College Basketball Road Trip: Such a whirlwind, we blew tip by two hours
MAR 04, 2014 7:13a ET
We rolled into Pittsburgh a little early Monday afternoon, owing to the fact that we thought the game between the Panthers and North Carolina State began at 7 p.m. instead of 9 — long days on the road can do that to you.
So after a couple of hours of check-raising Pittsburgh poker players at Rivers Casino (little advice for all our readers who like the felt . . . there is money to be made in that poker room), it was time to head on over to the Petersen Events Center for a game between two middling ACC teams that on paper seemed pretty ho-hum. On the floor, it most definitely was not. To celebrate the festivities, I kept a running diary throughout the event:
7 p.m.: We pulled up to the University of Pittsburgh a couple of hours before the game in the bitter cold to find what is actually a relatively beautiful little campus. It is located on a hill overlooking the town and its steep inclines ensure that any student who is lucky enough to attend will get the best calf workouts of any undergraduate in America.
As we approached the media entrance to get our credentials, for the second straight game no one was at the door to greet us and there was nothing to keep any stranger from just walking right in and becoming part of the working press. Note to aspiring sportswriters: if you time it correctly, you can find yourself sitting next to a sweaty, overweight scribe on press row without so much as an ID check! Freedom of the press, indeed!
7:40 p.m.: Walking into the arena for the first time, I am struck by how great the student section (nicknamed the Oakland Zoo) truly is. Placed right on the court and encompassing 180 degrees of the lower arena, it is loud and in your face. Most all of the students are in their seats an hour before the game, clothed in matching t-shirts and holding up signs with various levels of wit.
I judge student sections by their passion not just in big games, but in the average conference game, as well. Even though Pitt is on the bubble and needs this game badly, NC State is not a marquee opponent. Yet the Zoo is rocking 80 minutes before game time, as if Duke would be taking the floor. For that reason, the Zoo enters my top 10-15 student sections nationally.
8:10 p.m.: As the pregame warm-ups begin, my focus hones in on NC State coach Mark Gottfried, who is watching from the sideline. There may be no coach in America I find more fascinating as his demeanor suggests a combination of a B-level congressman and a plaintiffs' lawyer that advertises on television during an episode of Maury. He gives off the impression that he would be sleazy, but over the years I have met him and have always found him charming and likable. His suits don't really fit and his watch has a little too much bling, but for some reason I always root for him in the same manner I pulled for Tony during "The Sopranos." His sketchiness is almost a redeeming quality and the fact that he coaches the red-headed stepchild of the ACC now makes me want to see him have success.
9:01 p.m.: The game introductions feature great moments in Pitt basketball and thankfully includes the most memorable thing that ever happened to a Panther on the national stage . . . the famous "Send it in Jerome" dunk by Jerome Lane during the old Big East days. That dunk, called by the great (and current FOX color man) Bill Raftery, might be the most famous modern college basketball call ever and is legendary for all lovers of college basketball. It makes the crowd in the Oakland Zoo (even though they weren't born when it happened) erupt and is a great ode to the program's history. Nice touch.
9:12 p.m.: The game begins rather tamely, with Pitt coming out and hitting a number of early 3-pointers to take a 12-7 lead. My early focus is on NC State point guard Tyler Lewis, listed at 5-feet-7 with large ears and a big smile, looking more like the nice guy you would copy your homework off of in science lab rather than an ACC basketball player. But Lewis was also a McDonald's All-American and clearly can play.
He leads his teammates on both sides of the court and has command of the offense, making the right decision time and again. His size, however, makes him a target, and after he makes an open 3, one Pitt student yells, "even Howdy Doody is balling on us now."
9:42 p.m.: Pitt extends its lead to 34-23 as NC State's offense becomes completely out of sync while the Panthers make six of their first eight 3-point shots.
I admit to having a morbid fascination with NC State, in large part due to my time in law school at Duke. As any State fan can tell you, if there is a way to lose a game tragically, the Wolfpack will find a way to do it. NC State must live in the shadow of the Duke/Carolina juggernaut, while having significantly less success but a fan base that is as passionate as its bigger brothers. NC State is forgotten nationally and joked upon locally, causing its fans to develop a level of character that is truly admirable.
This particular team has already dropped a couple of heartbreakers this year (the loss to UNC made me want to cry from afar), but the Wolfpack has a bright spot in forward T.J. Warren. He already has 14 points with three minutes left in the first half and is completely unguardable by anyone on the Panthers' team. Warren is probably the best player in America that nobody knows and it is great to finally get to see him up close.
