March 19th, 2009 5:33 pm | by AARON MESH News | Posted In: Sports, CLEAN UP

Live Madness! The NCAA Tournament Comes to the Rose Garden (Part 1)


This is the most important day in the history of Portland sports. Until we get our very own air hockey team.

Yes, it's the NCAA Tournament -- March Madness, the Big Dance, That Thing You Duke -- and WW is live at the Rose Garden for every single well, a couple of the games. I'll be your live blogging host, talking you through all the excitement that comes from re-painting the hardwood with a blue National Collegiate Athletics Association logo. I'll be courtside for the first two games today, then back on Saturday for the entire second round. Commence the madness!

Purdue-Northern Iowa

I'm a little late getting started: Turns out the NCAA, which will eventually squeeze every penny out of Portland as we thank them for it, charges media $16.50 a day for wireless access. I ponied up. I'm a Portlander now.

12 seeds have a storied tradition of upsetting 5 seeds in the Tourney. Northern Iowa will not be one of them. With two minutes to halftime, the UNI Panthers are down by 12, and are proving slower and shorter than the Boilermakers. Also, a number of Panthers are fighting an ongoing struggle with backne. (These are what are known in basketball as "intangibles.")

Purdue Pete is here! He could be the cousin of Steely McBeam, except his head is made of plastic with some felt hair taped to it. Northern Iowa has not brought its mascot.

Halftime, which means we're going to honor the Seattle Pacific women's soccer team, which won the Division II Championship. They wear matching windbreakers. (32-20 Purdue, by the way.)

A quick tour of the scene: Outside, it's a flood of purposeful walkers, with little packs of scalpers interspersed. People hold up their tickets if they want to sell; potential buyers call out the price they want to pay. (The price they want to pay, shockingly, is face value.) Inside, it's quieter than I expected: The seats in the lower bowl are only half-full. I don't know if this is because the ticket-holders are waiting for their respective games (on the bus ride here, I saw a lone U-Dub fan strolling past the Post Office, in the wrong direction) or because the economic clusterfuck has curtailed the number of traveling fans each school managed to bring out. There's definitely a surplus of purple in here; some of these people are (gloomy) Northern Iowa fans, but most are Huskies, who boo lustily when the halftime Jumbotron montage shows the UConn last-second jumper that sent Brandon Roy packing from the Sweet Sixteen.

The UNI band (with a "Go Panthers" sign taped to the mouth of the tuba) play "Highway to the Danger Zone." Purdue responds with "Seven Nation Army." Advantage, Boilermakers.

If you're wasting your workday reading this, you might as well watch the games, too. There's a "Boss Button" that will turn your screen into a spreadsheet if anybody walks by. You're golden.

Purdue's Jajuan Johnson just got himself a SportsCenter highlight with an alley-oop dunk. The other Purdue MVP is a lady seated in section 102 (most lower-bowl sections are assigned to schools; the Portland yokels are up in the nosebleeds). She has been yelling at the refs consistently for the last five minutes. It is not hard to hear her. This place is quiet.

UNI keeps trying to make a run -- they just drained a trey to cut the Purdue lead to seven -- but then scrappy Panther guard Ali Farokhmanesh is called for an offensive foul on what would have been a three-point play. The arena wakes up, and boos. The Washington fans, feeling kinship with the team in purple, have adapted Northern Iowa as their own.

I am seated between a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal and and a sportswriter from an Iowa radio station. I ask them if they will be attending Merritt Paulson's MLS press conference tomorrow, since it has been scheduled to attract tournament-covering media. There is actual laughter at this suggestion. "If UNI loses, we're flying out tonight," says the radio guy.

UNI still down 10. Paulson has lost one audience member.

With my superior hoops analysis, let me suggest one area in which Northern Iowa might improve: They could learn to make layups.

And yet... UNI won't go away. Coast-to-coast dunk by forward Jake Koch, and it's a six point game. The Purdue cheerleaders respond by doing lifts to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer." Have I mentioned yet that the NCAA has set up an "Official Cheerleader Warmup Area" next to the Rose Garden's media room?

This Ali Farokhmanesh fellow is a little pisser, is what he is. Zips in behind a slower Boilermaker for an acrobatic layup. These Panthers have character. Unfortunately, they also have an eight-point hole with 4:30 to play.

Panthers within six, holding for their shot...and the point guard throws the ball out of bounds. "It was the strangest thing I've ever seen," says the radio reporter who is preparing to fly back to Iowa tonight. "He just threw it to the bench."

Oh, but Purdue is one of those teams that can't shoot free throws, and with one corner three, UNI has cut the lead to four with a minute to play. Purdue fans have brought a giant gold-painted cardboard "P," and realize that now is the time to whip out the "P," if you will.

An it brings them luck, as ANOTHER charging foul is called. But Purdue can't hit from the line, as you'll remember, and UNI hits another three. The Huskies fans, now officially on Northern Iowa's side, wave their arms to distract the Boilermakers' best penalty-stripe shooter. This does not work.

2.2 seconds to play, and Purdue needs just one free throw to ice it. And...done. Boilermakers survive, 61-56.

Washington-Mississippi State

I'm not going to be able to stay for much of this one -- or sub out another reporter, since the NCAA works on a photo-ID basis with the media. Too bad, because this place will be at least mildly rockin' for the Huskies-Bulldogs game. MSU fans are actually heckling the U-Dub players during warmups.

Strike that -- I'm not going to be able to stay for any of this one. I'm off to work on another story entirely, but I'll be back first thing Saturday morning with the entirety of round 2. I'll leave you with this observation: The Mississippi State band is MUCH louder than any of the other bands.
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