A game like this shouldn’t have meant so much.
Seriously, why would it? Why would a non-conference college basketball game, on a neutral court in early December matter like this? How could a game between two of college basketball’s greatest programs, between two teams that have combined to win about 495,000 games, and whose head coaches are rich enough to purchase a Caribbean island of their choice, mean so much? Why did Kentucky-UConn feel so important Wednesday night? I don’t know why, but as someone who was in the arena, I can tell you it did.
As fans started filing into Madison Square Garden late Wednesday , there was an already palpable buzz in the air. Sure some of it was fueled by the booze, the late tip-off and the fact that St. Johns and Georgia were already playing, but beyond all that, you could just tell there was a big game about to get going. And when UConn fans got a “Let’s Go Husk-ies,” chant going, you knew it was on. Sure the Garden may have heard that cheer a million times before, but Kentucky fans collectively reacted like someone who’d just taken a bad sip of chunky milk. This was Kentucky, and they weren’t going to be yelled out of the arena before tip-off, quickly getting a “Go Big Blue,” cheer going before St. John’s and Georgia even left the court. Think about that, two passionate, borderline delusional fan bases, cheering on their teams, even while two others were still in the midst of another game.
And once the first game did finish, the intensity only rose, as the whole Garden became entrenched in one of those “hiss’s,” that you hear before a big World Cup soccer match. Sure some fans were cheering and some fans were booing. But honestly, I’m not quite sure most knew exactly what to yell, just that they had to yell something. Especially since 18,000, semi-inebriated people around them were doing the same.
When the ball was finally tipped about 20 minutes later, the crowd went from electric, to some kind of word that either hasn’t been invented yet, or I’m not clever enough to think of.
It defied explanation, it really did. This was a mid-December game, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas, on a WEDNESDAY night, and yet you couldn’t find a seat in the entire place. Not one. People were hanging over railings, and sitting in the aisles. Again, for a mid-week…non-conference game…in December.
And when Kentucky jumped out to a 12-0 lead, well, I’ve never heard the Garden as loud as it was right then. Never.
To the thousands of Kentucky fans who made the trip up north (Yes thousands. If you told me the entire state of Kentucky was in the arena Wednesday, I’d believe you), you could tell it’d been awhile. Like an overzealous 16-year-old guy in the backseat of his car with a girl for the first time, there was no holding back . When UConn called their second timeout, Wildcats fans jumped and hugged, creating a massive, almost overwhelming sea of blue. It was honestly like watching a bad crowd shot from a sports movie, everyone erupting in unison, almost like a director was yelling, “And action!” Only it was real life.
But to UConn’s credit, they handled the initial blow, held firm and fought their way back into the game. Before you knew it, the score was 12-12, then 16-12 UConn.
From there, the game turned into a blood-bath and a street fight. I really don’t know how the game looked on TV (my guess is maybe a little sloppy), but in person, it was the most physical college basketball game I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even close. Elbows flew, bodies flopped, and every rebound was a war, with six, seven, eight oversized human beings abusing their bodies to get to every loose ball. I don’t care what the ages of these players were, this was a Man’s game.
On the sidelines and in the stands, the game turned into an NCAA Tournament game in December. John Calipari stamped his feet like a little kid being forced to eat their vegetables. Jim Calhoun barked out of the side of his mouth, like I’ve seen him do a millions in my life. And both coaches subbed players in and out with the friskiness and urgency of a Final Four match-up.
Which is exactly what it felt like in the stands, a Final Four. The crowd swayed on every loose ball (Ok, some of that was the booze, but still), with one half of the area cheering every time a foul was called, before the other side’s boos quickly made them inaudible.
And that’s how the game stayed until the very end.
Now I bet through all of this you’re thinking to yourself, wait, what the hell Aaron? When are you going to talk about John Wall? Don’t worry I’m getting there.
The dirty little secret to anyone who watched this game was that Wall wasn’t really a factor in the first half. After Kentucky’s initial burst, Wall went to the bench with two quick fouls, and missed the last seven minutes of the half.
But there’s a reason the kid was the No. 1 high school player of the year last season, and is going to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. He’s the truth (A nickname, which I’d like to copyright now, before Stuart Scott gets his hands on it in about 18 months).
As someone who graduated from UConn, I’ve seen a lot of great players, and especially guards in my day. Off the top of my head, I’ve seen Johnny Flynn, Randy Foye, Marcus Williams, A.J. Price, Kyle Lowry and Raymond Felton all in person, all of whom are in the NBA right now.
