Sunday, March 4, 2007

Remembering The 2006 Big East Tourney

(Don't mind the last 21 seconds of black screen. Not sure what this Youtuber was going for with that portion of the video, but I'm guessing he won't get the call to direct MJ's next commercial. Regardless, you could play that music to a montage of Rosie on the can and I'd still get chills. So I say kudos to you, Youtuber "bizarrosteve.")

As Raftery, Bilas and the insufferable Doug Gottlieb will be sure to remind you over the course of the next couple of weeks, March Madness represents everything that is right with sports. Every team eligible for their conference tournament (outside of those commie conferences like the Ivy League that do not hold conference tourneys) gets a chance to continue playing until they lose. That could be one more game and it could be 9 more games. They all get a shot. There are so many improbable and moving stories that pop up through these conference tournaments--and later the NCAA Tournament--that even Ron Borges can find a unique angle from which to report. You can always count on a .500 team (often times one with multiple compass bearings in its name) getting hot in the conference tourney and grabbings a 16 seed or a 18-13 ACC team (usually Marlyand) making a run in the ACC tournament and then using that momentum in the NCAAs. That's why looking back at last year, I should have known better than to give up the fate of the Syracuse Orangemen (I do not observe the "PC" mascot name change) and the legacy of Gerry McNamara.
In Gerry's four years at Syracuse, he never disappointed. Ever. If 'Cuse was down 20 with 5 minutes to go, you were only 6 Gerry 3's away from making it a close game. And the thing was that despite how unlikely those 3's would have been, when he didn't bring them back you were a little bit surprised and disappointed. As the year wound down, that disappointment became utter despair. It was pretty clear that while Gerry was going out as perhaps the greatest OrangeMAN of them all, he would be best remembered for his heroics in the championship game of 2003 and spurts of magic throughout the balance of his career and would not receive the fanfare associated with an exit through the NCAAs that he so rightly deserved. It wasn't Gerry's fault, it was the team as a whole. This team was flawed. Sure you could have said the same thing about the 2003 team but you just felt things were different with those guys. This team didn't have that. In fact, they had the opposite of "that."
At 19-11 and coming off 4 straight losses (including an ass-kicking at DePaul the likes of which the Boeheim era had never seen) the pundits had ruled 'Cuse NIT bound barring a significant run in the conference tourney. And there was no way this team was making a run. They just had no heart outside of Gerry. Turned out they didn't need anyone else. Over the next four days, Gerry McNamara put on a show at MSG that raised his stature from local icon to national story to legend to Unicorn, Yeti and fucking Easter Bunny all wrapped up in one. It was the most improbable run in Big East Tournament History (no team had won 4 tournament games in a row) and one of the great individual performances on consecutive days by any athlete (nowhere are athletes asked to perform for 4 days straight unless we're talking cricket or iditarod, which we are not).

Here's the chronology:
Game 1 Cincinnati - Up comfortably for most of the game, Syracuse suffered their predictable late second half meltdown right on queue. Cincy took the lead with under 3 minutes left to play and 'Cuse struggled to keep up. Down 2 with 5 seconds left, 'Cuse was going to live and die with the only guy they trusted with the ball. After receiving the ball, Gerry hits some traffic around midcourt, sloppily throws the ball behind his back, picks it up--splitting two defenders--and ever so delicately launches a one footed floating tear dropper from the top of the key that drops with less than a second left. In realtime it wasn't clear if he was on or behind the line but a quick check of the replay showed he had deftly squeezed his undersized shoe behind the line prior to the shot. With .5 left, Cincy got off a dangerously close shot to win it but it was not to be. 'Cuse had won on the heels of one of the greatest shots in Big East Tournament History and had likely placed themselves squarely on the bubble of the NCAA tournament. What made the victory even more sweet was the post-game press conference in which the normally subdued Jim Boeheim went balistic about comments printed in the Syracuse newspaper indicating that Gerry McNamara was considered the most overrated player in the league (video evidence posted below). What made the victory depressing was the fact that in order to assure themselves of a seat at the table, Gerry and the fellas had to have a strong showing against the consensus number one team in the nation the following night: UConn.

