Siena (70) vs. Niagara (71) 01/19/2020

Game #87 of 353   24% complete

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My snowy weekend in Buffalo comes to an end. On my off day yesterday between games, I was sequestered in the hotel due to a howling blizzard. I do try to schedule northern cities in November or March to avoid this kind of weather but I could not resist the pairing of Canisius and Niagara thereby completing the Buffalo area schools.

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With this game, I have also completed seeing all the schools in the MAAC. When I was at the Canisius game, I went through the team banners on the wall checking off each one. It was also a first in that I saw the away team twice in consecutive games (Siena). I also heard the Canada anthem at a college basketball game for the first time.

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If I am going by myself and the conditions warrant it, I send an introduction email to the athletic director of the school introducing myself and the mission weeks before the game. I never ask for any free stuff but just a heads up to any pre game event that I could attend. I love talking college basketball to passionate fans. The Niagara athletic director Simon Gray responded with an appreciative reply and asked me to text him when I got to the game.  Much to my surprise, he did the following for me: 1) an official Niagara folder with pen and paper 2) a shout out from the public announcer to the crowd about my mission where I stood up and waved to the crowd and 3) an upgraded seat at the scorer’s table. Mr. Gray made me feel very welcome and has earned a lifelong affinity with Niagara from me. One of the fans came up to me at halftime and was asking questions about my journey.

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This was an exciting game with Niagara pulling it out at the end. Despite the snowy weather and the kids not back from break, the crowd was surprising large and very loud. One of the walls was adorned with great Niagara players of the past. My eye caught the banner of Calvin Murphy. As a Connecticut native, Murphy from Norwalk CT was idolized in my youth for his shooting and play making. The fan at halftime told me that Murphy as a lark would out race a player down the court dribbling two balls to the player’s one ball.

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The crowd was energized with a three piece rock band taking the place of the usual school pep band. These guys were good and had my fingers tapping during the breaks.

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I stopped at the casino after the game.  I threw a $20 bill into a penny slot machine and maxed out each bet. On the third attempt, I hit a bonus and left with a profit of $59.90. I got out of there quick before that money disappeared. Not a bad way to end the day!

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Good bye Buffalo!

Next game : Bryant at Mt. St. Mary (MD)  01/25/2020

 

 

 

Siena (63) vs. Canisius (73) 01/17/2020

Game #86 of 353   24% complete

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One of the dredges of this journey is dealing with winter weather in the northern states. I try to mitigate this risk by scheduling schools north of the Mason Dixon line in November or March but this not always possible especially where the cost of travel necessitates at least two schools scheduled back to back or the same day on the trip. It is today on my off day in Buffalo that a winter storm will last all day and sequester me to my hotel room. Fortunately, UCONN is on at noon but my plans for a trip to Niagara Falls followed by a Billy Joel tribute concert may be postponed. I will worry about food at some point.

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A pre-game announcement was made that Canisius was one of 27 Jesuit schools in the country. An open prayer before the national anthem was done. The warm up shirts for the Canisius players had the words “St. Peter of Canisius Pray for Us” on the back. Other than the famous nun at the Loyola Chicago school,  a religious tint to a basketball game was a first for me on my travels. On a parallel note, I have brought up the Lord’s name a few times while watching some recent UCONN games.

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I thought it was strange that the home team was introduced but the Siena players were not. I am not sure if this was a snafu or something that always happens at a Canisisus home game.

I sat with a group of older gentlemen who were obviously regulars and were probably wondering who the hell I was. I am guessing that one of their buddies could not make the game and put the ticket up for sale on Ticketmaster. I always thought it would be fun one game to bring a notepad and pretend to take notes on the players masquerading as an advance scout of perhaps an NBA scout. So the gentlemen argued every call against their beloved Griffs and criticized certain Canisisus payers with comments like “Oh for God sakes do not let him shoot!”. It was very entertaining and perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy the small arenas just as much as the large venues.

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I always look for the Connecticut boys when out on the road. Canisius player Jalanni White from New Haven played at Notre-Dame of West Haven. This junior has some serious hops putting down some alley oops and offensive rebounds. He is very athletic but needs work on his outside game. He did finish with 13 point drawing oohs and ahs from the fans.

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On the same street of the arena was the home of the original Buffalo wings- the Anchor Bar. As a connoisseur of wings which I know is not good for my health, a stop was necessary. The place was packed with walls adorned with license plates and motorcycles. Were the wings good? Yes. Were the wings the best I ever had? No. Did I hear somebody say Sliders?