And none of them was anywhere close to as terrifying as Wall is in the open court with the basketball. Even as a spectator in the crowd, as soon as a loose ball hit the floor, I was frantically searching for Wall, afraid he would start the fast break that would ultimately break my Huskies. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like trying to guard him.
And in the end, the “Great Wall of Kentucky,” (a nickname which No. 1 I love, and No. 2 I hadn’t heard until Wednesday) was the difference in this game.
Wall said afterward that he wanted the ball on every possession down the stretch, and it showed. He hit three pointers, runners and a turnaround jumper that I’m still stunned by, even 12 hours later.
Wall was like every great player I’ve ever watched Wednesday night, not necessarily in talent, but in the way that everyone in the arena (and watching on TV) knew he was going to get the ball down the stretch and nobody could do anything to stop him. Even more terrifying as a spectator and opposing fan, was that every time he did take a shot, you knew it was going in. (On a side note, the only time that UConn stopped Wall the entire game was when they put the 6’9 Stanley Robinson on him. Which is basically like when you’re playing pickup in the park, and you’ve got to call up your older brother and ask him to come down because you can’t guard a kid your own age. It was really amazing. Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson are two of the best defensive guards in college basketball, and neither could do anything to stop him).
And with the game on line, Wall came through one more time, going to his left, and making an “and one,” layup to give Kentucky what was ultimately the final lead. After the play, my knees went weak and my hands went cold, and the worst part about it was that it was that was Wall was fouled hard by Alex Oriakhi. Really hard. Like, there was nothing Oriakhi could have done except pulled out a taser gun to have stopped Wall there.
The play ended up basically being the final dagger, and the difference in the game. Kentucky just had John Wall and UConn didn’t.
When the final buzzer sounded, and Kentucky claimed victory, Madison Square Garden went up like I’ve never seen it. I was sitting in what was literally the last row of the third level of Kentucky fans, and even a day later I still can’t describe their reaction. They jumped, and threw things in the air and embraced in hugs that would have made Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow jealous. Don't tell anybody wearing light bluein the Garden Wednesday night that this was just mid-December game.
As for me (a UConn fan), when I walked out of the Garden I didn’t know what to think. I’ve seen four UConn games in the Mecca in the last few years, and much like the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990’s, I’m 0-4.
I’ve seen my Huskies lose in every way imaginable, from a blown lead in the 2008 Big East Tournament, to Gerry McNamara ripping the heart out of the best team in college basketball in 2006. Hell, last year I saw UConn lose in six overtimes, (Yes, yes, I was actually there. No seriously.). And believe it or not, this stupid, Wednesday night game hurt just the same as those others. F**K!!!
I know I’m greedy. UConn made the Final Four last year and just beat LSU in the Garden two weeks ago. As two of my good friends- and huge basketball fans who live in different parts of the country- pointed out, they’ve never even been to Madison Square Garden, and I’ve seen four phenomenal games in less than 50 months there. I know it’s selfish, and I don’t speak for all UConn fans by any stretch, but just for one night, I really wanted this one. I really wanted to not have to walk out of the Garden saying to myself “Well we lost, but what a great game!” Call me arrogant, but I’m tired of that.
As for Kentucky fans, well I started by telling you how much this game mattered, and it did, especially to them. When I was leaving, Kentucky fans were all smiles and still hugging, chanting “Blue…White…Blue…White,” in the corridors. It seemed like 10 years of frustration came to a boil, and came out in just one, seemingly meaningless mid-December win. Kentucky is back.
That reaction was confirmed much later that night, when at some blurry point, in some dreary McDonald’s, somewhere in Connecticut, my uncle and I stopped for food and saw three blue-hoodied Kentucky fans waiting in front of us.
When we started talking about the game, they were quick to sympathize with me, and give me the old, “You’ve still got a great team, don’t worry,” routine. One I’m sure they’ve heard 500 times themselves over the past decade.
But they also couldn’t hold back their smiles. “I hope we (Kentucky fans) weren’t obnoxious,” one said to me as I was walking out. “It’s just, well, we haven’t won a close game like that in a long time…” his voice trailing off and going weak, the emotion of 10 years of frustration and six hours of boozing, just starting to hit him.
It was ok though, he didn’t have to say anything more, I already understood. The game, just really, really mattered to him. Probably more than it should have.
Something that seemed so inconceivable just a few hours before, made perfect sense right there.