THP #31: As Good As It Gets

February 26,2022 – Dartmouth, Massachusetts
UMass-Dartmouth vs Keene State
Little East Conference Championship Game
Men’s Basketball

There’s a chasm separating a good game from a great game.

A good game can happen any day of the week. It can be the season opener. It can be a random non-conference game in the middle of December. It can be a late January matinee. A good game is competitive and entertaining to watch.

A great game is different. Great games don’t happen every day. Great games need something special: stakes or a story.

Stakes instantly imbue a game with an added intensity and energy that a regular January matchup simply doesn’t have. Stakes come this time of the year thanks to conference tournaments and the Big Dance.

A game with story is harder to pin down. It can be a perfect set of circumstances coming together, like Chris Beard’s first game back in Lubbock after taking the Texas job. It can be an annual attraction like Duke-Carolina or the rock fight that is the Big East with long history and many famous characters playing big roles along the way.

And then you get a game like my friend Alex and I were at last Saturday. A game with stakes and story played at the highest level in front of a massive crowd that built to a crescendo so phenomenal that the final flourish truly was the beautiful embodiment of March and the chaos this game brings.

But first, I have a whale to show you.

The City

Dartmouth is a suburb in every sense. With a town motto that translates from Latin to “Useful and Agreeable”, and a population just under 34,000, Dartmouth sits along the South Coast and Buzzards Bay.

The third-largest town in Massachusetts by area, Dartmouth has a long agricultural history and a long history with the sea.

However, bordering Dartmouth to the east is the city of New Bedford. America’s most lucrative fishing port for decades, New Bedford is one of the most underrated cities in New England.

Downtown New Bedford

With a population of 102,000, it’s the largest city on the South Coast. Long a hub for fishing and whaling, New Bedford showcases its long history with the sea. The New Bedford Whaling Museum sits right on the waterfront and features galleries of art and exhibits about the history of whaling and its connection to New Bedford.

There’s also a huge whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling right when you walk in.

Whale

A few years ago I was invited to a wedding at the museum. The ceremony was held in the amphitheater (more weddings need stadium seating) and cocktail hour happened in a room with The Lagoda, a half-sized model of a whaling ship which is also the world’s largest. It was a fun time.

The Folk Festival in the summer is a favorite of my wife and I. The whole downtown area shuts down and becomes pedestrian-only with live music, food trucks, and vendors hawking their wares. It really is one of a kind.

Me in the boat.

I can’t wait to get back their with the wife and the dog. Speaking of that, here’s a moment with Bella.

The Good Eats

New Bedford, and the South Coast in general, is home to the largest Luso-American (or people of Portuguese descent) population in the country. Nearby Fall River has the most Luso-Americans in the country and New Bedford is second. New York City is third with less than half the number of Portuguese as New Bedford.

With that comes culture and food. The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament every summer is the largest Portuguese cultural festival in the world. And for me, on this day, it meant my first encounter with linguica.

Located on Purchase Street, the Whaling City Diner is a quintessential American diner. Serving breakfast and lunch, it had everything you’d want to fill your stomach the day after a big snowstorm.

I went with the eggs, home fries, and linguica with a pancake. Linguica is a Portuguese sausage. Smoke cured, it’s traditionally seasoned with garlic and paprika. And it was damn good.

Rather than the herbacious, almost floral, notes of a traditional breakfast sausage, the smokiness came through along with the deeper flavor of paprika. Honestly, I’d rather every diner switch to linguica for their sausage option. 10/10, will come back.

The Campus

UMass-Dartmouth has a long, winding history. The university was created on the back of combining the Bradford Durfee College of Technology and the New Bedford Institute of Textiles and Technology in 1964.

In 1969 the school became known as Southeastern Massachusetts University before getting its current name in 1991 when it was incorporated into the UMass system.

The history of the school can be seen inside the athletic center where every school seal is on display.

The campus is laid out perfectly. A ring road encircles the majority of the campus and makes getting around incredibly easy. However, in terms of looks, the campus looked barren and desolate.

This was due in no small part to the majority of buildings being concrete brutalist structures built more than half a century ago.

Combined with a fresh snow, the concrete gave an eerie feel to the campus. No one was out and walking around. All the architecture felt harsh. It was an incredibly strange vibe.

It was made even stranger when we got to the library and saw this outdoor amphitheater which looked like it could have been a set from Hunger Games.

The Game

After a long walk through campus, we found our way to the home of Corsairs athletics, the Tripp Athletic Center. A corsair is a synonym for a pirate or a privateer.

The Tripp sits in a complex with the other UMD athletic fields. Upon entering there’s a small lobby with a large hall of fame/trophy case.

The gym was quite large by Division III standards. A crowd of 3,217 would be in attendance for the game. Banners to past success and a wonderful old scoreboard highlighted the far wall as two large sets of wooden bleachers filled the room.

