Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dunkin' and Donuts

Mornings have never been my strength.

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, 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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Great Expectations

It's not easy to carry an entire franchise's hopes and dreams on your shoulders.

When John Tavares was drafted 1st overall by the New York Islanders in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, it marked the dawn of a new era for the organization. Thousands of fans anxiously awaited the arrival of the then-18-year-old forward, convinced that he would rescue the Islanders from years of futility and establish them as Stanley Cup contenders once again.

John Tavares poses after being drafted 1st overall by the Islanders (

In junior hockey, Tavares was a teenage legend. In 2006-07, he broke Wayne Gretzky's record for the most goals in the Ontario Hockey League for a single season, tallying 72 with the Oshawa Generals. By 2009, he had the most career goals (215) in OHL history.

Still, questions remained. How would Tavares' game translate to the NHL level? At 6-feet tall and 198 lbs. at the time, some critics wondered whether he'd be durable enough to last an entire 82-game season. Others bashed his skating speed, and felt that it could work against him while competing against the best players in the world.

On October 3rd, 2009, Tavares would get his first NHL test...taking on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Isles faced a formidable foe in Tavares' debut

There was a noticeable buzz in the Uniondale, New York air that day. It was opening night in the 2009-10 season, and Long Island's new prodigy was making his debut. A sellout crowd of 16,234 passed through the turnstiles at Nassau Coliseum, eager to watch Tavares and his Islander teammates.

The Islanders hit rock bottom during the previous season, stumbling to a 26-47-9 record..."good" for 61 points and the right to draft Tavares with the #1 pick. For a franchise that hadn't won a playoff series since 1993, its fan base was ready to latch onto any possible hope for the future.

A crowd of 16,234 at Nassau Coliseum for Tavares' debut

The Penguins, meanwhile, had entered a new golden age in their existence. Led by superstars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in 2008-09. With the nucleus still intact, the Pens seemed determined to become the NHL's next dynasty.

National Anthem on Opening Night

As I got comfortable in Section 329, a chant of "Let's Go Islanders!" echoed throughout the Coliseum when the two teams lined up for the opening faceoff. While there was a smattering of Penguins' fans in the building, the vast majority were dressed in blue-and-orange.

Those Islanders' fans cheered as Tavares, wearing uniform number 91 on his royal blue jersey, took his first NHL shift. It was rather uneventful -- no goals, no assists, no penalties -- but he didn't look out-of-place, either.

Tavares on his 1st NHL shift

Pittsburgh would get on the scoreboard first. With 11:10 remaining in the 1st period, Crosby slipped the puck past Islanders' goalie Dwayne Roloson and into the net. As the Penguins' star forward lifted his arms in delight, Islanders' fans booed in disgust at the early deficit.

Sidney Crosby scored first for the Penguins

New York would not wait long to answer, however. After penalties to the Penguins' Malkin and Jay McKee, the Islanders were set up with a two-man advantage. During the power play, defenseman Mark Streit beat Fleury for his 1st goal of the season.

The packed Nassau Coliseum erupted in cheers from Isles' fans. The goal horn blasted, and the chanting chorus from Nickelback's "Burn It to the Ground" played over the speakers as folks clapped along. With 7:20 left in the opening frame, the NHL's worst team from last year was tied with the league's best.

The underdog Islanders even things up

It was also a milestone marker for Tavares. The rookie was credited with an assist on the Streit goal, giving him the 1st of what fans hope would be many points in his Islanders' career.

The score remained 1-1 into the 2nd period. The Islanders were outshooting the Penguins, but Fleury patrolled his goal crease with skill and efficiency...stopping the home team's scoring opportunities, and limiting the rebound chances.

Marc-Andre Fleury was doing all he could to keep the game tied

Following a penalty to Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton, the Islanders' power play went back to work. It wouldn't take long to produce a result.

The Islanders' power play unit takes the ice

About 20 seconds after New York's man-advantage got underway, a glorious scoring opportunity presented itself. Right wing Trent Hunter fired a pass to left wing Matt Moulson in the slot, about 20 feet in front of the goal. The puck bounced around as Moulson and Penguins' defenseman Sergei Gonchar battled for possession.

Suddenly, the little black disc found its way onto the stick of Tavares. With no time to make an adjustment, Tavares lifted a backhand shot toward the net. Fleury stretched as far as he possibly could to his right, but was unable to make the save. The puck found a home in the 6-foot-by-4-foot net for Tavares' 1st NHL goal!

John Tavares scores the 1st NHL goal of his career

While Tavares and his teammates gathered in the corner to celebrate his milestone goal, the Nassau Coliseum crowd roared in approval. Fans were catching a possible glimpse of the future in the present, as the #1 overall draft pick had tallied 2 points in his 1st NHL game. Even more importantly, the Islanders took a 2-1 lead on the rookie's successful backhand shot.

