Four days of Madness in Vegas

If you love college basketball, there was no better place to be this week than in Las Vegas. Five conferences were playing their postseason tournaments in Sin City, creating a bacchanal of hoops for fans.

LAS VEGAS — When you’ve got a week’s worth of college basketball available to you and five different tournaments to watch, you see a lot of interesting things.

You see great games and not-so-great ones. You see upsets and one-sided thrashings. You get to become a fan of guys and gals you never heard of or saw play before. You get to see old friends and make new ones.

And you see a lot of weird stuff.

So as I made my way across Southern Nevada this week to watch the West Coast Conference, Mountain West, Western Athletic Conference, Pac-12 and Big West, I found myself trying to avoid traffic, drinking bad arena coffee (why no half and half?), rooting for comebacks and upsets (no, I did not place a single bet on any of these tourneys) and reveling in all that is March Madness, knowing we’ve got two more weeks of this stuff to endure in Vegas as the NCAA Tournament tips off next week. That means packed sportsbooks for the first two days. Then, Las Vegas hosts the West Regionals for the first time ever on March 23-25 at T-Mobile Arena. That should be fun.

Here’s a little diary I kept during the week:

Monday, March 6, noon, Thomas & Mack Center — 

UNLV’s undefeated women’s team is facing Nevada and all you have to do is see the pregame handshakes to know these two schools do not care for each other.

Not that I needed any reminders. I’ve lived through 35 years of hate between the Rebels and Wolf Pack.

Desi-Rae Young, UNLV’s outstanding guard who got hosed for Mountain West Women’s Player of the Year, is struggling. She’s on the bench with a couple of quick personals. But the Lady Rebels are deep and strong and they open it up in the second and third quarters, eventually pulling away to win 83-47 to advance to the semifinals on Tuesday.

As the Nevada cheerleaders are performing during a time out, the UNLV band is playing. Which is weird since Nevada brought its own band. Why isn’t it playing when its cheerleaders are on the floor?

I wanted to personally thank the Nevada mascot Alfie for being so nice to my then 3-year-old great-nephew earlier this season when he, my nephew and my brother (his grandpa) went to his first game at Lawlor Events Center and she gave him a welcoming hug. But Alfie seemed too distraught over the Pack getting whupped so I decided to let her suffer in silence. But consider this a public thank you. Maybe I’ll have better luck with thanking Wolfie, her male counterpart, Thursday when Steve Alford’s team plays San Jose State in the men’s quarterfinals.

Monday, March 6, 7:30 p.m., Orleans Arena —

Saint Mary’s is putting the boots to BYU and it looks like Blowout City. The Gaels are 6.5-point favorites and bettors holding tickets or e-wagers on their cellphones seem to be a lock.

But the Cougars stage a massive second-half comeback. They pull within three late and were looking to screw up the much-anticipated Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga WCC title game on Tuesday night. But somehow, not only do the Gaels hang on, they wind up covering, barely, 76-69. That’s what those in the business call a bad beat. Those in the clergy prefer to call it divine intervention.

Let us never forget that Vegas was built on the ability of separating people from their money. 

Tuesday, March 7, noon, Michelob Ultra Arena — 

Because the WCC is still at the Orleans, the WAC had to start its tournament on the Strip at Mandalay Bay, where parking is not free, it’s a bit of schlep from the garage to the arena, where Cal Baptist and Abilene Christian are kicking things off in front of a couple hundred fans, including a guy who may or may not have performed with Katy Perry at the Super Bowl as the “Left Shark.”

When I think of Abilene Christian, my mind immediately goes to the old country song of George Hamilton IV’s back in 1963 (yes, I’m that freakin’ old!):

Abilene, Abilene

Prettiest town I’ve ever seen

Women there don’t treat you mean

In Abilene, my Abilene

I confess I don’t know a single player on either team. I do know Cal Baptist’s mascot is the Lancers and its mascot is not just a knight, but a Golden Knight. I’m thinking that either he’s a long lost relative of Lee Orchard, who is the Vegas Golden Knights’ mascot, or they are ripping off Knights owner Bill Foley. Or perhaps it’s vice versa.