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Next game: Siena at Niagara 01/19/2020

 

 

 

 

Uconn (60) vs. South Florida (75) 01/04/2020

Game #85 out of 353  24% complete

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My wife and I made the 2-hour track between Ft. Myers and Tampa. I am amazed at the amount of shopping malls, housing developments and country clubs along the way. The area along Route 40 was fully developed for miles and miles. Aware of the number of Connecticut folks moving to Florida, I can see how this commerce can be supported.  All the highways are designed to handle the amount of traffic unlike the choke infested interstates of New England.

We had an off day between games so we took advantage of the sunshine and 80-degree weather. First was an early morning trip to Sanibel Island to enjoy the Gulfside City Park public beach. Arriving by 9:30AM, we beat the traffic and found a great parking spot. The beach was a welcome respite from the cold Connecticut weather we left a couple of days ago.

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I recommend visiting the Edison and Ford Winter Estates if you are in the Ft. Myers area. This was our afternoon destination.  The mansions were interesting to look at although small compared to the Newport mansions. I was truly amazed at the number of inventions that Edison had invented. He was considered almost a God in his times. Many of his original inventions are there with lots of reading material.

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You may wonder at this point why isn’t he talking about the game. I have made it a habit to do a UCONN away game as part of Operation 351. It is cool sitting there in my blue UConn shirt with some others cheering on the Huskys while the home crowd stares us down with dagger eyes. The tables were turned this time as the home crowd relished the thorough beating given by South Florida to my boys. All you can do is sit there and take it. The fans especially loved giving it to coach Hurley as he earned a technical foul for complaining about the calls. As I say to my fellow UConn fans, better days are coming.

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Once again, we were treated to palm trees as we entered the Yuengling Center. It may or not have been a coincidence but many UConn fans were hanging around the Yuengling Beer Center at half time trying to down their sorrows. It was long game to endure for a Husky fan but nevertheless at a minimum, it represented one more notch in Operation 351.

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South Florida was trounced by SMU the last game and was looking to come out with a vengeance. UConn was trounced by Cincy last game and was looking to do the same. One team was successful. One team was not. Considering the fact that UConn was 3.5-point favorites and that the Bulls were missing the best player Alexis Yenta with a season ending injury, the loss was unexpected and disheartening. The Bulls guards Laquincy Rideau and David Collins were overpowering for our defense leading the way with 17 points and 15 points respectively.

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I will be back in Florida next year somewhere for Operation 351. Beaches and sunshine are hard to resist.

Next Game: Siena at Canisius 01/17/2020

Liberty (59) vs. Florida Gulf Coast (46) 01/02/2020

Game #84 of 353   23% complete

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My wife accompanied me on this two game Florida run. Since she is not a fan of sports, I must include activities on this trip that are fun and non-sports related for her. This typically includes trips to TJMAXX, Marshalls and Home Goods. It is no problem for me since I get my steps in circling the store till she accomplishes her mission.

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The trip to the arena started off badly with FGCU instituting a new clear bag policy which encompasses many regulations. One in particular limited the size of a women’s purse or hand bag or whatever it is called these days. The security guard had a wooden template of the allowable size which of course which was smaller than my wife’s bag. Mumbling that this game is not off to a good start, she walked the offending bag back to the car while I waited outside the entrance. You may assume that a true gentleman would have made the long walk for his wife but I will not be seen carrying a purse in public.

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This was my second trip to Florida for Operation 351 visiting UCF last year. It is always a pleasant break from the Connecticut winter weather to be greeted by palm trees in front of a Florida arena. This was definitely an older crowd with many walkers and canes in sight. There were many times during the game where the announcer encouraged the fans to stand up and do a cheer but I am convinced that many did not bother because it was too much effort to stand. But as a 62-year-old seeing that great arena in the sky approaching closer and closer, I hope to someday adopt a D1 team like them and become a fixture at all the home games.

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I try very hard to stay apolitical but it is worth mentioning that Liberty has drawn protests throughout the sports word for its association with its founder Jerry Falwell. I will only say this that I hope that the hard working kids I saw on the floor today for Liberty are insulated from the diversity and partisan politics (on both sides) spewing from social media. I did expect to see some protesters outside the arena but all was quiet.

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FGCU earned the moniker “Dunk City” back in 2013 with an incredible run as the 15th seed in the 2013 tournament with upset wins over Georgetown and San Diego State. I saw only one dunk today by a FGCU player but the miracle lives on with the word “Dunk” displayed prominently in the arena.

Liberty came in with a 14-1 record and looked very strong throughout the game. I was very impressed with senior guard Caleb Homesly who scored 24 points from all over the floor. Liberty had four starters back from the team that beat Mississippi State as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament last year. They are currently No. 2 defensive team in the country (at 53.1 points allowed per game). Interesting to note that the start time was pushed back to 5PM for a nationally televised appearance on ESPNU. I have learned over the years to always double check the start times for last minute changes.

