La Follette's Cashton Craig tunes in to coach Reggie Fuller late in the game against Middleton.
This is the year, I decided a few days ago, that I try to really throw myself into March Madness and not just take it all in from the comfort of my couch. So in that spirit, I got behind the wheel and headed to Beloit (Did the French pronounce it Bell-wah?) for the WIAA Section I semi-finals featuring four Madison-area teams.
Originally, these games were set for La Crosse and when that city's teams were expelled from the bracket in the second round of the tournament last week, the powers that be moved the Friday's semis and Saturday's finals to Barkin Arena at Beloit Memorial High School. Still, it seems more than a little misguided to send a bunch of kids from schools that are, at most, 20 minutes apart on a one-hour trip down the interstate in pursuit of a neutral site. In the fog. At night.
What's wrong with the UW Fieldhouse?
Game one featured Madison Memorial and Madison West, a heated rivalry in all sports that wasn't supposed to drift into the hoops post-season. But West upset East in the second round and its coach, Boyce Hodge, had been quoted as liking his team's chances against Memorial, champs of the section the last three years, outside of Madison.
The Regents were fired up after taking a 10-9 lead at the first quarter buzzer on a slam dunk from senior Thomas Steele. West had been active on defense, keeping Memorial from establishing any rhythm in the half-court game. But while Memorial brought an energetic cheering section along, West continued its reputation for the city's most apathetic fans with hardly any student section.
"You'd think they'd be here," Spartan fan Nick Johnson announced, taking an opportunity to dish some trash. "It's their last game, not ours."
Memorial rebounded in the second quarter, going on a 9-0 run for the first seven minutes. With some typically spectacular shots from sophomore Jeronne Maymon, intimidating defense from Badger-to-be Keaton Nankivil and a solid contribution from sixth man Ryan Richgels, the Spartans stretched their lead to 23-12, which included a half-court shot off the glass at the buzzer from Maymon. I didn't hear him call bank.
Memorial cruised in the second half, playing methodical offense and frustrating the West shooters on defense. Final score: 54-39. Story of the game: 11 points from Memorial guard Ryan Beld, many of them on put-backs and free throws.
"Ryan Beld is a throwback, he does a little bit of everything for us," Memorial coach Steve Collins told me after the game. "He's as good a defender as I've ever seen and I think he'd run through that wall if I asked him to. If you saw him at the Shell [site of epic pick-up games on the UW campus], you might not pick him, but you'd want him on your team because he's going to help you win."
Memorial will face Middleton, which held off an aggressive La Follette squad in game two, on Saturday night back in Beloit. The match-up will feature the Big Eight Conference's two best big men, Nankivil and Middleton's Will Hudson. Continuing my weekend-long submersion in March Madness, I'll be watching the UW women's hockey team play Harvard in the first round of the NCAA tournament, which I'll tell you about Sunday morning.