I do have a new favorite player — Cal Baptist guard Blondeau Tchoukuiegno, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Montreal. My first thought: His teammates call him “Blondie” as if he were a hockey player on the Laval Rocket roster. My second thought: Thank God I don’t have to try and spell the kid’s last name more than once.

He has a cool hairdo and a good shot. He finishes with 10 points, (3-of-4 FG), seven rebounds and two assists before fouling out as Cal Baptist beats the Wildcats 69-62 to advance to the quarterfinals.

Tuesday, March 7, 2:30 p.m., Dollar Loan Center —

While the Mountain West, WAC, WCC and Pac-12 hold its tournaments on or near the Las Vegas Strip, the Big West is holding court in Henderson, where the league is very comfortable playing at the Dollar Loan Center.

“It’s fantastic,” said commissioner Dan Butterly, who has overseen a facelift of the league’s image, from the logo to playing its marquee event outside of California. “It provides us with so much opportunity. Our teams are enjoying the experience.”

Brooks Downing, the longtime basketball promoter who is assisting with the facilitating of things, is an old hat at this. It makes for a positive experience for players, coaches and fans.

“This is the best place for a tournament,” he said. “The sightlines are great. It’s easy to get to. The city of Henderson has embraced the tournament and it’s still pretty new.”

The DLC is celebrating its first birthday and even though it’s basketball this week instead of hockey, you feel the presence of the Silver Knights, the building’s primary tenant. The Bill Foley slogan “Always advance, never retreat” is prominently displayed in a banner at the top of the lower level at mid-court. There’s HSK logos everywhere. The only thing missing is the corny Town Crier, which is a good thing.

Cal Poly is struggling to make shots against UC Riverside as the women’s tournament opened and the Mustangs wind up on the short end of a 63-54 score. That means the Cal Poly band will no longer perform, which means no more renditions of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” which the band decided to sing a cappella in the first half.

When I asked one of the band members what was that about, he explained, “This has been a tradition within the band for years, long before we got here.”

Got it.

Tuesday, March 7, 6 p.m., Orleans Arena —

Gee, what a shock, Gonzaga is playing Saint Mary’s for the WCC tourney title.

This is the 20th time. It makes you wonder why they even bother playing the rest of the tournament.

Of course, weird things sometimes happen. Like earlier in the day when the Gonzaga women, who were ranked 16th in the nation, lost to Portland in the final, 64-60, to take away an at-large bid from some other team.

But Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga men is usually entertaining. The Orleans was sold out and that makes for a great in-house atmosphere and a good visual for ESPN, which loves to televise the WCC final.The Zags’ Julian Strawther, who grew up in Las Vegas and starred at Liberty High School, always tries to put on a show at home. Of course, Gaels coach Randy Bennett knows this and he usually has a sound defensive plan to deal with such guys.

Good luck with that. Stawther had 10 points but Drew Timme had 18, Gonzaga shot 58 percent from the floor, hit eight 3-pointers and blew out Saint Mary’s 77-51 to win the WCC tourney for the 21st time, leading by as many as 37 with just under 4:00 to play.

ESPN’s Bracketology has the Zags as a No. 3 seed in the West and Saint Mary’s a No. 6 in the South. It’s unlikely that changes. My guess is we see Gonzaga back here at T-Mobile Arena for the West Regional in two weeks’ time.

Wednesday, March 8, 1:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center — 

We’re down to four tournaments. The WCC has packed up and left town, waiting to see where the Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s men and the Portland women will be seeded for the NCAA Tournament. The WAC is moving over to the Orleans Arena from Mandalay Bay and it’s the opening round of the Pac-12 tourney at T-Mobile Arena and the Mountain West men at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV coach Kevin Kruger is hearing the rumblings as the storm clouds gather over the campus on Maryland Parkway. Yes, the Runnin’ Rebels had a disappointing season after starting the year 10-0 in non-conference. But they didn’t play a great schedule and when they lost to San Jose State in OT in their conference opener in late December, it sent them on a spiral they never truly recovered from, save for beating Nevada twice.

I can’t believe A.D. Erick Harper would even consider making a coaching change. Nor should he. 

