Welcome to Storming the Court, our new blog for everything college basketball. Over the next 6 months, we will be covering the players, teams, characters, and overall craziness of college basketball, concluding of course with March Madness. College basketball encompasses the whole of the country’s sports scene, from the America East to the Big West, and each league has its own story. Over the next week, we will kick off our conference previews, among other things. But first, our contributors will be introducing themselves to you through a post about why they love college basketball.
College basketball doesn’t have the popular appeal of the NFL, the history of the NBA or baseball, the rampant lunacy of college football, or even the hardcore fandom of the NHL. It isn’t a sport like tennis or golf that one can relate to because they play it. While I am a fan of all of the aforementioned sports, college basketball is the one I love the best.
I believe my love for college basketball can be summed up in the first NCAA Tournament game that I ever went to: Vermont-Syracuse in 2004. While there were 3 other games on that snowy March day at the DCI Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, that game has been seared into my mind as a perfect example of the beauty of college basketball. 13-seed Vermont was a team that I had followed since it gave my team, Boston College, a good game earlier that season. Its two best players, TJ Sorrentine, a sweet-shooting point guard, and Taylor Coppenrath, a 6-11 big man who averaged over 25 points per game, had helped it dominate the America East. Now, both were seniors, looking for a shot at glory.
But the NCAA Tournament committee had dealt them no favors; Vermont had drawn Syracuse as its opponent in the first round. Syracuse was led by Hakim Warrick, the freakishly athletic All-American forward, and Gerry McNamara, who at that time only seemed to have been in college for five years. Additionally, the game was only a few hours drive from the Syracuse campus, and let me tell you, it was as close as you can get to a home game in the NCAA Tournament.
Vermont, however, were apparently never told that they were supposed to lose. They were led by one of the greatest and funniest coaches of our era, the inimitable Tom Brennan, who was retiring at the end of the season. Boy did they give him a great retirement present. The game began slowly for both teams, with the first ten minutes characterized by Syracuse turnovers and Vermont cold shooting. The high-flying Syracuse offenses sputtered in the face of Vermont’s withering man-to-man defense. This effectively neutralized the Syracuse crowd. However, Sorrentine and Coppenrath were equally ineffective on the offensive end.
Into the breech stepped the quintessential unknown college basketball player, Germane Mopa-Njila, who proceeded to have the game of his life. Mopa-Njila was a Nigerian emigre, one of a surprisingly large number in the America East. He singled-handedly kept Vermont in the game well into the second half, when Coppenrath and Sorrentine finally woke up. Throughout this period, the crowd had steadily been gravitating towards Vermont, as they are wont to do when an underdog puts up a fight. However, this game, the underdog did not wilt under the pressure. Vermont was inspired by the crowd and their retiring coach, who was shouting at them to believe at every timeout.
Vermont forced overtime. At this point, the crowd was delirious and the Syracuse fans were stunned. Every Vermont make or Syracuse turnover (22 in all) resulted in another approving roar. With two minutes to go in overtime, it looked bleak for Vermont. Their lead had been cut to one, and Syracuse had the ball. Vermont looked ragged on defense, and Hakim Warrick moved into the post for the hook shot and the kill.
Only it didn’t work out that way. Mopa Njila stole the ball and handed it to Sorrentine, who dribbled down the shot clock until he got the play from Brennan. But Sorrentine shook off the play, and then did this:
In the words of the great Gus Johnson: “TJ Sorrentine! From the parking lot!”
I have been to a myriad of sporting events in my life, including several Red Sox playoff games at Fenway Park, but that was the loudest stadium I have ever been in. From there, the writing was on the wall; McNamara bricked a three at the end, and Vermont had pulled off the shocker over Syracuse.
After the final buzzer, I witnessed the iconic scene of Hakim Warrick, head in hands, silently watching the celebration of the green-clad Davids that had ended his college career.
That scene epitomizes why I love college basketball. It’s the only sport where a bunch of white farm boys and a Nigerian emigre can take down a team with 3 future NBA players and end their season. It’s the only sport where one shot can change a sports fan’s lexicon, and become the standard by which all others are measured. When Tack Minor hit a clutch three to beat Texas A+M on the way to the Final Four the next year, my brother breathlessly called me say “did you see that three? That was amazing.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but it wasn’t Sorrentine Range.” We both went silent, reminiscing on that one night when a team from nowhere Vermont had shocked the College Basketball world.