West Virginia became the first No. 8 seed in the Big East to reach the championship game.

During halftime, I looked down at the large plastic Coke cups from which my dad and I drank and I wondered aloud if the fact that they were a bright orange would outweigh for Casey any discouraging looks I might get for bringing home two more plastic cups. "You can't lose," my dad said. "You can always just recycle them from home if she doesn't want them around. At the worst, it's no points. You're not going to lose points because of this."

So home they came with me.

"Those are awesome," she said.

Syracuse 67, Connecticut 63
During the player introductions for both teams, the bench players form a lane for the starters to run through as their names are called. At the end of the lane, the starting player greets a final bench player. Back in the day of Chuck Taylors and tight, high shorts, the two would exchange a simple high five, then the starter would turn and await the next player to be introduced. These days, for both Syracuse and UConn -- and God knows how many other programs -- instead of exchanging high fives at the end of the line, the starter and the scrub leap and bump chests in mid-air. If one player mistimes his jump, it sometimes turns into a full-frontal body bump. UConn added a twist to it, so that the players bumped hips. Villanova did it too, with the players turning their heads to either side to avoid two broken noses.

My question is: How do the teams decide who stands at the end of the lane to greet the five starters with enthusiastic mid-air chest bumps? Is it a position of honor earned by dedication during practice? Is it a form of ridicule for that week's dunce? Does one player hold that title throughout the season, or does it change by the game, the week or the month? Is it the sixth man, the first guy off the bench, or is it the 12th man, the walk-on who, other than pregame layup drills and introductory chest bumps gets no other time on the court? Is it a freshman or a senior? Someone should lead off a notes column about this.

As for the game, this matchup was probably the true Big East championship. Whoever won it was going to be the favorite to defeat West Virginia tonight, particularly because in the 25-year history of the league, no school has ever won four straight games to win the tournament. If you don't get that first round bye, you're probably losing before you leave New York. Syracuse got off to a big lead, as many as 22 in the second half, and the Huskies made it close at the end, but it wasn't a four-point game. It was amusing to be in an arena with so many fans from both sides cheering loudly and often -- and complaining about the officiating on nearly every call or non-call. Fans for both teams believed the referees were making (or missing) horrible calls against their players.

I couldn't decide who to root for until the game began. The supporters for the schools are the two most arrogant and cocky fan bases in the Big East, so hearing the frustration from either group was sweet schadenfreude. It turned out to be the five UConn backers behind us that muttered and cursed their way through the game. Until last night, Connecticut was the hottest team in the league, appearing unbeatable. Indeed, they beat 'Cuse by 18 last Saturday. But last night, Hakim Warrick and the Orange weren't going to let the Huskies get within reach. Syracuse was lethal on the boards, outrebounding a strong inside team and creating turnovers and sloppy play from the Huskies. I also realized early that Syracuse was the team to pull for just to see Warrick play once more tonight. At one point, after Warrick missed one of his free throws, I said they should change the rules for players like him and give them a choice: He can attempt his two free throws the conventional way, or he can have one chance to dunk it with a standing leap from the foul line. That would be worth two points if he made it.

As Matt and I walked down the escalators on our way out of the arena after the game, four rowdy, middle-aged 'Cuse fans mocked their UConn peers and their rally chant of "U! C! O! N! N! UCONN! UCONN! UCONN!" Instead, in a moment of gloating -- several moments, actually, each time they reached another landing and turned to head down the next escalator -- they screamed "U! C! A! N! T! YOU CAN'T! YOU CAN'T! YOU CAN'T! ... BEAT THE 'CUSE!"
Sheer madness.

Previous page: Big East Blog: Second Round
Next page: Big East Blog: Championship Night

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