You can count on three things every late-November: turkey on the Thanksgiving table, an NFL blowout involving Detroit or Green Bay, and the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden. College basketball fans had this year’s tournament circled on their calendar due to the presence of a pair of the best teams in the country. Duke entered its semifinal game last Wednesday against Alabama on a 26-game winning streak in regular-season tournament games, as well as a 14-2 record in its last 16 games at the Garden. The Blue Devils have won four NIT Season Tip-Off titles since 1985 (the most of any program), and their 10-PT win over the Crimson Tide landed them a spot in the NIT title game on Friday night. Most experts thought their opponent in the final would be Arizona, as all the Wildcats had to do was remain unbeaten by taking care of business against Drexel in their Wednesday night semifinal…but that is where things started to get interesting. Jon Teitel spent his weekend at the Garden hoping to see his alma mater begin the season 7-0 under Coach Sean Miller.
I took the train up to the Big Apple from DC on Wednesday morning, and after exiting Penn Station I had my first sports-related sighting of the holiday weekend: NFL on FOX host James Brown getting into a town car on a street corner. After ditching my suitcase at a friend’s apartment I picked up my press pass and walked into the Garden for a pregame meal. ESPN sideline reporter Andy Katz walked into the press dining room in a nice-looking suit, so I made sure to sit far away to avoid spilling any food on him. Most media food is cheap both in cost (none) and quality (lukewarm pizza/cookies), but the Garden charged a whopping $8 to eat, although to be fair they did provide a nice spread (chicken parmesan, pasta, salad, cake, etc.). I walked out to the court about 30 minutes before game-time only to find that the stands were near-empty. After checking with an usher to ensure I had the start time correct, I headed to my seat on press row…then realized I had been placed in a corner press box up on the second level despite the fact that the building was far from full. My Wildcats were facing Drexel for the first time ever, and I was trying my hardest to not look ahead to playing Duke for the championship. Drexel brought about a dozen cheerleaders north from Philly while Arizona only brought four east from Tucson (plus everyone’s favorite mascot Wilbur the Wildcat).
Drexel got out to a 7-0 lead, causing Coach Miller to call a timeout two minutes into the game. The Dragons were led by their backcourt of Frantz Massenat and Chris Fouch. Massenat scored 9 points in the first half due to a deft touch from the perimeter: a three pointer, a tough baseline jumper, and a step-back jumper. After playing only three games last year due to an ankle injury, Bronx native Fouch celebrated his first game in the Garden in a Drexel uniform with 16 points in 18 minutes: some layups, a teardrop, and a three from NBA range to beat the shot clock and give his team a 27-8 lead with seven minutes left in the half. One mark of a good coach is never being satisfied, and Drexel coach Bruiser Flint must be one hell of a coach because he was screaming at his team despite having a double-digit lead for most of the half. Arizona only has one senior on its roster (Jordin Mayes) so I had some doubts as to whether they possessed enough maturity to overcome such a huge early deficit. Several bad turnovers by the Cats’ frontcourt did nothing to relieve my concerns: Kaleb Tarczewski was called for traveling after getting good position in the post, Brandon Ashley carried the ball at half-court, and a long outlet pass by super-frosh Aaron Gordon was stolen by the Dragons. On the plus side Gordon was a monster on the glass (nine rebounds in the first half) and Nick Johnson scored eight points (including a dunk and an old-fashioned three point play). The Cats were able to salvage a modicum of decency with a 13-2 run to end the half down by 9 points despite not making a single three point shot or recording a single assist!
This soon became a classic “tale of two halves” game, and Coach Miller’s halftime speech appeared to resonate with his entire roster. TJ McConnell knocked down a three on Arizona’s opening possession of the 2nd half and they were off and running. Johnson continued to drive into the lane for easy layups and made an open three to finish with a team-high 20 points. Gordon ended up with the fourth double-double of his six-game college career despite only shooting 2-6 from the field. However, the story of the game was Tarczewski: after a 1-5 shooting performance in the first half, he dominated the paint in the second half en route to a career-high 15 points and 10 rebounds with an assortment of layups, jump hooks, and dunks after Drexel starting forward Dartaye Ruffin picked up his fourth foul and had to take a seat. Any hopes of a Dragon comeback were dashed when preseason first-team All-CAA pick Damion Lee went down with a right knee injury with 10 minutes left in the game and hobbled off to the locker room: sadly, the school announced the other day that Lee is out for the year with a torn ACL. Fouch continued to score from all over the floor (a three, a floater, a bank shot) and almost set a career-high with 29 points, but his 11-27 shooting was not very efficient. My second sports-related sighting of the weekend was in the concourse after the exciting comeback: 1982 NCAA champ at North Carolina and 2001 national COY for the Tar Heels Matt Doherty (who grew up on Long Island and later worked on Wall Street). I wonder if he showed up because he likes to watch college basketball or if he just tries to cheer against Duke whenever he can.
