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The Garden and Barclays: A day of March Madness

March 9, 2018 Columns No Comments

NEW YORK – The Nor’Easter, number two for March if you are scoring at home, is in the books. The eight mile trip to MSG was actually smooth with this part of the tri-state region not inundated by snow.

Enough weather. The Big East noon quarterfinal matchup has St. John’s, a first round winner over Georgetown last night, facing Xavier. This could be tough for Chris Mack and Xavier as St. John’s played then tough twice this season before coming out on the short end.

Early in the game St. John’s gives up a transition basket as the entire defense did not hustle back. A reminder, if you want to defeat the regular season champions you cannot have lapses like that.

St. John’s led by as much as five points. Chris Mullins’ group is patient offensively and willing to take the long range shot. Xavier is formidable on the boards, creating problems for the Red Storm defense. At the half, Xavier has a 33-29 lead.

Stats confirm the eye test. While St. John’s is 5 of 15 (33 percent) from three, they are getting out-rebounded on the offensive end 7-1. Xavier then gets off to a good second half start. With just under 16 minutes remaining, the Xavier lead is ten and the game is starting to get away from the Red Storm.

Xavier finds the range from three while getting some transition baskets. The lead is 13 with a little over ten to play, a tough situation for St. John’s to comeback. Trevon Bluiett buries another three, increasing the Xavier lead to 18 with just over nine minutes to play. St. John’s is also struggling on the offensive end as well. Xavier is forcing St. John’s into contested, sometimes ill-advised, shots.

In full command virtually the entire final 20 minutes, Xavier closes out an 88-60 victory to advance to Friday’s semifinal. Mack spoke of a “defensive intensity and limiting turnovers” as the major difference. Xavier committed just seven turnovers, enjoying a 22-2 edge in points off turnovers. Bluiett reminded why he was an all-Big East first team, leading the way with 27 points. Marvin Clark II paced St. John’s with 18.

The second game features Providence and Creighton. Two teams with excellent, under-the-radar coaches, Ed Cooley of PC and Creighton’s Greg McDermott. Providence will run and is content to set up in half court if the break does not materialize. From the early minutes, Creighton is looking to run some isolation to get Marcus Foster going by ball penetration.

Jacob Epperson gives Creighton a lift. The 6’11” freshman hits a three, scores on an alley oop, then blocks a shot, igniting transition. An 11-2 run the last four minutes sends the Blue Jays into the break with a 30-26 lead. The Providence dance team is pretty and talented, but why did they have to perform to “Who let the dogs out?”

Second half, Creighton threatens to gain early separation, but Providence responds. The game remains tight, though Creighton consistently leads by a possession or two. McDermott is utilizing Foster in an off guard situation most of the time, looking to get free for penetration as in the first half. Providence is in an attack-the-basket mode. They did get a big three from Isaiah Jackson, who gave the Friars the lead with just under eight minutes to play.

Interestingly, Providence guard Alpha Diallo does about ten pushups at the conclusion of a timeout before he gets back on the floor. At 2:05 to play Providence is ahead by two. This one epitomizes “March Madness”.

Some games just have overtime written all over them. This one? No surprise. Diallo tied it with a putback with about 11 seconds left. The ball was in Foster’s hands the final possession. The Creighton senior lost it, regained then heaved a deep off balance desperation shot that drew nothing. Tied at 59. OT.

Diallo, a 6-7 sophomore, has really stepped to the fore in the stretch and here early in the extra session. Jackson hits two free throws to put PC up four with 56 seconds left. Still have the feeling this is far from over. PC ahead by two with eight seconds left, Diallo heads to the charity stripe. First missed, second good. Creighton has the ball down three. Foul or defend? PC defends. Toby Hegner of Creighton misses a wide open three. Jackson is fouled with under a second left, hits one of two to ice it. Providence advances 72-68.

In the post game, Cooley brought Diallo and his four seniors to the presser. The seniors in recognition of having gone to a post season tournament in each of their years. “First time in Providence history that’s been done,” Cooley remarked. The Friar mentor also said he wanted to foul the last possession. “My team wanted to get the stop,” Cooley said. “Players play, we watch. I went with their decision. We didn’t switch on a screen and Creighton got a wide open shot. Thankfully it missed. Call it “Divine Providence.”

It is about 5:10, giving time for interviews before catching the two or three train to Barclays for the evening twin bill. Catch the two at 5:45. On the train, I run into Jeff Goodman of ESPN. We discuss St. Bonaventure’s (the alma mater) NCAA chances. We both agree a quarterfinal win is necessary in Washington. From a Bonnie fan’s perspective both potential opponents, Richmond and Duquesne, cause concern. It’s a Bona thing we always worry. Talk also centers on Davidson and the recent setbacks for Rhode Island. We both agree URI could get into the Sweet Sixteen, but a lot will be determined on who Danny Hurley’s club gets matched up with. The train, to little surprise, has a liberal following of Notre Dame faithful.

