It’s the best game I’ve ever seen, in any sport at any venue. The St. Bonaventure University women’s basketball team beat the University of Wisconsin in the third round of the 2009 WNIT at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisc.
The Bonnies came back from 14 points down at halftime to advance. But it wasn’t just the magic on the court making that Thursday in March special. It was the trek of four college men across seven states in 11 hours to cheer on the Bonaventure women that made the entire day worth it.
We left campus at 4 a.m. on Thursday. For those of you unfamiliar with St. Bonaventure University, it’s not that big. Only 2,000 undergraduates attend the Franciscan college in southwest New York. After a quick stop at the Wilson Farms in Allegany to get some drinks and snacks, we were on our way to Wisconsin to see the Bonnies take on the Badgers.
After St. Bonaventure beat the West Virginia Mountaineers in the previous round, I had given thought about what it would be like to visit Big Ten country to see the game. I had never imagined I would actually be doing it until just two days prior to leaving.
Monday night, I had just finished playing an intramural basketball game in the Richter Center. The clock struck midnight, and I drove back to my apartment in Townhouse 33, behind Francis Hall. As I parked my car and made my way to the front door of the building, a familiar face was standing outside. He spoke to me as I made eye contact with him. I had seen him at all of the basketball gamesmen’s and women’s but I had never exchanged words with him.
His name was Shawn Sood, and he lived on the first floor of my building. He asked me if I had car. After I hesitantly said yes, he asked if I had thought about going to Wisconsin for the women’s game. Again, I hesitantly said yes.
Before the “s” had even rolled off my tongue, Shawn’s eyes lit up. Asking me if I wanted to go, he eagerly explained that I wouldn’t have to pay a thing. He and his roommate Devin had already arranged for a place to stay and for Students For the Mountain to sponsor the gas money. Devin opened the window to his room after Shawn had yelled to him. Both wouldn’t relent in their quest to convince me to take them.
It was an intriguing proposition, but the game was in Madison. Would my 1996 Honda Accord with 183,000 miles be able to make it that far? Screw it. I wanted to watch the Bonnies make history. I told them I would go.
The next morning, Tuesday, I sent a text to my friend Josh. He took graduate classes in the education program at St. Bonaventure. I asked him if he wanted to go with us. Had he said no, I probably would have backed out of the trip entirely. But Josh is one for adventure, and he immediately responded with a yes.
Wednesday night, just hours before we were supposed to leave, Josh brought a stick of window marker over to my car. We wrote “Beat Wisconsin” across the bottom of my rear windshield and “Go Bonnies” on the rear windows. We were ready for the battle.
Shortly after we left, Devin and Shawn fell asleep in the back, and Josh stayed awake in the front passenger’s seat as I drove along Route 17. I worried about the amount of sleep I had the night before. I was too excited and spent less than five hours in my bed. But Josh reassured me that the Five Hour Energy I bought at Wilson Farms would definitely keep me awake.
Josh and I talked as we drove along the star-lit highway. It would be three hours before we would even make it to Cleveland. It’s amazing what a college kid’s brain can come up with to talk about when you’re just trying to drive and kill time all at once.
Finally, we reached Cleveland around 7 a.m. Don’t get me started on the stupid 90-degree turn on Route 90 that takes traffic right through downtown. The sun hadn’t come up yet, and morning rush hour wasn’t that bad for a Thursday morning. In fact it was nowhere near as bad as what the morning rush was like in Chicago on our way home.
Thirty minutes beyond the Mistake by the Lake, we finally stopped for breakfast at a McDonald’s. I knew if I drank just one cup of coffee on top of the Five Hour Energy I had three hours earlier, I would be set for the rest of the drive.
Devin and Shawn had no clue it had already been three hours. It actually surprised me because the backseat of my car isn’t that big. I thought they would have been complaining about leg room by then.
We quickly refueled and got back on the highway. Things stayed relatively the same through the rest of Ohio and Indiana, except for the random tolls along the way.