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My wife is amused that I love catching thrown t-shirts from the cheerleaders. I have more t-shirts in the closet than I need but it is the thrill of the catch that makes it worthwhile. While I did snatch a FGCU t-shirt headed towards the women next to me (no shame at all), I was glad to see that she caught one the next time around.

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Next game : UCONN at South Florida 01/04/2020

Central Michigan (79) vs. Robert Morris (83) 12/17/2019

Game #83 of 353   23% complete

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Robert Morris opened up the UPMC Events Center this year with Pitt on November 12th.  The arena was entirely funded with corporate naming rights. The brand new 4000 seat arena has great lighting, LED displays and attractive sight lines. Off the court, the arena includes new coaches and athletics relations offices. The basketball and volleyball players have brand new locker rooms complete with separate video rooms. There is also a full-size practice court and the UPMC Wellness Center, which houses the teams’ doctors and trainers and includes a hydrotherapy room. RMU did a great job on this considering all the struggles that a smaller school has with this kind of project.

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I have to make a mental note in the future to check on a school’s arena before planning a trip. I was all set to do Duquesne this year but a follower of this blog let me know that Duquesne is at a temporary home this year. Next year, their new arena will open up. My rule (that I make up for myself) is to not count temporary sites in my journey. That being said, if I do visit an arena that is considered permanent and a new one gets built later on, I do not feel a return trip is in order. Again—my rules!

I also need to a better job of picking hotels. My hotel was fine but about an 1/2 hour north of Pittsburgh. The airport which I figured would be next to Pittsburgh is actually very close to Robert Morris. Had I planned it out properly, I could have stayed near the airport and enjoy a short ride from the RMU game and a short ride to the airport the following day.

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I like to offer a big shout out to the RMU Assistant AD Marty Galosi whose hospitably made this a fun trip. I was seated next to his neighbors who were college basketball fans. They asked many questions about my journey and I was happy to answer them. The best parts of my trips are interacting with the fans.

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Central Michigan came into this game ranked second in the nation averaging 88.7 points per game, making it the No. 2 scoring team in the nation behind only Eastern Washington, which averages 90. The Chippewas were very hot from the 3-point line in the first half but RMU came back for a hard-fought win. Once again, the students were on break plus with the sleeting weather the atmosphere was a little subdued. However, the RMU fans were loud and happy pulling off the upset. I was very impressed with RMU guard Josh Williams who finished with 24 points. His game combines quickness with an accurate 3 point shot. He kept the Central Michigan defenders on their toes all evening.

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The national championship trophy for NCAA men’s basketball was on display tonight at RMU. Quite a few selfies were taken with the trophy.

As always, I do like it when the free bling is given out.

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Happy Holidays everyone! See you next year!

Next game: Liberty at Florida Gulf Coast 01/02/20

 

Northern Illinois (50) vs. Pittsburgh (59) 12/16/2019

Game #82 of 353   23% complete

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Welcome back my friends to my sixth season of Operation 351 with the usual disclaimer that there are now 353 Division 1 teams. I begin this season in Pittsburgh with a doubleheader at Pittsburgh and Robert Morris. I have always started the season in November but the scheduling and family times did not allow that to happen. As more and more of my trips start outside the confines of drivability, it is incumbent on me to find back to back games in the same geographical area to save on travel costs. There once was that rare occasion in Philadelphia where I scored the perfect trifecta – 2 games on Saturday and one on Sunday.

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As I walked into the Peterson Sports Center, I was in awe of its size and architecture. This is definitely a high class arena from a P5 conference, I was looking forward to a raucous celebration from the “Oakland Zoo”. The Zoo takes its name from the zoo in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh. Its 2000 student member club provides entertainment at the Pitt games providing unmerciful chants and catcalls to the opposing teams. UConn fans will remember Khalid El-Amin jumping on the scorer’s table after a victory declaring his love for the Zoo. (I kid!). As the start of the game drew near, the student section was almost empty. Ah the dreaded student break which happens often during my December travels. A fan next to me said to be sure to state in my blog that this place rocks when the Zoo is in full force. I was disappointed but scheduling these games are hard enough without factoring in school breaks at each school.