Duke and Notre Dame square off in the first game of the evening session. The two faced each other in the ACC finals, won by Duke, last March. Outside of that game, Notre Dame has traditionally played well in this building, so it could be interesting. Duke gets out to an eight-point lead with just over 12 to go. Marvin Bagley III has three dunks and a three-pointer those early minutes. Beside the 6’11” Bagley, Notre Dame is having trouble matching up with Duke’s three point-shooters such as Grayson Allen.

Percentages eventually caught up and Duke’s torrid shooting from deep cooled off. The Irish showed poise and attacked the Duke zone. Mike Brey’s group was able to get in the gaps, getting inside rather than just settling for three-point attempts. ND holds Duke to 1 point the last three minutes. At the half the deficit is four: Duke 41, Notre Dame 37

Once again Bagley asserts himself inside. Notre Dame is guilty of a few turnovers. Suddenly the deficit is 10 at the 16-minute media timeout. Duke is up 13 almost at the midway point of the final half. It isn’t all inside game as Mike Kryzewski’s Blue Devils are shooting 53 percent from long range.

Martinas Geben and Bonzie Colson have batted inside for Notre Dame. The perimeter game, which started strong, has cooled off considerably. On the other side Duke’s lead is 15 with just under eight minutes to pay. On this night Blue Devils are a well-oiled offensive machine.

Matt Farrell hits ND’s first trey in quite some time as the Irish start firing from three. They aren’t falling, and Duke leads by 16 at the last (four minute) media timeout. The Blue Devils close out the 88-70 victory. For the game they shot 8 of 17 (47 percent) from three. Notre Dame, which desperately needed a perimeter game, was 5 of 23 (22 percent) beyond the arc. Bagley led all with 33 points, while Allen added 23. Colson (18 points) and Geben (14) led the Irish.

ND coach Mike Brey said, “It’s a different animal when they are in an offensive rhythm like that. Thought we did some good things on offense, but turnovers the second half did us in.”

Brey looks forward to the possibilities of extending their campaign. “We are actually are getting healthy,” Brey said. “I look forward to playing some more in post season.”

Final game of the night, Miami vs. North Carolina. In contrast to the offensive display of the prior game, this one started slowly – three and a half minutes before a point lit up on the scoreboard. At the 16-minute media timeout, 4-0 Miami. Seven minutes, nine seconds in, the Tar Heels finally score. Miami had a 14-0 lead before Seventh Woods scored on a traditional three-point play. Down 14, Williams subbed out his starters. After a few minutes, the deficit was down to eight. Starters were back after the substitutes did the job and basically settled down the Tar Heels.

At the eight minute media time out it is 18-14 Miami. A case of North Carolina settling down on offense, while the Hurricanes missed a few transition opportunities and took a few wild shots in the half court setting. Just before the half, Cameron Johnson of North Carolina sends a desperation shot the other side of half court. He is fouled, makes all three and the Tar Heels take a 32-31 lead into the locker room.

Bodies are flying, players trying to make plays going out of control, etc. The game is not an artistic beauty by any stretch. It is close and hotly contested, with North Carolina ahead by one with just under 14 minutes to play. The team able to settle down and simply play their game will have a decided advantage. In all likelihood a victory as well.

As has been the case with Miami this season, the scoring is balanced. With 12 minutes left (a two-point UNC lead), 6’7” guard Anthony Lawrence II leads the way with eight points. A Joel Berry three-pointer gives UNC a five-point lead. That difference feels like fifteen the way this game is going. Senior guard Ja’Quan Newton steps up making plays for the Hurricanes. That’s what you want your seniors to do.

The Barclays Center emptied out after a long day with four ACC Tournament games (Ray Floriani photo)

On that last subject, UNC’s senior guard Theo Pinson hit a succession of big shots for the Tar Heels. North Carolina leads by six at the under-four media timeout. Carolina gets running, especially on Miami turnovers, and the lead is ten with two minutes left.

North Carolina closes out an 82-65 victory. An improbable 31-point turnaround given they dug a fourteen-point hole to start the game. In the post-game media room someone said Butler defeated Seton Hall. Where do I go, the writer asked, Carolina-Duke or Butler-Villanova? Tough choice indeed.

Final stats show each team had only eight turnovers. Pinson had a career-high 25 points; Newton led Miami with 17. Carolina led 52-41 in rebounds, a point Miami coach Jim Larranaga thought was significant.

“It was a weird game to say the least, being down 14 points early,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

“I go for 25 (points, plus 11 rebounds), and he would say it was a weird game,” joked Pinson about his coach.

“I thought Theo was sensational,” Williams added. “He had some impressive dunks, but a player on the street corner can dunk. What Theo does is read the defense. He is just great in that area.”

For North Carolina, it avenges a Senior Day loss to Miami and sets up another semifinal matchup with Duke. “Everyone back home will be watching,” Williams said. Not to mention quite a few here.

Leaving Barclays at midnight, I ride the two train with several members of the North Carolina media relations department. The talk about the game and tournament(s) continues.
Typical and classic March Madness.

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