The feeling around the men’s game was different. It was more intense. Not only were there more people, there chatter around the Star was getting more excited. The NT fans in attendance starting filling in while Southern Miss and FIU were finishing up their tussle.
The sparse crowds from earlier in the day were gone on the near side of the Ford Center. Tech fans gathered in the corner behind the Tech bench. NT was the 7th seed and the nominal home team but is also co-hosting the tournament so a great turn out was expected.
Mean Joe Green sat courtside along with Tony Dorsett. This was the main event of the evening.
The players were ready for it also. The two squads are known for their physical, tough play and in the first five minutes or so at least three or four players hit the deck hard on charges, fouls, or no-calls. The CUSA refs, a running joke among twiteratti, let them play ball.
NT survived an early onslaught through some drives and some fortunate threes from Smart and Draper.
La Tech countered with some DeQuan Bracey buckets gotten via flying through the lane. There is nothing more demoralizing than grinding for 30 seconds — or more, in the case of a team getting ORebs — and then seeing the other squad get an easy bucket.
The two teams traded runs and ugly scoring droughts that were filled with turnovers and failed forays into the lane. The short summary is that Tech was better at the runs than NT because they were also better at hitting free throws and threes.
NT’s Roosevelt Smart went 2-9 from deep, missing some open looks and hitting two heavily contested threes. He took shots he normally makes, but the ball was not dropping this time. He finished tied for the team lead in scoring but suffered some long droughts in the second half.
Early, the ball was rolling Tech’s way and not in the Mean Green favor. Drive to the hoop were nearly successful and then Tech finally broke through with a run off some misses and turnovers.
After the break, NT got close again, but the runs were just one or two points shy of Tech’s own.
The struggles and the circumstance meant that every bucket seemed enormous for both teams. A rush of relief instead of joy came from the crowd with each basket. The pro-NT crowd tried some heckling and some catchphrases:
“Welcome to the Nest!”
“You’re in the Nest”!
Derric Jean responded to this with a back-hurting pull up three.
Daquon Bracey fouled out, seemingly giving NT a break, but Tech got good minutes from Exavian Christon, Jacolby Pemberton — Christon forced a Smart turnover along the baseline that was huge — in a tough game where everything was difficult. Coach Eric Konkol said as much during the post game presser.
Ryan Woolridge put NT on his back late and got to the bucket at will. At one point in the desperation that came later he got six straight on layups in the final minute. That boosted NT’s points-in-the-paint stats and make the entire box score slanted away from the truth.
Woolridge had 14 at that point — tying him with Smart. He had 6 at half and Smart 11. Both finished with 20.
“Welcome to the Nest!”
“You’re in the Nest”!
Jean hit a huge three right after this at the five minute mark. This, of course, after missing a free throw on the previous possession.
Two plays late helped Tech break out of a jam. The first came when NT was down 4 in the fourth minute. Amorie Archibald got two rebounds before getting the ball out to Boyins who drew a foul and hit two free throws , pushing the lead to five.
The next came on the ensuing posession when DJ Draper slipped on a close out, allowing Archibald to shoot and hit a wide open three. Tech was up eight points in a game wherein points were scarce.
NT would pull within four later, but that run gave Tech just enough distance to rely on their superior free throw shooting to win the game.
While NT was not expected to make anything like a deep run in this tournament, there was a good chance to win their first matchup.
Aside from the miner glitches that come with installing a new basketball setup in a new location, the overall impression of the Star is positive. The fans, students, band, and media all enjoyed at least some aspect of the configuration.
I talked with a band member and asked about the experience. He mentioned that the sound curtain was similar to the ones used in drum corps. We should have never worried.
Most observers are present to see their favorite team with little interest in moving frequently to see any other game. Those who were could stream the other game — I did this on occasion — or just take in both games from the right vantage in the regular general admission.
There is little to no carryover from the other game. When the action is any kind of intense, any other noises are ignored and everyone focuses on the action.
In losing, NT strips away a sizable attendance.