Game 2 UConn - UConn was not a good matchup for this Syracuse team. The guards were bigger and stronger, the frontline was heads taller and more physical and their depth was outstanding. It didn't help that the last time these two teams faced eachother 'Cuse had lost by 23, and it wasn't even that close. But the killer in this matchup was the fact that Gerry was historically awful against UConn. His scoring average was something like 10pts lower and his shooting percentage was cut in half. It would seem that someone else would have to step up, and on this team that was very unlikely. Remarkably, the game started out with 'Cuse flying out of the gate. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead and were knocking down everything. UConn was playing sloppy basketball and getting into foul trouble. At the half, 'Cuse was up ten and was getting contribution from everywhere, but of course Gerry was leading the way. He was nailing threes and burying off-balanced shots over big fellas in the lane, instead Gerry's game had morphed from featured scorer to distributer and he was keeping the UConn guards off-balance all night by drawing them out and dishing to his suddenly confident teammates all over the floor. With UConn playing so poorly, you knew it was only a matter of time in the second half before they closed the gap. At first, they didn't. Instead, Gerry pumped in a three with 16 minutes left and 'Cuse was up 14. UConn clawed it's way back and soon it was ten points, then 8, then 6 with more than 7 minutes to play. While the fact that UConn was back in the game was almost inevitable, the most deflating aspect of their climb was the manner in which they came back. UConn was methodical in their attack. They were the anti-Cuse. They knew they would get back into it and 'Cuse knew they would let them. After another huge Gerry 3, UConn promptly went on a 9-0 run and with 32 seconds left the dagger was set in place by one of the all-time dagger droppers, Rashad Anderson. He knocked down a clutch 3 and put UConn up for the first time in the game. Now this was Gerry time. Down one with less than 30 seconds left, it's pretty clear where the ball needs to go if you have any basketball sense whatsoever. Of course, Josh Wright does not possess such sense. Inexplicably, option number 8 (Josh Wright) forced up a vomit inducing effort with 12 seconds left following an offensive sequence in which Gerry never laid a paw on the ball (just glancing at those seconds of video gives me heart palpatations). UConn followed with two free throws and now Syracuse had the ball with 11 seconds left in the game down by three. The only play Syracuse had was to get the ball to Gerry and the only defense UConn had was to stop him from getting it. The broadcasters pondered whether or not to foul on the inbounds pass but given Gerry's propensity for the dramatic and UConn's horrendous free throw shooting that would surely be tested if they were to foul early, fouling didn't seem like a great idea. Surprisingly, Gerry took the ball almost uncontested on the inbounds, took a couple of dribbles and launched an off-balance fadeaway from about 6 steps behind the arc that banged in with 5.5 seconds left and almost caused me to blow out both my knees from my vantage point on a New York Sports Club treadmill (I watched the afternoon game via a 2 hour "lunch break" during which I burned roughly 5,000 calories and broke every rule of gym decorum other than the loosely enforced "no jorts" rule.). In overtime, 'Cuse was playing with house money and UConn was too stunned to produce. By the end of it all, 'Cuse had eeked out a two point victory over the number one team in the nation and following the game Gerry looked as though he'd aged a generation over the 41 minutes he was on the floor (putting up 17pts and 13 dimes). Now they were in. Bigger than that, they were on to something. It seemed they had found it and people were taking notice. Tomorrow was Georgetown, a fundamentally sound squad who had punished the Orangemen less than 3 weeks prior. But bigger than Syracuse - Georgetown, tomorrow was a chance to see Gerry. A chance to see if he could do it again.