As we passed the exit for South Bend, I asked if anybody wanted to stop and see the Golden Domers. Nobody replied. I knew exactly what they were thinking: “God Loves SBU more than Notre Dame.” The slogan dons a popular T-shirt made by a print shop back in Allegany. We didn’t need to stop.
Having never been to the central time zone, I asked Josh and Shawn if they could look up where the time line crosses paths with the highway. We tried one of the new text-message services that will answer any question you ask. After five tries with two different companies, we still didn’t have a clear answer. One text gave us a mile marker, but didn't give us the state.
We had to wait until the clock on our cell phones switched over on their own. Regardless, if you’re ever in that situation, the time line is somewhere near Gary, Ind. Little did we realize that Gary is practically a suburb of Chicago.
Once we were in the Windy City, Devin and Shawn had finally woken up. They still didn’t realize we had been in the car for nearly nine hours. We were all hungry again and planned to stop after Chicago. None of us could make up our minds, however, as to what kind of food we wanted to stop for. We finally decided on deep-dish pizza because we were in Chicago, but we didn’t want to wait for it. The closer we got to Wisconsin, the more the anticipation grew for the game. We continued our trek through Illinois.
Speaking of the state from which our President hails, Illinois has the most ridiculous toll system in the history of tolls. Almost every 10 miles, there’s a toll plaza that we had to pull over and pay an increasing rate each time. I missed the first one because I was in the far-left lane, and the cash booths were on the far right. I was lucky that toll was only $0.30. Between the tolls in Ohio and Illinois, Devin and Shawn probably spent $30 on our way to Madison.
After we hit the Illinois-Wisconsin line, we could taste the cheddar burgers awaiting us. We hadn’t eaten since McDonald’s at 7:30 a.m., and it was already 12:30 p.m. But construction slowed us even further once we were in Wisconsin, and we didn’t arrive in Madison until 2:30 p.m.
We drove through downtown Madison, looking for a parking spot. Not being familiar with the city, I relied on my GPS to lead us around. I mistakenly took one stop sign for a four-way stop. It wasn’t. As I started to make my way through the intersection, I realized my mistake. It was definitely one of those “Oh shit!” moments. A city bus barreled right for us from the right. Shawn, sitting in the rear passenger seat thought he was going to die. I hit the accelerator, and we made it through without a scratch.
Madison is the state capitol, and it’s definitely a college town. Shawn called one of his friends from home that goes to UW, and the Badger led us to a nice restaurant not far from the Kohl Center. Named “Nitty Gritty,” it was definitely a college bar-grille.
Anybody celebrating a birthday at this particular restaurant could drink beer or soda free from 11 a.m. to midnight. The catch was that one celebrating couldn’t leave. If he/she left, he lost his privilege to free beer. All I could think about were the finances behind the promotion. Would it ever be possible in Allegany? With the way the Bonnies’ student body can tip ‘em back, any bar that lets students drink for free on birthdays within a 50-mile radius of SBU would probably go broke.
After we finished our cheddar burgers, each of us made a trip to the men’s room. I paid the bill, and as I finished signing my name, Devin pointed out a guy wearing a Buffalo Bills polo. My first thought, without seeing the face, was that it could be Buffalo Bills wide receiver Lee Evans. Evans graduated from Wisconsin in 2004. It wasn’t him, but I was close.
As I got a better look at the face, I immediately recognized him. It was Eric Studesville, the Bills running backs coach. I pulled out my season-ticket-holder value card to prove to him I was a true Bills fan. Shawn took my picture with him, and I explained that Bills running back Marshawn Lynch is my favorite player. (I didn’t just make it up, either. I really do have a No. 23 throwback jersey hanging in my closet.)
By this time, it was 3:30 p.m. The game didn’t start until 7 p.m. We thought we would walk to the arena anyway and pick up our tickets. Unfortunately, the will-call window didn’t open until 6 p.m., the same time the arena opened. Still, the lady guarding the door was nice enough to let us use the bathroom, one at a time, inside the Kohl Center.
