Not many moments made me more nervous than pulling into the Nutter Center for the 2014 Horizon League Championship game between the visiting University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Panthers, and the host Wright State Raiders. And not because of the magnitude of this game.A berth into the NCAA tournament is enough to get the nerves up.
For me personally, though, this was as nerve-wracking as it gets. I would not just be going there, but on press row for the first time in my life. I nervously decided to bypass any media parking opportunities that may or may not have been there. After all, this was my first time, and I didn’t want to step on any unnecessary toes.
As I walked towards the Nutter Center, I could already tell that it was going to be a unique experience, immediately seeing fans from Milwaukee sporting their Panther gear marching towards Gate 9. I walked in, asked for directions to the Media Credentials table, and headed halfway there before the excitement and nervousness hit me hard. So hard, that I forgot where to go next. I quickly asked one of the Nutter Center staff where to go next, and soon enough, I was on my way to my seat, right on the baselline by the Wisconsin-Milwaukee bench. As well as, as I would soon find out, right in front of a group of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students.
When I took my seat, with about 23 minutes until tipoff, the arena was about half full, with a pair of corner sections tarped off. But the seats were filling. I tried my best to soak it all in, but before I knew it, I was looking over the game notes, standing for the national anthem, and typing the first paragraph of the blog you’re reading right now, with 12 minutes to the opening tip, and the arena was near-capacity. Soon after that, the lights switched off, and the starters took the court. It was time for tipoff. Again, I tried to soak it all it, but I saw some other media members with their cameras and camera phones out. Before I could pull mine out, the ball had already been thrown, and the game was on.
The Panthers won the tip, and scored on their first possession of the game. On the Raiders’ first possession, their star player, AJ Pacher, turned the ball over. It would set the tone for the opening portion of the first half. The Panthers kept hitting their shots, while the Raiders kept coughing the ball up. It got so bad that Coach Donlon had to call his first time out, down 14-7 with about 15 minutes to go in the first. He would call another 2 minutes later, the gap widening by a 19-7 margin. It would still get worse before it got better, with the Panthers increasing their lead to as many as 15 at one point.
Enter JT Yoho, who hit a pair of three pointers, which seemed to get the partisan Raider crowd back into this game. Slowly but surely, the Raiders fought back, and Pacher found his touch, finishing the 1st half with 10 points, less than a point shy of his average. The Raiders cut the lead to as little as 5 points, but entered the halftime break down by 10, 43-33.
I don’t remember much of halftime, apart from some decent dancing from each schools’ dance teams, as I took my time to write the first half recap of the blog you’re reading right now. But as soon as that was over, the buzzer sounded, and it was second half time.
A layup by Matt Vest cut the lead to 8, and a steal from Jerran Young got the fans back in it. Pacher would put it back in to cut the lead to 6, and the Raider faithful went nuts. Coach Jeter would call a timeout with 16:54 to go in the second to a nice pop after a Jordan Aaron foul. During this timeout, I couldn’t help but think that the nerves had subsided, and that I was really doing something.
Cole Darling hit a layup after the timeout, and that’s when things started to get crazy. With every Raider basket, most of the fans went crazy, with every Panther basket, the students behind me went crazy. It was a feeling unlike any other. A critical point came with 14:43 in the second, when Matt Tiby hit a three, followed by a foul from AJ Pacher, away from the ball, his third of the game, followed by the first media timeout. Kyle Kelm would hit the next basket, and all of a sudden, it was a 10-point Panther lead once again.
Things went back and forth from there, until Jordan Aaron hit a three to extend the Panthers’ lead to 12, forcing Coach Donlon to call another time out with 10:58 to go. While filling in my candidates for the All-tournament team, I looked up at the big screen TV to catch the tail end of a skit with the mascots for both schools. When working here, you tend to miss a lot of the “fun stuff” that happens around. Definitely have to focus in this line of work.
With less than 10 minutes left, AJ Pacher, with 14 points at that time, picked up his 4th foul. How would this affect the rest of the game? Well, the Raiders’ Jevon Lyle air-balled a 3 for starters. Not looking good for the Raiders at this point. But both teams are still going back and forth, with neither side giving an inch. But time was on the Panthers’ side.
As we went into the 3rd media timeout, I noticed that every time I researched my ballot for the All-tournament team, Jordan Aaron hits a big three or makes a big play. Is he subtly hinting that he should be the tournament MVP? Well, with an average of 21.3 points in the tournament, that’s a strong case indeed. A quick look at the tournament stat sheet reveals that the Raiders’ Miles Dixon averaged 18.5 points coming into this game. Tonight so far? Just 2 points.
Pacher is coming back into the game after the break with 4 fouls, and immediately hits a bucket. Before I know it, Matt Vest hits a 2-handed jam, and the Nutter Center is jumping, despite the Raiders trailing by 9. Following this, there was some more back and forth, and Milwaukee faithful are getting louder and bolder.
A Jerran Young basket with less than 5 minutes to go, followed by a Panther foul gets the fans on their feet once again, and it’s bedlam here! It’s hard to not get excited with the crowd here! But I keep my composure, and get back to typing. Just in time for the final media timeout with 3:59 remaining in the game, the Panthers holding a 65-58 lead over the Raiders.
Suddenly, it’s a 6-point game, and the Raiders had a chance, but a missed 3 by Jordan Aaron and Pacher fumbling the rebound gave the Panthers another chance to kill some clock. With 2:03 to go, the Panthers call a timeout, and security gets the crowd control rope ready to hold back the mob of fans. With each passing moment, it looks less and less like the Raiders will make the big dance, but the Panthers keep missing shots and give the Raiders a life line.
With just over a minute to go, it looks like the Raiders are trying too hard to find the good inside pass, but a Panther foul puts Miles Dixon at the line for the one and one. He hits them both to put the Raiders down by 4 with a minute to go. The fans are getting anxious. So am I. Then with seconds to go on the shot clock, Jordan Aaron’s shot is rejected with authority, but it’s nullified with a JT Yoho foul. Aaron hits both shots to give the Panthers a 6-point lead with 31 seconds to go. A handful of desperation threes later don’t go in, and it’s all over. Wisconsin-Milwaukee defeats Wright State 69-63.
Not sure what to do next, I fold up my tablet, grab my notes, and try to navigate the sea of humanity to the media work room to hopefully record the post-game press conferences. After a bit of awkward standing around, waiting, and sweating in my light jacket in the warm media room, Coach Donlon, along with AJ Pacher and Matt Vest, walk by the other members of the media to the table. Sensing I was too late to put my recorder on the table, I just held it by the speaker and pulled down the whole thing. Afterwards, Coach and crew left, and I had a few minutes to kill before the victorious Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers came to the table and addressed the media. This time I got my recorder right on the table. Once that was done, it was off to my car and straight home, where I cap my first almost-live blog! I went into the game all nervous and worried that I would get in someone’s way, and left feeling comfortable and believing that I have something good going. Catch you next time!