Villanova 78, Pittsburgh 76. It was big-time college basketball at its best and worst.
Let's start with the worst. The Garden looked and felt even more antiseptic than usual. The parquet was replaced by a homogenized court emblazoned with a huge NCAA logo, and the Bruins and Celtics banners had been yanked down. Any sense of place had been scrubbed away.
And then there was the food. Normally, I'd refrain from describing the press spread, but its contents were so hideous I feel obligated. In addition to a buffet, there was a nacho bar. Is there anything sportswriters need less than a nacho bar? Yes. Chocolate-dipped Hostess products. Those things we need less. But there they were anyway, a whole basket of them at the end of the chow line, beckoning. I stopped myself from taking a chocolate-dipped Twinkie. I also passed up the chocolate-dipped Sno Balls. This was a food spread as dreamed up by Homer Simpson. Like Skittlebrau, but worse for you. And dipped in chocolate.
The NCAA, not content on buttering up reporters with hydrogenated fats, practically poured Vitamin Water, its favorite beverage, down our throats. I wanted to bring a can of Coke on the floor. Not allowed. When I tried this, a member of the NCAA's Stasi (actually a polite attendant in a uniform) instructed me to pour it into a Vitamin Water cup. In my dream world, I would've sneaked a can of Wal-Mart brand Dr. Thunder to my press seat. You know, like a badass.
Anyway, thank God the good outweighed the bad. Growing up in suburban Red Sox City (because of Mr. Magary, I now prefer that over "Boston"), I didn't attend many college basketball games. At GW, I saw plenty of hoops, but this was different. John Thompson never showed up at GW-Duquesne. I was too chicken to approach Big John. Instead, I opted to sit near him while he watched UConn play Missouri on a flat screen before ‘Nova-Pitt tipped off. As he glared at Hasheem Thabeet, I wondered what he thought of the big man. I assumed it was something like this: "Patrick would've eviscerated this mofo. Alonzo would've eviscerated this mofo. Boumtje-Boumtje would've eviscerated this mofo." I actually have no idea if that's what he was thinking.
Turns out, JT –- and nemesis Rollie Massimino, who was also in the house –- picked a good night to come to the TD Garden. The game, the crowd, the blaring bands, made up for the chocolate-covered Twinkies. I of the small newspaper 20 miles north of the city luckily scored a press seat behind the Pitt bench (I'm the dork in the brown blazer if you recorded it). I counted 12 second-half lead changes. As great as Sam Young and DeJuan Blair were -– when the latter grabbed a rebound it sounded like he was popping a balloon –- I was rooting for Levance Fields. He was a pudgy point guard in the Jell-O mold of Khalid El-Amin and Sherman Douglas. I loved him for that. He almost made me proud, sinking two free throws to tie the score at 76 with five seconds left.
Then came the final play, which happened so damn fast the details of it are still blurry. Scottie Reynolds, a ringer for Coco Crisp but with a higher OPS, hit a flying runner with less than a second on the clock. Fields's ensuing 75-foot attempt at the buzzer -– the thing looked right on target –- clanged off the back of the rim, which probably left him feeling like Patrick Ewing at the end of Winning Time. Fields looked like he was going to cry. For some reason I found myself looking at him shuffling off the court rather than watching Reynolds celebrate.
Afterward, Bob Ryan deemed it "both the game of the 2009 tournament and one of the great NCAA games of all time." The guy sitting next to me, a friend, said, "This was the best game I've ever been at." I felt the same way.