One Sweet road trip: CHD heads to MSG for the Sweet 16

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What is the next best thing to watching your own team in the Sweet 16? Watching any other team play in the Sweet 16! If you had to pick your dream venue you could do a lot worse than Madison Square Garden, which hosted its first NCAA tourney games in more than 50 years. CHD’s Jon Teitel got to attend the East Regional games in person last Friday night and filed this report after recovering from a pair of great games that went down to the wire. Special thanks to Dove Men + Care for the ticket hook-up!

I hitched a ride to New York City from DC last Friday morning, checked into a midtown hotel, then walked to MSG for the best Big Apple doubleheader since the preseason NIT featuring Duke and Arizona last Thanksgiving weekend. I joined a huge crowd of people walking into the Garden, mostly UConn fans who were chanting for their team. My best sighting of the night was UConn legend Cliff Robinson walking into the arena about five people ahead of me: he was easy to spot because he was a foot taller than everyone else! The Husky faithful up in the 200 level remained standing the entire game and cheered loud enough to make it sound like a home game. My friends who ended up sitting behind the Huskies’ bench saw a bunch of A-list celebs up close and personal: Jim Calhoun, Chris Christie, Spike Lee, and Katie Couric (to name just a few).

Game number one featured Iowa State taking on UConn. The Cyclones were the higher seed but playing short-handed due to the broken foot of forward Georges Niang. The Huskies had the home-court advantage but lacked postseason experience after missing the 2013 tourney due to probation. Iowa State entered the game fifth in the country with scoring 83 points every time out, but only had 26 in the first half en route to a double-digit deficit at halftime. First-year coach Kevin Ollie has depended on American Conference Player of the Year Shabazz Napier on the offensive end all season long, and his superstar responded by making 4-6 shots from three-point land. However, the player of the game (even in defeat) was Iowa State’s Dustin Hogue: the junior from Yonkers scored a career-high 34 points on 15-19 from the floor, which helped compensate for the measly seven points scored by his teammate/Big 12 POY Melvin Ejim. UConn seemed to have everything wrapped up as they built a 16-point lead with only eight minutes remaining, but an 18-6 run by Iowa State made it a four-point game with two minutes to play. Huskies’ forward DeAndre Daniels was clutch from start to finish, ending up with a double- double (27 points/10 rebounds). One of the biggest keys to the game was at the free throw line. Iowa State point guard DeAndre Kane had a great all-around game with 16 points and eight rebounds and dished as many assists by himself as the entire UConn team (9), but made only 2-9 from the stripe. On the other hand, the Huskies were dominant from the charity stripe, nailing 20-22 freebies to help clinch an 81-76 win and a trip to the Elite 8.

Game two between Michigan State and Virginia included a big ovation for the biggest name in the building: Spartan legend Magic Johnson. Virginia came into the game leading the nation with only 58 points allowed per contest, and they only let Michigan State score 61. The Spartans were playing at half-strength for most of the year with Branden Dawson missing 9 games due to a broken hand and Adreian Payne out for seven games with a sprained right foot, but they proved how lethal they could be when everyone was healthy. Dawson was the overall hero with 24 points and 10 rebounds but it was Payne who saved the day in the final minutes. After Virginia used a late run to tie the game at 51 apiece with 90 seconds left, Payne just took over: he made a three point shot, then found Dawson open for a dunk with under a minute left, and finished off the Cavaliers with a pair of FTs to give his team a 58-54 lead that turned into a 61-59 win. The final stats for each team were eerily similar (29 rebounds, five steals,four blocks, and 16 fouls), demonstrating how tight a battle it really was.

After all that excitement I looked forward to a slow Saturday night, but ended up with a nice high (winning $100 at a friend’s poker game) and a devastating low (watching my beloved Arizona Wildcats lose to Wisconsin by one-point in OT after missing a shot at the buzzer). My pain was eased a little bit by a cheesesteak I had at 30th St. Station on the way back to DC, as well as the fact that Arizona will probably be a favorite to reach the Final 4 in 2015. I did not think Kevin Ollie could beat Tom Izzo in March, but the young guy pulled off the upset of the old guy on Sunday afternoon so kudos to UConn for becoming the first #7 seed to ever make the Final 4.