NEW CASTLE —
Who says Pittsburgh isn’t a basketball town?
On an absolutely breath-taking Saturday afternoon — St. Patrick’s Day nonetheless — nearly 19,000 filled the Consol Energy Center to watch a couple of NCAA tournament basketball games.
Certainly, lots of folks were wearin’ the green, but plenty were clad in orange, purple, scarlet and navy to cheer their favorite teams.
And thanks to a cool gift from my sister, Donna, I was among them.
Today, I’ll share a few thoughts from the East Region site. Sixteen of them, to be exact. Mostly sweet.
The Statue — Before the action began, fans from far and wide snapped photos in front of the Mario Lemieux statue, which stands tall at the arena’s main entrance. I’m not as bothered by it as some folks, but my initial reaction was, “it’s pretty crowded.” While most statues devoted to sports heroes feature a single figure — think Clemente, Stargell, Jordan — Mario’s includes two opponents flailing as Le Magnifique bursts toward the goal. My overall grade: it’s ah’ight. Not bad, not great. Ah’ight.
T-Shirt Time — The hottest-selling T-shirt in the Pittsburgh region? Gonzaga. Biggest pile of shirts remaining? Southern Mississippi.
Frank Martin — The seemingly volatile Kansas State Wildcats coach is more of a pussycat than you might imagine. Throughout most of the matchup with Syracuse, Martin was actually even-keeled. He did blow a gasket on a couple of occasions, but both instances came as the camera followed his team to the bench for a timeout. If I didn’t know better, I would guess Martin’s outbursts are simply made-for-TV.
Celebrity Sightings — Vice President Joe Biden dropped in during the first half of the Syracuse-Kansas State game and stayed until the end. The graduate of the Syracuse school of law sat in the midst of the Orange faithful. Former NBA star John Stockton looked on as his son, David, played the point for Gonzaga, while Miami Heat president Pat Riley also was spotted in the Gonzaga section.
Big Nut — However, no one signed more autographs or posed for more photos than “Big Nut,” Ohio State’s biggest fan. Literally. Also known as Jon Peters, he’s the guy you see at Ohio State football and basketball games with his face painted half scarlet, half gray, garnished with an assortment of Buckeye memorabilia and an Ohio State jersey draped over his massive body. He’s number zero, of course, with the name “Big Nut” stitched on the back.
Brutus The Buckeye — The boy can dance. The Ohio State mascot wowed the crowd as the school’s pep band played “Beat It,” replicating Michael Jackson’s signature moonwalk and front kick. A little later, he taught us all how to Dougie.
Best Player 1: Aaron Craft — Full disclosure. I am an Aaron Craft fan. Have been since he slipped on the Ohio State uniform for the first time last year. I love his hustle, his toughness and his leadership. He did not disappoint in Pittsburgh. Craft achieved his first collegiate double-double with a season high of 17 points to go along with 10 assists. Defensively, he locked down Gonzaga sharp-shooter Kevin Pangos and forced the Zags to use their third and fourth offensive options. If that weren’t enough, Craft played all 40 minutes.
Best Player 2: Scoop Jardine — Jardine rebounded from a terrible first half to net 16 points, including three 3-pointers, and dish out eight assists for Syracuse. With Kansas State leading by a point early in the second half, Jardine took over on both ends of the floor, as his quick hands fueled a flurry of deflections and steals, and his penetration led to some easy buckets for his teammates.
Christmas Cheer — With Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo out of the lineup because of academic issues, Syracuse freshman center Rakeem Christmas was pretty Fab himself as he put together a collegiate-best performance of eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. If he keeps playing at that level, the Orange are still capable of reaching the Final Four.
Most Important Player — DeShaun Thomas of Ohio State, who stepped up big against Gonzaga when the Buckeyes needed him most. Thomas, coming off a career-high 31 points against Loyola in the NCAA opener, took over after Jared Sullinger picked up his second foul midway through the first half. The sophomore swingman ripped off 10 straight points during a four-minute stretch and finished with 18.
We Are ... NC — A highlight of the day was catching up with old friends Phil Macri and Bobby Kerr, both former basketball standouts at New Castle High. While Macri was an impartial observer, Kerr was there to support Ohio State, and he was rockin’ the gear from head to toe. Kerr explained that he became a Buckeye backer in the 1980s after watching Keith Byars and the football team play on WUAB-TV from Cleveland.
Are You Crazy? — The dude sitting next to me was sipping a caramel milkshake from one of the vendors at the arena. It cost him a cool $8.75. “I would have paid $9,” he joked. “What am I going to do with the quarter?”
Say What? — Not impressed by the milkshake price? I also learned that the cost of a six-pack of beer in one of the luxury boxes is $44.
Fan Favorites — If it were up to the crowd, both Kansas State and Gonzaga would have advanced to the Sweet 16. The Zags elicited plenty of positive energy from fans, but they rained boos at the very mention of the Orange over the public address system. The folks probably were still smarting from a horrible official’s call that prevented 16-seed UNC Asheville from tying Syracuse with just seconds remaining last Thursday.
Battle of the Bands — Each of the school’s pep bands provided plenty of entertainment during the frequent “media timeouts,” or commercial breaks for the viewers at home. We heard everything from the White Stripes to Journey to Tao Cruz. And, of course, “O-H-I-O” from the Ohio State band. My personal favorite? The NCAA tournament theme song from the Syracuse ensemble.
Pretty Solid Team — If there were a Legends League, a savvy owner could assemble a pretty decent unit from a few former NBA stars in the crowd. In addition to Stockton and Riley, you could add Reggie Miller and Len Elmore, who were calling the games for CBS, and former Syracuse standout Derrick Colemen. Dressed in a slick gray suit, Coleman could be seen leading the cheers in the Orange section. Glad I didn’t sit behind him, though. He stood throughout the contest.
All in all, not a bad day of baskeball.
Especially for a town that isn’t known for it.
NEW CASTLE —
Who says Pittsburgh isn’t a basketball town?
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