They had a battle with Air Force and E.J. Harkless saw to it that he and his teammates would play at least once more. The senior finished with a career-high 35 points and the Rebels moved on with a 78-70 overtime win over Joe Scott’s Falcons, who are not deep and were unable to close the deal in regulation. Air Force led 57-56 late, had a chance to win in regulation but lost the ball out of bounds with 3.8 seconds to go.

The Thomas & Mack scoreboard tilted out in the second half and   when the system rebooted, UNLV was shown holding a 43-0 lead. Maybe it was a sign of things to come. Or at least the Rebels should’ve been able to protect that big a lead. But they fixed it, the proper score at the time was 43-36, though the Falcons could’ve used a few more points. 

Wednesday, March 8, 4 p.m., T-Mobile Arena —

Concluding a losing season with a first-round defeat in your conference tournament usually means you’re a dead man walking if you’re a head coach who has been struggling.

When Fresno State fell to Colorado State in the first round of the Mountain West tournament earlier Wednesday to finish its season 11-20, it likely was the end of the line for Justin Hutson. In five seasons with the Bulldogs, Hutson barely stayed above .500, going 80-73. Word is change is imminent in the Valley.

A couple hundred miles north in Berkeley, Mark Fox’s time at Cal was up. The Golden Bears have struggled mightily this year and the 69-52 loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tourney mercifully pulled the plug on Fox, who had success at Nevada following Trent Johnson, but couldn’t win at Georgia, then Cal. 

In four seasons in Berkeley, Fox never had a winning year. This year’s 3-29 team was the worst of the four as he finished his time there 38-87.

I wish him well wherever he lands next.

Wednesday, Aug. 8, 6 p.m., T-Mobile Arena —

It’s International Women’s Day and at the Pac-12 tournament, a woman’s voice can be heard on the public address system.

Her name is Jaime Coffee and she has been at the mic since 2016. Of the five tournaments in town this week, she is the only woman PA announcer. She’s also very good.

I was sitting behind the Stanford bench as the Cardinal faced Utah. Behind me were the wives of the Stanford coaching staff. They didn’t need a microphone or a megaphone to be heard.

They’re exhorting the players on. They’re screaming at the refs over perceived bad calls. They’re keeping one eye on the game, the other on their kids.

I remember the days when Lois Tarkanian worked her rosary beads trying to help husband Jerry’s UNLV teams get to the finish line first. They didn’t always work but the Rebels won plenty over the years so Lois must’ve been doing something right in supporting Jerry.

Thursday, Aug. 9, noon, Dollar Loan Center —

It’s quarterfinal day for the four remaining conferences playing in Las Vegas. So the plan is to make a big loop. I’m starting the day by driving to Henderson for the Big West matchup between top-seeded UC Irvine and Cal State Bakersfield, which beat Cal State Northridge to advance. From there, I’m headed back to Las Vegas and the Thomas & Mack Center for San Jose State-Nevada and UNLV-Boise State before ending the day at the Orleans for the WAC quarterfinal between Utah Tech and Southern Utah. 

I was going to try and squeeze in some Pac-12 and I might call an audible and watch Stanford-Arizona instead of UNLV-Boise. But we’ll see. You don’t get a mileage allowance at The Sporting Tribune and unless I want to elicit a hearty laugh out of our owner Arash Markazi by asking for reimbursement, I’ll bite the bullet.

By the way, they’re charging $35 to park at the New York-New York garage for the Pac-12. I think that’s more than the cost of an actual session ticket inside T-Mobile Arena. That’s more than what the Golden Knights charge to park ($30). There’s no media parking provided by the Pac-12 though I managed to talk my way in Wednesday and the guy at the parking gate let me through gratis. Maybe he recognized me from somewhere or he bought my act when I rolled down the window and said “MEDIA” and he handed me a voucher to get through the gate on my way out. So that may factor in my decision whether to go to the Pac-12 later today. Parking at the Orleans is free. 

Scott Hair, a longtime Bakersfield fan who traditionally stands until the Roadrunners make a bucket, was in a courtside seat. It took nearly two minutes for him to sit down and it went downhill quickly from there. The Anteaters hit Bakersfield with a 24-10 spurt to start and rolled to a 75-51 win to advance to the semis Friday night.