As each member of our party did his business, we waited inside “Bucky's Locker Room,” the Badgers' gift shop. Of course, in typical big-school fashion, there were gifts for every occasion marked with “Wisconsin” or the face of “Bucky the Badger,” the school’s mascot. The shop was twice as large as the bookstore in the Reilly Center back at school. Most of the souvenirs were useless, but I wondered if I would buy any of them if were they brown and white or marked with the Bona Wolf.
After nature finished calling, we walked back to the car in the parking garage a couple of blocks away. As we passed a dorm across the street from the Kohl Center, we asked a student where the local liquor store was. The student smiled, and gave us precise directions. It was less than two blocks away!
Devin bought a liter of Jack Daniel’s, and Josh and I split a liter of Admiral Nelson rum, mixing it with a little Cherry Coke. I drank two drinks with two shots each. It was the perfect pre-game party, the four of us sitting in the car, just joking around. However, I drove 11 hours and just ate a huge cheeseburger. The alcohol slowly put my mind into sleep mode.
Time slowed down in my mind, and with an hour before gates opened, I asked Josh, Devin and Shawn to walk around for a little while. I wanted to put my seat back and close my eyes for a little while in the silence of the parking garage.
I never fell asleep, but when I stepped out of the car 45 minutes later, my eyes were less tired than they had been before. Josh and Devin clearly had the liquor flowing as Shawn joined them in chanting “Let’s go Bonnies” when they returned from their walk.
The chant immediately revived me. After a couple of shots, it was time to go into the arena. We walked down the stairs of the parking garage, and Shawn asked a late-20-something if she was going to the game. She said she couldn’t make it, not really knowing what game we were talking about.
Walking down the street, boasting the brown-and-white Wolfpack T-shirts, Shawn asked everyone he saw if they were going to the game, whether or not they appeared to be UW students. Again, most of the people didn’t even know what game we were talking about.
We had one more street to cross before walking up to the gates of the Kohl Center. Shawn made a daring dash across the street, leaving the three of us behind. He was too excited, and it took some effort to catch up to him.
Opening the door to the Will Call entrance, brown and white shirts and sweaters covered the bodies of the parents and friends standing in line waiting for tickets. We joined them, standing behind the families of Meghan Van Tatenhove and Andrea Doneth. I’ve met Andy’s dad and uncle several times before. The first time was in Cincinnati during the 2007 Atlantic 10 Championships. Mr. Doneth is an overly excited guy, but it’s just because he loves his daughter. When he saw me, a huge smile, a firm handshake and a good pat on the back came our way.
Shawn had met Meghan’s family before, so he spent his time in line conversing about how long it took us to get to Madison. Meghan, a freshman at SBU, won the 2008 Wisconsin state high school player of the year award. Needless to say, she had a big following that night in the Kohl Center.
Our tickets were given to us courtesy of Jacey Brooks, the director of basketball operations for the Bonnies. As soon as we were inside, we made our way down the aisle to the court. We spotted Jacey and thanked her. I think she was surprised we actually made the trip.
Josh, Devin, Shawn, and I spent the following 10 minutes deciding where to sit. Head Coach Jim Crowley didn’t want us sitting right behind the bench because he knew we would be loud and a distraction to his team.
In order to miss my class, SBU-TV, the following day, I convinced my professor to let me take a video camera with me to shoot highlights for the newscast. I had to spend the duration of warm-ups and the first five minutes of the game behind the lens.
Shawn, Devin, and Josh settled in the first row at center court, opposite the team benches and behind the Wisconsin radio announcer. Taking a break for a few minutes before the game, I walked over to center court where they were talking to Athletic Director Steve Watson. Again, another smile and handshake greeted me.
As the five of us chatted, we mentioned that we wanted to take Coach Crowley out for a beer win or lose. He had worked so hard to prepare his team, and we wanted to thank him for it. With a wide smile and a little chuckle, Watson told us we wouldn’t be paying for a thing if the Bonnies won.
