Visiting Schools that College Basketball Will Never Forget

With not much time left in the college basketball season, I finally was able to get the weather and seasonal sickness to dissipate long enough for a trip. I’ve yet to really explore much of the DMV when it comes to the sport and there is a lot to cover as over a dozen teams play in the area. My first stop was Catonsville, a suburb of Baltimore about 15 minutes to the southwest. This is the home of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, better known as UMBC. Those four letters will live in NCAA history as they were the first 16 seed to defeat a 1 seed as they handily defeated Virginia in 2018. When the moment happened, I was in Lake Placid, visiting Herb Brooks Arena for the ECAC Hockey Tournament final. At some point a 16 seed win was going to happen and there’s been times where I’ve thought certain teams have had that “look”. This wasn’t one of them and I was blown away at not just the result, but how large the margin was (like everybody). I didn’t have much interest ahead of time because I was (and still am) in my conference balance state of mind. It always bothered me that UMBC plays in the America East as it is such a geographic outlier with the next closest school being over four hours away. I’d have them in a league with other similar, nearby schools, like Towson, Delaware, Drexel. That 2018 win coincided with the opening of a new arena on campus and it is a nice building to watch basketball in. It’s easy to get to and parking is plentiful. The inside itself is awesome as they went with a double-decker horseshoe bowl despite only having 4,654 seats. I just wish they would let people sit in the upper-deck for the better vantage point as it was blocked off during my visit. There are other issues that you wouldn’t expect from an arena built less than five years ago and those are detailed in the more thorough review here. Otherwise, the seats are black, the scoreboard is impressive and the sightlines are solid. It was Senior Day and the Retrievers easily handled Maine, who sadly is in the running for worst D1 team in the country. They won 93-79 in front of a small crowd.

It was an early afternoon game that only lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes, so I had a lot of free time since the drive to Maryland doesn’t take too long from North Jersey. I decided to spend my non-game time in Historic Ellicott City, which is about 15 minutes away from Catonsville. I first learned about the town in 2016, when a devastating, tragic flash flood turned Main Street into a western-like canyon of water. Geography and land-use combine to make this a flood prone section, but the hilly district is full of eclectic shops and restaurants in some remarkable buildings based in granite. Parking is a pain, though free and once I found a spot, I loved walking down and then up (and out of breath) Main Street. Lots of historical markers make for stops along the away and I made sure to take home a couple bags of popcorn from EG Pops. There were a couple small museums I checked out as well: the B&O Rail Museum at the bottom of the hill and the Museum of Howard County in an old church at the top.

The next day started on a sour note. Have you have had fizzy Orange Juice? Me neither, until I took a swig of the container at the Panera near BWI. Nasty and unexpected, I look down and see it is 7 days past expiration. That fizzy-ness means it has gone bad and I was counting my blessings that the little bit I drank didn’t make me sick. Anyway, the game on this day was in Fairfax, VA and it didn’t start until 2:30 PM, so the plan beforehand was to check out Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington. Befit of the country’s first president this place is quite a sight as the grounds offer plenty to keep one occupied for an entire morning. The house is on the small side, but if you are a history nerd like me, it’s crazy to be in the same place that Washington spent much of his time. It was a nice morning too for walking and the day warmed into the 50s by the time I made it to George Mason’s campus.

Being such a fan and follower of the low/mid-major level of college basketball, I remember March 26, 2006 vividly. That was the night that the Patriots beat UConn to reach the Final Four and I was on Long Island visiting my girlfriend’s family. I was able to break away and watch the final few minutes and it was a feeling of disbelief and happiness as I never thought that a team at this level could make it this far. Since then, it’s been done five more times. Now I was not crazy about the team (don’t forget what Tony Skinn did to a Hofstra player’s groin in the conference tournament). Unlike the UMBC win at a time when I lost some of my wholesome, boyish enthusiasm for college basketball, the George Mason run resonated at the time.

EagleBank Arena is an older venue and a traditional one that I am fond of. There’s lots of green and gold with a seating bowl that goes from floor to ceiling. At 10,000 seats, that is a ton of rows. It’s steep and conducive to building a lot of noise, even though it’s almost never full. The crowd is into the event from a cheering perspective, even if it is more family-oriented than other regional schools. The main driver of the atmosphere is the Green Machine, Mason’s pep band that has an edgier sound. Doc Nicks leads their energetic style, complete with a singer, DJ and (at times provocative) dancers. They played a relative rival also named George (Washington). I say relative, because it’s the VCU game that is really the big one. Against GW, Mason struggled with turnovers and poor shooting, however they got hot when they needed to as they turned a deficit that lasted much of the game into a win thanks to a 13-0 closing run. I met up with my cousin’s family at the game and enjoyed a great event.

Full arena reviews will be posted on the right side of the page over the next week or two.

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