9:50 p.m.: Pitt takes a 36-31 lead into halftime. Most journalists would never admit this, but for me throughout most of this trip, I have been very excited about the halftime entertainment. From people balancing plates on their head to dribbling exhibitions to little girls doing amazing jump rope tricks, halftime acts in college games can be the best entertainment. Not at Pitt. The university brought out its "2013 Scholar Athletes" to be introduced to the crowd and judging by the numbers in the photo above, it you play a sport at Pittsburgh, chances are you have won a "Scholar Athlete" award.
Either everyone at Pitt is a genius or they are very liberal with their grading policies, but I was very saddened that instead of seeing a mascot try to throw a football through a flaming hula hoop, I got members of the band (who are not athletes, by the way) who got a B- in English. When I want halftime, I want Red Panda (below), not Ken Jennings.
10:18 p.m.: The second half begins with a flourish as Warren goes from dominating to flat-out taking over the game, scoring seven points in a row to bring his total to 25 — and tie the score at 44. In this groove, Warren looks like an All-American and the myriad of ways in which he can get the ball in the basket is as good as any player in college basketball. Just ask Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.
10:25 p.m.: NC State takes its first lead when the only college basketball player I know of currently sporting a ponytail, Anthony Barber, hits a driving layup to make the score 48-46. The ponytail is an underrated basketball fashion statement and I am impressed the way Barber is rocking it in 2014.
While male actors go through pony tail stages (think Pitt, Depp, Leto), one almost never sees an athlete do the same. The only male ponytails I can think of are either worn by soccer players and offensive lineman who don't shower. Barber is going where only Tom Brady has gone before . . . rocking a ponytail and doing it while trying to both look good and dominate the game. It is hard to pull off, but he is succeeding — all the while giving his team the lead.
Dixon calls timeout and the Pitt crowd responds by dancing to "Gangnam Style." This is looking better for State by the minute.
10:35 p.m.: As NC State extends its lead to 59-54, the saddest man in the building is likely the Pittsburgh newspaper writer sitting in front of me who will have to change his entire storyline.
As we wrote about earlier on the trip, many sportswriters come into games with their columns already written in their head, hoping to see action that can verify their predispositions. In this writer's case, however, he took it further. Likely because he was on deadline (due to the 9 p.m. start), the writer had already written his whole column, parts of which I could see on his computer in front of me.
The lead talked about Pitt locking in a tournament berth and getting a confidence-building win. Now they are down five and there are less than 10 minutes to play. Someone is sweating bullets.
10:51 p.m.: After forgetting that Warren was in a LeBron James-like zone and failing to pass him the ball for a spell, the rest of the Wolfpack find him with the shot clock winding down and three minutes left in the game. The 3 he nails in two defenders' faces is NBA Draft highlight reel-ready, silencing the Zoo and deflating the building.
It is one of the best shots I have seen all year, taken in the flow of the offense but with an unbelievably high degree of difficulty. It gives NC State a 69-65 lead and leads me to tweet "TJ Warren has 37 points and is my daddy." I sometimes get carried away.
10:57 p.m.: With one steal and breakaway dunk, Warren ends the game, giving his team a much-needed 74-67 victory. He finishes the contest with 41 points, a career high and a special number in college basketball.
Any time a player scores more than 40 in a college game, it is a performance to truly appreciate. The college game time (only 40 minutes) and the defenses generated at stopping one player combine to make such high individual point totals rare, especially in the modern game. In fact, I have only personally witnessed 40-plus points live a handful of times and each of them has been special.
But Warren's may have been one of the top couple of games I have seen a college player execute in person. He controlled the game from start to finish, was 16 of 22 from the field, and added five rebounds, four steals and three assists to the 41 points. It was a virtuoso performance and should lead to national recognition for one of the best scorers in the game.
I came to Pittsburgh as part of the tour hoping for two things — to see how special Pittsburgh's student section is (it is legit) and to judge whether Dixon's team had any fire left for March (it doesn't and is likely squarely on the bubble).
But as is usually the case, I will leave with something completely unexpected — a memory of one of the best individual game performances in all of college basketball. Warren's 41-point night was special and made this trip to Pittsburgh one for the books. His team may not be headed to the NCAA Tournament, but his game is headed to the next level and you owe yourself the opportunity to see him play before he does . . . although it is doubtful you will see one as good as I did tonight.