A milestone goal for the 19-year-old rookie

That score would carry into the 3rd period, leaving the defending champs in shock. Despite a sizeable talent differential, the spunky Islanders had more goals and more shots-on-goal than their counterparts from Pittsburgh.

Tavares and Crosby on a 3rd period faceoff

The Penguins appeared ready to dominate the final 20 minutes of regulation, launching shot after shot toward Dwayne Roloson...but the 39-year-old goaltender was making the saves.

Dwayne Roloson was steady between the pipes for the Islanders

With 12:41 remaining, Pittsburgh recorded the equalizer. After an offensive zone faceoff, Eaton flung a shot from just inside the blue line toward Roloson. The puck deflected off an Islanders' defenseman's stick and eluded the goalie's outstretched pad, finding its way into the net.

The only people in the building who celebrated were those wearing black, gold, or baby blue. While Penguins' fans cheered their team's success, Islanders' fans throughout the arena slumped in their seats.

Crosby's faceoff win led to the Penguins' game-tying goal

The blue-and-orange-clad fans may have been discouraged, but the Islanders themselves were not.

Just 17 seconds after Pittsburgh scored the game-tying goal, New York untied it. Trent Hunter beat Fleury with a one-time wrist shot from the top of the right faceoff circle, giving the Islanders a 3-2 lead.

It didn't take long for the Isles to recapture the lead

Despite the hiccup, the Penguins continued their offensive assault on Roloson and the Islanders.

With 3:49 left in regulation, former Islander Ruslan Fedotenko tied the game at 3...finding the puck during a net mouth scramble and stuffing it into the goal. Once again, Pittsburgh fans broke the silence of a filled-to-capacity Nassau Coliseum.

Pens' fans pound the glass after Fedotenko scored

The final moments of the 3rd period ticked away and the game headed to overtime. During the extra frame, the Penguins outshot the Islanders 4-1, but the game remained tied at 3 as the two teams headed into the shootout.

Overtime on Long Island

As two Zamboni machines did a quick resurfacing of the ice, most of the fans stood and anxiously awaited the one-on-one competition between skater and goalie to determine the game's outcome.

Getting ready for the shootout

The shootout started with Isles' forward Jeff Tambellini ringing a wrist shot off the crossbar for no goal. As frozen rubber met steel, it made a loud, clanging sound that echoed throughout the Coliseum. Fans responded with a loud, exasperated "Ohhhhhh!!!"

Penguins' defenseman Kris Letang followed Tambellini's effort by snapping a shot past Roloson and into the net. The pressure was now on the Islanders' next shooter, John Tavares, to even things up.

Kris Letang scores the first goal of the shootout

When Tavares' name was announced, the crowd buzzed with excitement. Could the rookie -- already with a goal and assist in his debut -- leave another lasting mark?

The referee's whistle blew and Tavares skated into the offensive zone for his showdown with Fleury. The closer Tavares got to the net, the louder the volume inside Nassau Coliseum. With the puck on his forehand side, Tavares ripped a wrist shot toward the goal...but it missed wide.

Tavares' shootout attempt missed the net

Despair was beginning to spread throughout the arena as Penguins' center Sidney Crosby took the ice. The superstar -- with a goal and assist of his own on the night -- could seal a shootout win for Pittsburgh if he scored.

A cascade of boos were showered upon Crosby as he glided toward the net. The 22-year-old deftly handled the puck, keeping his head up and eye on the shooting target the entire time. As he closed to within 20 feet of Roloson, Crosby quickly flicked his wrists. Within the blink of an eye, the puck darted between the goalie's legs and into the back of the the Penguins a 4-3 victory.

Crosby finishes off the Islanders

A collective groan from the Nassau Coliseum faithful was followed by silence and a move toward the exits. As the Islanders slowly skated toward their locker room after a hard-fought defeat, the Pittsburgh players celebrated at center ice with fist bumps and embraces.

The Islanders nearly pulled off the upset

The disappointment from the loss was evident...but Islanders' fans were bolstered by a glimpse of hope from their budding star, John Tavares. With two points in his NHL debut, Tavares proved that the sudden jump from juniors to hockey's biggest stage was not overwhelming for him.

Now, as a 21-year-old, Tavares is tied for 7th in the NHL in goals scored this season...with eight in 12 games. Although the Isles have stumbled to a 4-6-2 start, Tavares has been a bright spot.

What will be Tavares' legacy? The Mississauga, Ontario native is under contract with the Islanders through the 2017-18 him a chance to lead the franchise through its latest rebuilding phase. Only time will tell if it ends up being a successful venture.

At least I was there when it all started.

This ticket contained a memorable debut