Friday, March 2, 2012

Some Hat Trick Nights Aren't Enough

Don Giovanni is a pretty good opera. You may not have heard of it, but according to Wikipedia it's the seventh-most widely performed opera in the world, and for good reason what with that Mozart guy and all. I should know since I was in the audience at the Met Wednesday night to see it, but the point of this is to not humblebrag my way to obnoxious cultural eliticism. No, while I was watching Don Giovanni get his comeuppance, stubborn to the end, I had one thing on my mind.

See, I had had a pretty good day to that point. A hat trick day in fact. That all started at 2:30 p.m. when the United States kicked off a friendly against Italy which, while it had no real bearing on any particular World Cup qualifications of any sort, did give the Yanks a significant morale boost in the shape of America's first ever win against the Azzuri -- on Italian soil no less -- and with Mike Piazza in the stands to boot. As far as big moments go that was a pretty exciting one, and all things considered, it was a pretty good start to what could be a busy sports day.

While I was sitting in the orchestra at the Met two of my other teams in the mix, the New York Knicks and the Chicago Blackhawks, both found themselves trailing at home to inferior opponents. In the case of the 'Bockers it had the makings of a particularly shameful outing as they were trailing the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers 61-49 at the half. Chicago in the meantime was trailing Toronto 3-2 at the first intermission. I imagine it was some time around when Leporello abandoned Elvira that the Blackhawks turned the corner, putting together a rally that eventually resulted in a 5-4 win.

The Knicks, meanwhile, must have remembered how basketball works, because they exploded in the second half for 71 points en route to a solid 120-103 victory.

So I had three sporting events, I had wins from my team in all three, including an historic upset, and I got to see a totally awesome opera to boot. And did I mention the dinner at Cafe Fiorello beforehand? It was hard to say this wasn't a good day all around. But then again, if you believe that, you clearly haven't spoken to me in the past two days, because if there's anything that can drag a man like me down it's a different form of inevitably heartbreak I got to experience Wednesday night. And it was dressed in purple.

In the intermission I moved out to the main lobby where I actually get cell phone service in hopes of seeing what I wanted to see -- Northwestern holding an unlikely edge over Ohio State at halftime of senior night at Welsh-Ryan Arena. It may have been unlikely, but as I saw myself sophomore year, it wouldn't be the first time the Cats came up with a stunning upset of the Buckeyes in a sport they had no right to do so in. Even a cursory viewing of ESPN's college basketball coverage, or just talking to me, could probably clue you in to the fact that Northwestern, owners of the most pathetic and futile streaks in college sports having never once made the NCAA Tournament, is on the verge, potentially, of something special. Before Wednesday, the Wildcats were 17-11 with a 7-9 record in the Big Ten. It's not the best record Northwestern has ever had, but given their 8th-ranked strength of schedule as a result of being in, by far, the country's best conference, the fact that the Cats have had no bad losses and even a signature win over Michigan State to hang their hats on has many alums thinking this may be the year.

Throw in there that the losses the team has experienced in conference, while brutal in nature, are not bad ones to suffer. Northwestern has lost to Purdue on the final shot, fallen to Illinois by one point in overtime and lost to a ranked Michigan team in overtime twice. Prior to the game Wednesday night ESPN's Joe Lunardi, whose job essentially revolves around guessing and us believing him for no other reason than that we choose to, had the Wildcats as the very last team in the NCAA's field of 68. A win over Ohio State wouldn't have simply turned heads. It might have been enough to push the Cats into the tournament bracket with little doubt. At the very least it would have been the best thing I saw all day -- even better than finding out the truth about journeyman forward Jon Sim on his Wikipedia page.

So it was with quite a bit of disappointment that I turned on my phone and saw my Wildcats were not just losing by 10 points at the half, but were apparently getting pulverized on the boards by Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. The Cats have a tendency to make runs that tighten the score, but they also have a tendency to break hearts, and mine lost hope before I sat back down for the second act.

When the curtain came up I pulled my phone out again expecting the worst and got a text message from one Mike Trawicki telling me he had just had a heart attack. Then I found that sometime around when Don Giovanni was taken into the fires of hell, Northwestern got our hopes up when another Italian, one Alex Marcotullio, pulled this one off.

There are times in the world of sports when a dramatic moment happens. And then there are times when you bring out Gus Johnson for his particularly special brand of energy. He's a man with a gift for drama, being amazing calls (I get chills every time I hear him say "The slipper still fits") or just blind screaming. He does it right, and he's even done it before for us. Wednesday night was a night that called for Gus. And he delivered.

So I got to thinking from Mike's text message, "Did we do it? Did we stage the miracle comeback and put a stamp on our first ever Tournament berth?"

As I found out moments later, the answer was no. And once again, it was a brutal, heartbreaking result. And by "brutal, heartbreaking result" I mean "Northwestern completely forgot to play any defense in the final three seconds against maybe the best low post player in the country with their season on the line." And Gus was there to tell it like it was.

Rooting for this team, particularly this season, is its own special brand of misery. Of course, our hopes are not completely dashed as of yet. The latest Lunardi projection still has Northwestern as the last team in, but that could change by the weekend. More likely, our future will hinge on Saturday afternoon's regular season finale at Iowa. Ideally, that and a win or two in next week's Big Ten Tournament will be enough to hear Northwestern University's name called during the selection show next Sunday. My fingers are crossed, and besides, if all else fails, I can reassure myself that my night won't be as embarrassing as Devin Setoguchi's.

Either way, it's amazing that as I sat in front of the greatest operas in the world Wednesday night, apparently I was missing another one unfold in Evanston. That opera seems a little more tragic right now, but I can only hope it'll have a better ending for my Wildcats than Don Giovanni had in his. Or at the very least, maybe it will have a little less soap.

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