Game 3 Georgetown - Well it was a good show. A valiant effor to be sure. Syracuse wasn't even supposed to be here and with Gerry sitting 12 minutes in the first half with a groin injury, the clock had finally hit midnight, band had played its last song and the fat lady was hitting some mean vibrato on her final note or just insert whatever cheap cliche you wish. The fact is, it was over. Walking into the lockerroom at halftime, they just looked like a team who had accepted their fate. And considering what their fate was 3 days ago, things weren't so bad. Boeheim wouldn't have it. He ripped into the guys for laying down and giving up. After what Gerry had done for them they were going to repay his effort by handing Georgetown this game? The speech seemed to have an effect on their effort, but not the production. Less than 3 minutes into the second half, they were down 15pts and still couldn't make anything work, but alas they still had Gerard. Gerry had 2pts in the first half and was essentially functioning on one leg. With about 15 minutes left, Gerry went to work. He knocked down three 3's in 5 minutes and helped bring the 'Cuse to pull within one. Georgetown regained their composure and started forcing it inside to the seven footer Hibbert, who was having his way with the 'Cuse frontline. Inside of 5 minutes, things just got weird. It was back and forth action with multiple parties stepping up. Big shot by Devendorf, a swat by Mookie and a CLUTCH 3 by the career woodsman Matt (The Gormantrix) Gorman. Georgetown was game to the task and never let 'Cuse do anything with the fleeintg momentum they would gain. With about a minute left, 'Cuse called a timeout. During the timeout, you could hear JT III imploring his guys to keep McNamara from getting a shot off. It was as if he was the only player on the court capable of scoring and JT III would stop him at any cost. Despite the clear instructions, Gerry managed to get the ball and free himself from a few defenders. He headed for the hole with his hair on fire. Seeing that Gerry had escaped, the monster in the middle, Roy Hibbert, began the lengthy trek out to the three point line to stop him. Gerry never flinched. He buried his fifth three of the game in Hibbert's grill and put 'Cuse within one. If that moment was absolute pandemonium the next possession, mayhem ensued. The entire crowd was screaming Gerry's name despite the fact that he was on defense and likely would not get another chance to handle the ball. 'Cuse alum Derrick Coleman was on his feet and whipping the crowd into a frenzy and Georgetown--still up one--was just trying to hold on. After crossing half-court, Georgetown messed around for awhile probably assuming 'Cuse would foul, but when the clock began to run down and no foul came they had to do something. GTown's Jeff Green started for the hoop, Demetris Nichols swatted at the ball and for a second it was loose. Dead silence. Eyes bulged, sneakers squeaked and the ball bounced unpossessed looking for a home. The fate of the 'Cuse run lay in the balance. Before you even had a chance to realize what was going on, Gerry had it and was going the other way. With under 10 seconds left, Gerry darted up the floor on a 2-on-1 break. Everyone knew he was takin the last shot. Would he stop and pop it, drive and hope for a foul or rise up and throwdown a massive 360 windmill (at this point anything seemed possible). Well the "1" of the 2-on-1, Asanti Cook, had no idea how he was going to do it but knew Gerry would take it. We all knew he'd take it and we all knew he'd make it. So Gerry dished it. Eric Devendorf layed it in to put 'Cuse up 1 with 1.5 seconds left. The turn of events left the young Georgetown team shattered. They got off a scary shot on target but once again Gerry and the 'Cuse survived. At this point, people were in disbelief. Just 3 days ago this team was NIT bound and McNamara the most overrated player in the league. 15 minutes ago Syracuse was down 15 points and putting the kind of half-hearted effort they were notorious for that season. Now, they were one game away from the single most unlikely of Tournament Championship runs since the league began holding tournament. The tabloids were Gerry, SportsCenter was Gerry, hell even my friendly Iranian bodega guy was talking Gerry. There's no way he could do it a fourth time? He barely made it through this game.

Game 4 Pitt - This time there would be no letdown. 'Cuse played this entire game with the energy and spirit they should have been feeding off for the entire year. THIS was the team that exemplified the grit of its leader. 'Cuse jumped out to an early 15pt lead and allowed a noticeably battered Gerry to rest for more lengthy periods of the first and early second half. But for a 3 minute span midway through the second half, Pitt never really got much going but did pull ahead during this brief span. The shortlived lead was killed by Gerry and was best described by Pete Thamel of the New York Times whose succinctness captures the feeling of the final game. This was not a contest, it was a formality:
"With the momentum having swung to the Panthers, Boeheim called a timeout. McNamara then got open for a 3-point attempt from the left side. He promptly buried it, and Syracuse never trailed again."

Syracuse won by four and Gerry finished with 14pts, a body full of bruises and 18,000 loyal subjects who seemingly forgot that anyone else was on the floor and were probably still screaming "GERRY! GERRY!" well into the night. After the game there were tears, hugs, and some great shots of Gerry wearing a shirt with the phrase "Overrated?" on it. The night couldn't go on long enough.

'Cuse lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament a few days later but the buzz of the Big East Tournament still had not worn off on me. It was unreal. Anytime I stopped and thought about it I was amazed. This team wasn't supposed to be there. Gerry simply willed them to win and would not be denied. I've rooted for some guys who've come up big in the clutch (Papi, Brady, Van Nostrand...) but I've never been part a series of games where a player put on such a show. It may not have been the greatest run by a 'Cuse team in my time as a fan as it'd be hard to top the 2003 title, but those 4 days on the stage of the self-proclaimed "Mecca of Basketball" were frickin great theater by 'Cuse's finest performer. Ever.

Even if that Big East Title banner gets old and musty in the rafters of the Dome, this will never get old.
(Not safe for work unless you work as a longshoreman.)

P.S. The Bakersfield Jam lost 2 heartbreakers over the weekend and once again Gerry's minutes are diminishing further in the wake of the Mateen Cleaves era. On Saturday, in under 20 minutes of play, he scored only 8pts, dished out 2 dimes and grabbed two boards. On Sunday, he got a little more PT and scored a little more (13pts in 24 minutes. Imagine what he could do in 40 minutes Coach Harrick!). PICK IT UP GERARD!

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