I showed up early on Friday to check my email and get some rest during the Alabama-Drexel consolation game…until it turned into a triple-OT thriller! The Arizona and Duke fans arrived toward the end of regulation, and their initial excitement of seeing a close game turned to anger as the crowd started booing both teams after the second OT concluded with no winner. In the third OT the crowd turned a bit ugly by cheering after Alabama freshman forward Jimmie Taylor missed the first of two free throws with four seconds left and his team trailing by two, but stayed classy by giving both teams a standing ovation after Drexel hung on for the 85-83 win. After waiting for the two heavyweights to warm up and for ESPN to replace Bob Knight with Dick Vitale, it was time for the main event. Your tale of the tape: Duke had a 20-person band and no cheerleaders, while Arizona had no band members and the four cheerleaders who made the cross-country trip earlier in the week.
The first half was a very tight affair, featuring a whopping 11 ties and neither team getting out to more than a five point lead. After shooting 1-8 against Drexel, Ashley broke out of his mini-slump with an 11-point first half on 5-7 shooting including an open three from the top of the key and several layups. Duke scored 23 points in the paint, most of them on layups by Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook. McConnell did a little bit of everything while running the offense: six points, five assists, four rebounds and a nice steal. Jabari Parker was matched up with fellow fabulous freshman Gordon on both ends of the court and showed why he is already one of the best players in the country. He blocked Gordon at the rim, hit a step-back over Gordon, and was able to post-up down low and make some moves to create space for a pair of layups. Gordon tried to hold his own by forcing Parker to shoot an airball and later making a two-hand dunk over Parker, but he only played seven minutes in the half after picking up a pair of fouls in a three-minute span.
In the second half Coach Miller kept switching defenders to put different guys on Parker and Hood, which turned out to be a very effective strategy. Duke shot 15-30 before the break but only 10-28 after the break, and made a season-low 12 free throws during the game. Parker did his best to keep his team in the game by blocking Tarczewski from behind, continuing to get good looks after posting up, and even fouling out Ashley on a three point play in the final two minutes. Gordon was a perfect 3-3 from the field in the second half, including a three from the top of the key, an old-fashioned three point play, and a dunk off an alley-oop pass from McConnell. Despite scoring only two points in the first half, Johnson finished the game as tourney MVP after a 13-point second half that was highlighted by a pair of huge shots from behind the arc. His fade-away three over two defenders to beat the shot-clock tied the game at 45 apiece, and his wide-open three in transition five minutes later capped a 12-3 run and forced Coach K to call a timeout. Duke kept fighting but Arizona made 9-10 free throws in the final 90 seconds to survive with a 72-66 win and its fourth-ever NIT Season Tip-Off championship.
After the final horn I ducked into the post-game press conference to ask each coach what they thought about their teams. I asked Coach K about the fact that his two losses this year came against top-five teams with skilled big men (Kansas, Arizona), and he said, “I thought we played a lot better tonight than we did against Kansas. We play a big-time schedule and when you do lose you congratulate the other guy, especially when they are high-caliber like those two teams.” I asked Coach Miller whether he thought this was just another good Arizona team or if he thought they might be something special, and he said, “No question, but one of the things we have to do is be an elite defensive team. We have to be able to use our size to rebound and just continue to develop and improve.”
I finished the night by joining some fellow alums down the street at Stout NYC to celebrate Arizona’s fifth win over Duke in eight games against the Blue Devils during my lifetime. The Cats’ schedule will not get much easier as the season progresses, with a trip to Ann Arbor looming large next weekend and the Pac-12 featuring several teams who should end up in the NCAA tourney. However, for one magical night against the winningest men’s coach in division one history, I found many things to give thanks for…while visions of the Final 4 danced in my head.