 But Hair was undeterred.

“Our women are in the semis,” he said, alluding to Bakersfield’s game vs. UC Santa Barbara. “And yes, I’ll be standing for them too.”

Hopefully for his sake the Lady ‘Runners score early.

On my way in, I passed by the ticket table for UC Irvine, where a stuffed anteater sat on the table. When I mentioned how cute it was, I got the traditional “Zot! Zot! Zot!” greeting from the gal manning the table. Nothing like getting Zotted to start your day the right way.

Thursday, March 9, 2:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center —

It’s the Carp family battle — Uncle Steve and San Jose State vs. nephew Adam and Nevada. Adam played hoops for the Wolf Pack and spent some time on scholarship, thanks to Mark Fox.

The Spartans have been missing a member of their family with the passing last year of longtime sports information director Lawrence Fan, who had served in that capacity since 1980 and was know for his legendary spice cake that would be served in the press room at home games and at the tournament. 

Here’s a bit of trivia: Who was San Jose State’s SID prior to Lawrence?

That would be me. 

I was the interim SID after Jerry Walker left to be the PR director of the San Francisco 49ers and when I graduated and returned to journalism, Lawrence was the person who took over. We were good friends over the years and I still miss him.

I walked in just as San Diego State was surviving a late scare from Colorado State. Isaiah Stevens, Colorado State’s leading scorer, had a chance to force overtime in the final seconds but his shot went halfway down and out. The Aztecs held on, 64-61, to move on to the semis.

The Spartans have a hashtag that says “RunToTheFight.” Thursday, they showed up to the fight and they never relented. Nevada came back from 11 down to lead 54-51 but San Jose State answered behind Mountain West Player of the Year Omari Moore and after it went to overtime tied at 65-65, Moore and Alvaro Cardenas delivered and San Jose State went on to an 81-77 win.

It was the first MW tourney win ever for the Spartans since they joined the conference in 2013, and had never played a quarterfinal game. It was also the team’s 20th win, the first time in more than 40 years that has happened.

“It was a great win for our program,” said coach Tim Miles, who has been nothing short of a miracle worker in his two years at SJSU and was named the conference Coach of the Year on Tuesday. “These guys deserve that. I’m just grateful to be their coach.”

In winning, they may have knocked the Wolf Pack off the NCAA Tournament bubble. We’ll have to see what happens the next two days but it doesn’t look good for Steve Alford’s team. They’ve lost three in a row — on the road at Wyoming, at home to UNLV and on a neutral floor to San Jose State. That’s not going to score points with the selection committee.

Thursday, March 9, 6 p.m., T-Mobile Arena —

As always, the Arizona fans have shown up en masse to watch the Wildcats in the Pac-12 quarterfinals. But Stanford was hanging with ‘Zona in the first half. 

But eventually, Arizona’s depth and talent won out and the Wildcats would advance, 95-84.

We don’t know if it’s the end of the line for Cardinal coach Jerod Haase. But we do know that across the bay, California parted ways with Mark Fox earlier Thursday as expected after a disastrous 3-29 season.

Stanford played hard from start to finish. Give Haase and his staff credit for keeping their guys motivated. It’s been a tough year on the Farm and it might’ve been easy to throw in the towel going 14-19. To the Cardinal’s credit, it never did. Even the goofy tree mascot didn’t wilt, though it probably can use a bit of pruning.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I managed to park for free in the New York-New York garage. That’s 35 bucks saved.

Thursday, March 9, 8:30 p.m., Orleans Arena —

Our final stop on a whirlwind quarterfinal day saw the “Battle of Interstate 15” between Utah Tech and Southern Utah. I still want to call Tech “Dixie College,” the original name, but I’ll call them U-Tech if that’s O.K. with them. The school cut ties with the “Dixie” name last July 1. But they did keep the Trailblazers nickname and the Bison mascot.

These schools are only 52 miles apart and both have their own unique charm. I know people who will drive to St. George, where Utah Tech is located, for a hamburger at Culver’s, which may be the only fast food chain along with Tim Horton’s that’s NOT in Las Vegas. And I know plenty of people who plan their summers visiting Cedar City to take in the Utah Shakespeare Festival on the SUU campus. I’ve done it myself and it’s wonderful, if for no other reason than to get out of the triple-digit Vegas heat. 