The conference title and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament were up for grabs, but it was more than that for Keene State. If the Owls lost their season was over. For UMass-Dartmouth, a 24-3 season meant that by all accounts a loss here would still have them in a strong position for an at-large bid.

And early on it was a back and forth affair with neither team getting more than a handful of points ahead.

Let’s meet the first of our protagonists: James Anozie. The 6’6 senior form Poughkeepsie, NY was the engine on the inside for the Owls. Against a fast, dynamic Corsairs team, he would be needed to play large on the inside on both ends of the court. And excellent he was throughout his 26 minutes of play.

As the first half progressed it was clear that neither team was going to dominate. The lead flipped six times in the opening 20 minutes, and neither team led by more than six points.

Every rebound. Every loose ball. It was a battle on both ends. A byproduct of being not just the conference final, but also the third meeting between the teams this season. Both were won by the Corsairs.

Marcus Azor. I don’t gamble much, but I’d wager that the senior from Brockton will make it onto one of the national All-America lists this year. He’s been spectacular all season and would be today.

His stat line for the game would read like a cheat code (16 pts, 10 rbd, 10 ast, 5 stl, 2 blk).

The Owls would go into halftime leading 37-31. It was a fine first half, but after the intermission the energy in the building found a different level. The game rose to a different level to meet it.

Keene opened the lead up to 12 points early in the second half before the Corsairs answered. That three by Sean Leahy cut the gap to seven with 16 minutes to play.

Then Jake Ashworth stepped out from the wing.

Owls by five.

Two minutes later Azor pulled up from the elbow. Owls by three.

And so it went with the Corsairs hitting big shots and the Owls just finding ways to stay ahead. Having James Anozie certainly helped.

Anozie was paired on the inside with Jeff Hunter. Both would finish with double-doubles and 19 points each. The Owls would need every one thanks in no small part to Adam Seablom.

The senior from Lakeville, Mass recorded his 1000th career point earlier in the season and played with a chip on his shoulder all game. This backside finish to end a crazy play tied the game at 54 with six minutes to go.

Seablom would have 15 of his game-high 24 points after halftime.

And so it went down the stretch. Neither team able to break free by more than two points. Everything on a knife’s edge.

With 35 seconds left, and the game tied at 58, Keene State had an inbound in front of their bench with three seconds left on the shot clock.

60-58 Keene. But of course, there was still ample time for Corsairs to figure something out.

I turned to Alex, who by that point was on the edge of his seat as his Owls were moments from a tournament bid, and said “if I’m Dartmouth I’m running Seablom on a cut backdoor.” Well…

Tied at 60. And the Owls would get three cracks at the win. The first two were well defended and led to inbounds plays under the basket. The third came with 1.7 seconds left from the corner in front of the Keene bench.

Watch that clip a handful of times. There’s so much to see. The coach in the red jacket ready to pop off. The student section seeing the season flash in front of them. The Owl bench losing it and having to regroup. You can hear Alex next to me “It was halfway down!” It was. I don’t know how it didn’t fall.

Either way, five more minutes were put on the clock.

Leahy from Azor put the Corsairs up a bucket with 3:45 to play.

But yet again, when the Owls needed a key bucket, Anozie was there to tie the game.

As the game hit its final minute it did what all great games do to go supernova: it got weird. As the pressure builds, the players make decisions that cascade into myth.

It makes for the most entertaining version of sports on earth, and it took all of us in the crowd along for the ride.

With 20 seconds left Anozie took a hard foul under the bucket to send him to the line for a one-and-one. The crowd was delighted. Anozie was a 58 percent free throw shooter and had missed all six of shots from the line in the game. Get a rebound off the miss and the Corsairs could win it.

But on a night when he would score a season high, Anozie made his last point count to put the Owls up by two.

A great game can be ruined by a shit finish. A contest with a great rhythm and flow can turn ugly late due to fouls. A bad call by a ref could send people home sour. A poor coaching decision could be the main talking point even after a classic.

This game ended as it should have: with chaos in its bones, a freaky final bucket, and a hell of a memory for everyone who was there.

 

Nate Siow. Jeff Hunter. Dunk for the win.

Keene State 71, UMass-Dartmouth 69. Final (OT).
Player of the game: James Anozie – 19 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks
Time of game: 1:46:44

This was a special day. As we walked back to the car I said to Alex “This is my drug.” That type of energy. That type of moment. That type of theater. That’s what I chase. There’s no greater thrill for me than that moment I mentally turn everything off and am just one with that instant.

Any game you go to is a bet. Sometimes it’s a 25-point thumping and you’re waiting for the clock to run out. Other times it’s something like this, and games like this are so rare that when I come upon them it truly feels like magic. What a game.

Thanks for reading. Now, here’s one of the great athletic feats of our time…

 

 

 

 

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