I returned to my camera and took a seat on the baseline for the start of the game. Just a minute and a half in, the Bonnies had missed two layups and a jumper. They trailed 4-0. By the first media timeout at 14:15, the Bonnies trailed 13-7.
I decided I had enough video to work with for highlights. I didn’t drive 11 hours just to sit behind the camera for the whole game. I returned to the seats with Devin, Josh, and Shawn. The crowd had filed in, and a group of Wisconsin alumnae sat behind us. They weren’t used to having a group of visiting students yell and cheer for the opposing team.
As the game resumed, the Badgers shot lights out, hitting 13-of-21 (61.9 percent) in the first half. We tried to stay positive, but I was getting annoyed. First, St. Bonaventure couldn’t stop the Badgers' attack. Second, we were sitting down, watching the game. Anyone familiar with the Wolfpack knows SBU students don’t sit during basketball games. When we tried to stand up and cheer when something good happened, the Badger faithful kept yelling at us to sit down.
At half time, I couldn’t take it anymore. The Bonnies trailed by 14. Things did not look good for St. Bonaventure’s chances, and I wanted to stand. I sat the entire drive to Madison. I needed some time on my feet. I worked hard to convince the other three that sitting down was bad karma for the Bonnies. They were annoyed, too, and asked me where I wanted to sit.
We moved to the end of the court, opposite of the SBU bench. We tried to stand on the floor behind the empty media table, but a security guard asked us to sit in the seats of the first row. We reluctantly complied. This time, the only Badger fans behind us were 10 rows back, so we stood, cheered and chanted “Defense!”
Things were swell until we found a problem with our new seats. They were adjacent to the UW pep band. The band members were the only students that sat in the student section (on the baseline by the visiting bench) of the Kohl Center. They spotted us and wrote us off because the Badgers had a 14-point lead. The band members were also the only UW students attending the game.
The second half started, and four minutes later, the Bonnies had cut into the lead. Freshman Jessica Jenkins hit a three-pointer at 16:16 to pull the Bonnies within five. As the Bonnies mounted the comeback trail, Devin, Shawn, Josh, and I grew louder and louder as the Kohl Center crowd of 1,655 fell silent.
The band, understandably, took exception to the noise the travelling Wolfpack made. We were only four students, and we were louder than the rest of the building. The band started trying to annoy us, playing louder and louder when the Badgers scored. One girl even posed the question, “What is a Bonnie?” Like we hadn’t heard that one before.
The Bonnies shot 13-for-24 (54.2 percent) in the second half and 4-for-9 from three-point land. St. Bonaventure tied the game up with 7:31 to go and took the lead with 6:51 left. We were going nuts. I spotted Mr. Doneth sitting at center court, three sections away and half-way up the lower level. He was going just as insane as the four of us combined. Word from campus told us that a large number of students packed the Rathskellar to watch the game. They were going crazy as well, according to several text messages sent to us from friends back at SBU.
The Bonnies never relinquished the lead. They made 3-of-4 free throws in the final two minutes to win the game, 56-51. After junior Dana Mitchell hit the second of two free throws, the video board cut to the four of us jumping up and down. Within minutes we had text message after text message, saying our friends had seen us on TV back at school.
St. Bonaventure had pulled a comeback for the ages. As the final horn sounded, the four of us sprinted across the baseline past the band to the bench. We waited for the girls to finish celebrating at half court. Another security guard told us to back up to let the team through as we waited. His attempts didn’t work. As the Bonnies came off the court, Mitchell jumped into my arms.
Ten minutes later, family and friends of the players gathered on the concourse of the Kohl Center. Players chatted, laughed and took photos. We made sure to join them.
Andy Doneth’s uncle changed flight plans. Instead of going back to his home in the state of Washington, he went to Michigan with the rest of Andy’s family. He wanted to join them when they travelled to the RC to see the Bonnies host South Florida in the next round.