These two teams know Harry Reid International Airport well. Both have to use it to fly to their road games, except when they play each other, of course. When I was covering UNLV, I would run into SUU several times a year as the Thunderbirds were headed somewhere and had come to Vegas to fly out of what was then McCarran International Airport to get to their destination. I always liked Bill Evans, who was the T-Birds’ coach back then.

I know Todd Simon, the current Southern Utah coach well too. We go back to his days at Findlay Prep, the one-time powerhouse hoops program financed by car magnate Cliff Findlay. And of course, Simon coached at UNLV as a member of Dave Rice’s staff and replaced Rice on an interim basis when Rice was fired midseason. 

These Utah Tech students are pretty creative, not to mention polite. When Southern Utah’s Drake Allen went to the foul line in the second half, the Trailblazers’ student section chanted “Please miss the shot; Please miss the shot.” Allen refused to cooperate, hitting both free throws. 

The last game for me turned out to be pretty good. Utah Tech is scrappy and the Trailblazers, who had split with Southern Utah during the regular season, were looking to spring the upset in the rubber match.

The Thunderbirds, who were 6.5-point favorites, had other ideas. Jason Spurgin’s 3-point play with 53.3 left broke a 70-70 tie to put the T-Birds up 73-70. Tevian Jones made 1 of 2 from the line to up the lead to four. Tech’s Cameron Gooden got half of it back on a layup. The Blazers then came up with a steal only to have a an offensive foul called on the shot attempt with 11.8 left.

Gooden hit a 3 at the buzzer but it was not quite enough as Southern Utah advanced with a 76-75 win.   

This WAC game reminded me it doesn’t have to be a couple of bluebloods playing in Madison Square Garden for a great game and a great atmosphere. Sometimes, two mid-major teams can fill the bill just as well. They fight and battle just as hard, play with the same passion and love of the game and celebrate wins and deal with the devastation of defeat the same as Kansas, Purdue and Texas do. 

And to have it happen here in Las Vegas with five different conferences, well, it’s more than enough to satiate any hoopaholic.

Friday, March 10 , Epilogue —

Good news for Jerod Haase. Stanford is apparently going to keep him as its head men’s basketball coach for an eighth season despite a 7-13 Pac-12 record and a 14-19 overall mark. The Cardinal won a game in the conference tournament at T-Mobile Arena and played inspired basketball in losing to Arizona in Thursday’s quarterfinals. We’re still waiting to learn Justin Hutson’s fate at Fresno State and perhaps Wayne Tinkle’s at Oregon State. 

In the Big West, form has held up as the top four seeds are still playing. No. 1 UC Irvine meets No. 4 Cal State Fullerton in tonight’s first semifinal at Dollar Loan Center in Henderson while No. 2 UC Santa Barbara faces No. 3 UC Riverside in the second semi. The winners play for the title Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2. I’m going to try and get there if possible.

The WAC has also had its top three seeds advance to the semis with No. 1 Sam Houston, No. 2 Utah Valley and No. 3 Southern Utah in action tonight. Grand Canyon, the fifth seed which beat No. 4 Seattle, Thursday, is the other semifinalist.

UNLV fans are heartbroken after the Runnin’ Rebels rallied from 27 down to force OT vs. Boise State only to run out of gas and fall to the Broncos, 87-76 in Thursday night’s Mountain West quarterfinals. It was the final game for EJ Harkless, who was everything as advertised. It’s a critical offseason for coach Kevin Kruger and he needs to find a point guard, improve the overall talent level on the roster and try and develop some depth. It’s a tall order but that’s the reality.

I think the plan today is to attend the Mountain West semifinal at the Thomas & Mack between top-seeded San Diego State and No. 5 San Jose State, which is turning into a great national story thanks to Tim Miles and his players, particularly Omari Moore. Then head over to T-Mobile Arena to watch Arizona and Arizona State in the Pac-12 semifinals. It’s a little over a mile between the two venues but with it being Friday night, traffic on the Las Vegas Strip and construction on Tropicana Ave., I better be patient. I may not make it until the second half. 

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