The Panthers looked like they missed the energy of the Zoo. They trailed for most of the game until finally turning on the defensive pressure, they willed out a victory. Northern Illinois shot the lights out in the first half. Their point guard Eugene German had 18 points at the half. With an unimpressive record of 6-4 to that point, I was thinking that an upset here would make a splash on ESPN. The Panthers are a very athletic team but lack that steady and consistent scorer which will make them vulnerable in ACC conference play. I do believe that Coach Jeff Capel has them on the right track with impressive wins over Rutgers and Florida State. However like with a loss to Nicholls State, the young Panthers will show signs of their youth throughout the year.

2019-12-16 20.55.13As I drove around Pittsburgh, I see that most of the houses are on hillsides looking like a picture of the Italian Amalfi coast missing the villas and olive gardens. I was very impressed with the Station Square development on the river. This 52 acre riverfront area has indoor and outdoor shopping with residential housing.  My dinner on the first night was at Bucco di Beppo. The name itself convinced me to give it a try. When I walked in the place, the place looked very very familiar. I know that I have never been here before. Then it hit me. I visited this place in Washington D.C. a few years ago. I found out that they have 17 locations throughout the country. I was surprised because the ambiance of the place with pictures of Italians on the wall with checkered table cloths led me to believe that was a family run place in D.C. in business for a 100 years with Grandma in the kitchen kneading the pasta dough.

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As I do in new cities, I seek out the local zoo. On this dark dreary day, I showed up at the admission booth at 3PM for a zoo that closes at 5PM. Between the long walks and the aquarium on the grounds, I needed exactly 2 hours. Here are some picture for my fellow animal lovers.

 

Next Game : Central Michigan at Robert Morris 12/20/2019

 

 

 

 

 

Alabama A&M (55) vs. Alcorn State (61) 02/25/19

Game #81 of 353   22% complete

Alcorn State is a fine institution having the distinction of being the first black land grant college established in the United States. Located in Lorman, Mississippi, there is not a plethora of activities to embark on in this beautiful part of the country. Therefore, to fill the void, we stayed in nearby Natchez along the mighty Mississippi River.

Natchez has the highest concentration of antebellum houses in the south. We embarked on a tour via a golf cart visiting different historic sights in Natchez.

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One may have heard of the Natchez Trace. Natchez Trace is a national trail spanning from Nashville,TN, terminating in Natchez, MS. The 50 mph speed limit is strictly enforced as we saw numerous cars pulled over by the police. We spent a few miles on it from our trip from Madison to Natchez. The scenic road is maintained by the National Park Service.

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The Alcorn State game lacked a band, cheerleaders and a dance team providing quite a contrast to the game earlier with Jackson State. After partaking on a 45 minute ride from Natchez, Tony and I were situated in excellent seats for a mere $10 ticket.

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The David Whitney Complex has a classic style with the old style wooden bleachers in the upper levels and chairbacks on the lower level. The 7000 seat capacity is deceiving given the small exterior of the building.

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It is interesting to note that Alabama A&M is currently under probation for low APR scores and ineligible for NCAA tournament play.  Despite no chance to qualify for any post season play, I give them credit for the intrinsic motivation to play a hard game given those circumstances.

This game completes my journey through Mississippi seeing all  six Division 1 schools in this state.

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So I will close by stating that I had the best fried chicken at the Old Country Store. This place was featured on the Food Network Channel and Southern Living Magazine. It is well worth a visit should one come to Lorman, Mississippi, the home of Alcorn State.

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So I bid good bye to all till the next college basketball season. Best wishes and thanks for reading!

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Grambling State (60) vs. Jackson State (71) 02/24/19

Game #80 of 351     22% complete

A trip to Jackson, Mississippi should always start with a trip to Brent’s Soda Fountain. This iconic 50’s retro diner was host to a scene from the movie “The Help”.

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The standard dish of a burger, fries and a chocolate milk shake immediately wiped out the gains from a brisk 5 mile walk earlier in the day.

As is tradition, I always point out the “firsts” on my journey. This game was the first where the two teams shared the same team name – “Tigers”.

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The impressive tiger portal was on display as we entered the arena. The closest competitor to this magnificent tiger portal was Maine’s illustrious black bear portal which is pictured on my Maine blog page. It was a nice touch to see the kids dressed up in tiger outfits and doing cheers throughout the game.

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There have been times in my journey where the side events during the game out shadow the game itself. This was the case tonight. I was accompanied by my wife Linda and friends Tony and Chelsea. They were entertained during the game by the students and band. During each time out, a song would come on bringing the students out from the stands into a dance frenzy in the aisles and around the court. The band was loud with dancing drummers and swaying horn players.

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At half time, the entire student body took to the court dancing. We were entranced by the dance moves and the in sync coordination between the students in each line.