Because he had changed his flight, he had a little extra cash on him. He took out $40 and handed it to Shawn. Shawn tried to refuse the money, but Andy’s uncle was relentless. He tried to give it to us for gas. Then someone said something about the tolls we had incurred on our way. He then tried to tell us to use the money for toll booths.
Eventually, Shawn gave in and handed the money to me. By this time it was 9 p.m., 10 back at school. Devin had lined up a place to stay with Bob Donius’ brother-in-law, who lived about 10 miles from town. His name was Roy, and he was pretty chill.
When Devin called to say we wouldn’t be going directly to their house, the wife (I never met her and don’t know her name) said she would be disappointed if we didn’t go out and enjoy ourselves.
Watson gave us the name of the hotel at which the team stayed. We punched it into my Garmin GPS to get directions. In the lobby, the girls ate their dinner, comprised of chicken, salad, and garlic toast. We joined in the conversation, and Watson said he and Gary Nease, the WPIG play-by-play announcer, were going across the street to Buffalo Wild Wings.
Shawn continued to talk to Meghan as I told Coach Crowley congratulations. I felt bad for him, though, because he looked exhausted. His phone was his main priority as he tried to make plans for the next game back in Olean.
In a glassed-off area of the lobby, kids jumped in and out of the pool. All I could think about was unpacking a pair of shorts and jumping in with them. How good it would have felt after being up since 4 a.m.
But the four of us made our way to Buffalo Wild Wings without the joy of jumping in the pool. There wasn’t a crosswalk near the hotel, so we had to sprint our way across the four-lane road when traffic let up. We opened the door to the restaurant and found our athletic director and play-by-play announcer. Both are basketball junkies, and I wasn’t surprised to see them glued to the NCAA men’s tournament on the big-screen televisions.
We joined them and placed our orders. Josh and I each ordered some boneless wings. Josh and Devin each ordered beers, but Shawn and I refrained from drinking. Shawn wasn't 21, and I still had to drive to Roy’s house. I ordered a glass of water because even one beer would have put me to sleep.
There we sat, four college students, eating, drinking and hanging out with our athletic director. At what other school in the country would that happen? Not one. St. Bonaventure is the only school in America where the A.D. would hang out with students after a game like that.
Eventually, Crowley joined us at the raised table. I knew coach could use a beer. He had been sitting on the bench in the first half with his arms crossed, not saying a word as the Badgers lit up the nylon nets. Now, all of a sudden, he had to make plans for the next game, answer close to 100 text messages and e-mails on his Blackberry, and talk to the press.
After coach had finished talking to Chuck Pollock of the Olean Times Herald, he came up to us with a flabbergasted look on his face. Chuck had asked coach if he realized that his team was still playing in the postseason while Pat Summit’s Tennessee Lady Volunteers were sitting at home after losing in the NCAA tournament.
As a journalist, I could never have talked to coach like I did that night. He told the four of us a lot of things about the type of players he likes to recruit and how the players currently on the roster arrived at SBU. I knew coach was getting better at recruiting, but I never realized that the university had the same effect on the women’s basketball team as it had on me.
The first time I ever visited campus, I knew SBU was the place for me, so I asked coach if the recruits knew they wanted to play for SBU the first time they set foot on campus. “Absolutely,” he said.
Four students sat in a Buffalo Wild Wings in Madison with the head coach, athletic director, and play-by-play announcer almost until closing time. It was the perfect ending to a day filled with adventure.
The next morning, Shawn, Devin, Josh, and I rose at 5 a.m. to come back to St. Bonaventure. We left Roy a thank-you note on his kitchen island. We packed up our pillows and made our way back to the highway. We had 11 more hours to go before we would arrive back at campus, but somehow it didn’t matter. I drank a Five Hour Energy as the other three fell asleep.
As I drove, the sun began to rise over the flat lands. Everything was perfect, despite only four hours of sleep. With every win in the WNIT, the Bonnies were making school history, and we had another home game waiting for us on Sunday.
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