When ESPN announced its first "College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon" in November 2008, I reacted with both intrigue and skepticism. The prospect of almost 24 consecutive hours of college basketball -- stretched across the country -- to help ring in the new season seemed like a great idea.
ESPN started the Tip-Off Marathon in 2008
Two major questions resided in my mind, however. Who would participate in those oddly-timed, early-morning matchups? Just as importantly, who would show up?
After the initial year was deemed a marketing success, ESPN brought the Tip-Off Marathon back for a second helping on November 17th, 2009. Starting at midnight Eastern Time on the West Coast, the sports network embarked on a series of 12 games -- featuring schools from power conferences, mid-majors and small conferences alike.
The fourth game of the marathon -- starting at 6 am -- pitted two New Jersey institutions against each other. The Monmouth Hawks made the roughly hour-long trip to Jersey City to face the St. Peter's Peacocks.
ESPN announcers sitting courtside
So why would two NCAA Division I basketball teams participate in something that could completely throw them off their rhythm? The main reason -- national exposure.
Monmouth hails from the Northeast Conference, while St. Peter's is a representative of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. With the exception of conference championship games, these schools are rarely featured on ESPN or any other national media outlet. The extra attention could open up new pipelines for recruiting and student enrollment.
The Peacocks' mascot was ready for some national TV time
I arrived at the Yanitelli Center for the unique event at around 4:30 am. Normally, this is bedtime following an evening news shift at New Jersey 101.5 FM. But, with the St. Peter's campus located about 4 miles from my home, I wanted to witness this spectacle for myself.
Pre-dawn in Jersey City
Despite the early hour, there were already a few-hundred fans at the arena. A 3 am pep rally -- complete with breakfast and coffee -- sought to give students some added energy for the game.
On the court, Monmouth and St. Peter's players spent extra time warming up during the shootaround. On the surface, they appeared unfazed by the entire situation. Deep down, many would probably tell you that a combination of fatigue and adrenaline were battling for control of their bodies.
The teams put extra emphasis on their pre-game warmups
As gametime approached, a crowd of 1,246 had gathered inside the 3.200-seat Yanitelli Center. Some were geared up for the game like it was a 7 pm start, while others arrived while wearing pajamas.
At 6 am, the emotional rush of national TV took center-stage. Whenever the public address announcer mentioned ESPN, the fans would yell, clap and stomp on the wooden bleacher seats.
St. Peter's fans were pumped for the game
Not surprisingly, the game was sloppy at the start. The Hawks turned the ball over 3 times within the first two minutes, while the Peacocks turned the ball over once and missed their initial three shots from the floor. Were the players' bodies still waking up? Were they overamped? One could only wonder.
The scoring drought ended with 17:44 remaining in the 1st half, as junior forward Ryan Bacon got the offensive rebound on a missed three-pointer and tipped the ball into the basket. How fitting that someone named "Bacon" would contribute at breakfast time!
Ryan Bacon tipped home this missed shot for the game's first basket
Monmouth and St. Peter's would trade missed-and-made baskets, resulting in an unimpressive 8-7 score through the opening 7 minutes of the game. The lackluster play didn't dampen the fans' enthusiasm, however...as chants of "Let's Go Hawks!" and "S-P-C!" alternated back-and-forth.
Decent crowd for a 6 am game
Monmouth would then go ice-cold -- both from the field and at the free throw line -- resulting in a 14-2 St. Peter's run, and a 22-9 lead for the Peacocks with 6:09 left in the 1st half. While many Hawks' fans sat with their arms folded across their chest, the St. Peter's crowd was boisterous...clapping and stomping with a little more force than before.
On the Hawks' sideline, head coach Dave Calloway attempted to wake up his team by shouting words of encouragement and going over strategy during team huddles. Clearly, this was not the national attention Monmouth was seeking.
Monmouth coach Dave Calloway talks to his team on the sideline
At halftime, St. Peter's led 27-16. For Monmouth, it was about as bad a 1st half as a Division I team could envision. The Hawks shot only 18.2% from the field -- 0-8 from three-point range -- and a paltry 57.1% at the foul line.
Missed shots were a running theme for Monmouth
In the stands, I was yawning...not only because I had been awake for about 20 consecutive hours at that point, but also because the game had a less-than-crisp feel. Still, looking around the Yanitelli Center, you could see just how much this ESPN appearance meant to the St. Peter's students, faculty and fans.
The ESPN appearance -- coupled with an in-state rivalry -- made this a big game for St. Peter's
The frigid shooting would follow Monmouth into the 2nd half, as the Hawks hit on only 2 of their first 7 attempts from the field. St. Peter's could not take full advantage, however, and the Peacocks could only muster a 13-point lead during the opening few minutes.
When junior swingman Justin Sofman hit a 3-pointer with 14:17 remaining in regulation, Monmouth cut the deficit to 33-23. It was as close as the Hawks would get.
Monmouth unsuccessfully tried to rally from a big deficit
During the next two minutes, the Peacocks embarked on a 5-0 run. Bacon, redshirt freshman Jamin Shumate and redshirt freshman Darius Conley led the charge, sending the Yanitelli Center crowd into a loud, sustained cheer. St. Peter's was taking control of the game, and the fans knew it.
St. Peter's adds to its 2nd half lead
With 11:58 left in the 2nd half, St. Peter's offered one of its students a chance at free tuition for the spring semester. The contestant, selected at random from the crowd, would have to sink a half-court shot during the TV timeout. Who would have guessed that skipping sleep could potentially be so beneficial?
This student had a chance to win free tuition for the spring semester
Wearing a white "Peacock Nation" t-shirt, the contestant smiled and waved to the crowd as she appeared at center court. Almost everyone inside the building stood and cheered as the girl was handed the basketball. Getting a running start to build momentum, she heaved the ball toward the basket with all of her strength. It bounced woefully short of the goal.
While she didn't win a semester's worth of tuition, the school did offer a consolation prize of $500 to help pay for books in the upcoming session. The crowd applauded as she left the floor, shrugging her shoulders and smiling.
Her shot didn't quite have the distance
The failed half-court attempt proved to be the only remaining drama in this early-morning game. St. Peter's never allowed Monmouth to trim the deficit below 13 points, capitalizing on the Hawks' continued poor shooting to build a 53-27 lead with 3:46 left.
As the final seconds elapsed from the game clock, those wearing navy-and-light blue inside the Yanitelli Center applauded the effort of their Peacocks. The buzzer sounded with St. Peter's defeating Monmouth, 58-34.
A yawner in favor of the Peacocks
If you attended a 6 am game expecting aesthetic beauty, then you probably left disappointed.
There were a combined 35 turnovers -- 18 for Monmouth, 17 for St. Peter's. The Hawks shot 21.3% from the floor for the game, and made only 12 of 21 free throws. Compare that to the Peacocks' 45% field goal shooting, and 8-10 from the foul line...and the numbers add up to a blowout.
If you were there for the love of college basketball, however, then you could only consider the event a success. For two hours, the sleep-encrusted eyes of the sports world were fixated on two programs that were seeking national attention.
Leaving the Yanitelli Center in daylight
For me, the strangest part wasn't the game itself -- it was the drive home afterward.
When I arrived at the Yanitelli Center in Jersey City for the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, it was dark outside. When I left, the sun was up. People were heading to work and school, while I was returning from a basketball game.
I guess my morning wasn't so bad, after all.
Special game tickets featured the ESPN logo to mark the occasion