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Both teams were very athletic, making for a quick paced game. The poor foul shooting from both sides told me that these schools recruit fast athletes who can jump but may not be schooled on the fundamentals. I have seen this a few times with smaller schools who opt for exciting play to draw in the fans.

In the course of my journey,  I always try to discern why players with a height advantage are not more well rounded players. My theory is that their impressive physical attributes get them through high school with little effort on the fundamentals of basketball but ill prepares for the next level.

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How cool was it it to be stopped on the road to make way for the marching band on the street. Another first!

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Next game : Alabama A&M at Alcorn State 02/25/19

 

 

 

 

 

 

UCONN (67) vs. University of Central Florida (73) 01-31-19

Game #79 of 353  22%

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I escaped the brutally cold temperatures in Connecticut to take in a road game for my beloved UConn Huskies. I have developed some strategies for planning my journey in the future years. The first is to hit the cold weather states early in November or in early March before the league tournaments start. Navigating blizzards and polar vortexes is not on my fun list of things to do. Next year, I plan to visit the last four schools in upper state New York to complete the entire state. Beyond that in later years, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and other north border states will be done early or late to minimize weather problems.  Secondly as my old bones age, I will save the southern warm states for my later years.  If I continue my current pace and continue to breathe, I will be hitting the last school in my late seventies. Florida, California and Texas shall wait for me! Thirdly, I hope to do one UCONN road game a year to add to my quest and get to see UCONN play.

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I probably need to do a better job of checking distances to the arenas before heading out. My wife Linda accompanied me on this trip for her one obligatory game a year. As always, her attendance is predicated on extra curricular tourists trips as in Disneyworld this year. Before the game, we met up with an ex coworker who was retired and enjoying the Florida weather and cross country trips in a RV. I set dinner time at 6:30PM in a  Disney Springs restaurant  thinking I had plenty of time to see a 9PM game in Orlando. How big could Orlando be? As we sat down for dinner, one of us checked Google maps and saw that the arena was a freaking 45 minutes away much to my surprise. We made it with 10 minutes to spare but lesson learned!

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To be greeted by palm trees entering the arena was a treat. The CFE arena is new and pretty spiffy inside. The overall effect is gold and black. There were many empty seats around me in the end section. Although the crowd was enthusiastic, I was surprised by the many open seats. I wonder if the tourist setting of Orlando contributes to a lack of fan interest from a transitory population. Pyscho babble at its best!

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I have seen quite of few AAC games this year. I nominate B.J. Taylor of UCF as the player of the year. He has done the most to improve his club this year. Best known as a slasher, he has developed a sweet outside shot. He continually made the big shot tonight when needed. Conversely, I have seen little improvement of Tacko Fall over his career. A man of that size should dominate every night. The man is 7’6″ and weighs 310 pounds. It will be interesting to see if an NBA club will take a chance on him in the draft.

Now it is three days of fun in Disneyworld! Yeah I can still have fun there at my age.

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Next game: Grambling State at Jackson State 2/23/19

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harvard (84) vs. Howard (71) 01/21/19

Game #78 of 353 22% complete

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My day started off with a visit to Lincoln’s cottage located on an Armed Forces retirement complex. Lincoln lived here during the summer months and commuted back and forth to the White House and the Capitol. The cottage was reconstructed according to the original dimensions but did not contain too many artifacts. The meat of the tour was mostly in the Visitor Center viewing displays about Lincoln’s decisions that were made in the cottage like the Emancipation Declaration. It is worth a visit if you ever are in the Washington DC area.

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I thought it was a weird matchup having Harvard and Howard play each other. They’re not in the same league and play different opponents. However on Martin Luther King Day, it was great to see both teams interlocking arms during the national anthem. Kamala Harris who just announced her presidential run gave the opening remarks on the video board. She surprised everyone in the crowd later by walking around and saying hello.

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The Burr Gymnasium is an ideal place to see a ball game. It is all one level but oval-shaped and slanted down toward the court in Coliseum type of setup. The place was packed because many people have the day off. The game was highlighted with the very energetic pep band and dance team. They were a show unto themselves during the intermissions.

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Harvard had too much discipline for the Howard Bisons today. Their crisp passing and 3-point shooting kept the Bisons at bay during the whole game. The Crimson`s Ivy league style of play was probably confusing to the Bisons who do not see that type of offense too often.

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I did a good deed today. I caught a t-shirt thrown by the cheerleaders. In my enthusiasm in catching the shirt, I kind of ripped it out of an old lady’s hand sitting next to me. I can tell she was disappointed so I gave her the T-shirt. Her daughter said that made the old woman very happy.

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My mission in Washington D.C. is complete.

Next game: Uconn at UCF 01/31/19