by Andy Lipton
If you are from New York City and love the game of basketball, this past Sunday, December 22, was a good day. Santa Claus came early.
On an unseasonably warm day in December in New York City, four teams played an old-fashioned double-header in Madison Square Garden. Only two teams emerged with a W. But each team winningly paid tribute in their own way to the memory of former West Point head coach and University of San Diego player, the late Maggie Dixon, who passed away at the early age of 28 due to a heart condition. And in doing so, The City Game, as basketball is called in New York City, came back to Madison Square Garden.
Together, the two games had it all on display. Teamwork, individual ability, athleticism, intelligence, toughness and intensity. Four competitive coaches exhibited a respect for the game and each other.
It was St. John’s against Texas A&M and UConn against Cal. These four women’s teams brought back memories of a time when the best men’s college basketball players stayed in school longer, were not national celebrities, and did not earn fortunes if they were lucky to turn pro.
It was also a reminder that college basketball, as well as the high school gyms and playgrounds of New York City, made basketball The City Game.
The Knicks’ teams in the early 1970s—the gold standard of professional basketball in New York City—epitomized how basketball should be played. That period of greatness was short, but the legacy of those Knicks’ teams lives on. In some ways they were a culmination of the many years in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s during which great New York City college basketball teams from schools like St. John’s, LIU, NYU and CCNY played.
Red Holzman, the only coach to lead the Knicks to a Championship, in 1970 and 1973, played at CCNY in the early 1940s.
And for you youingins, the only team ever to win a NCAA and a NIT championship in the same year was CCNY in 1950. And CCNY won both championships in a smoke-filled arena with narrow, wooden uncushioned seats tightly packed together, located on 8th Avenue between and 49th and 50th streets, called Madison Square Garden.
Back in the day, the best college teams from around the country often came to Madison Square Garden to play the best teams our City had. Teams from colleges such as Bradley, Dayton, Duquesne, Holy Cross and Kentucky helped shape The City Game, as they brought out the best in our teams.
This past Sunday it was an accomplished veteran coach from Texas, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who helped articulate the legacy of The City Game.
Blair, who coached Texas A&M to an NCAA Championship in 2011 and who was inducted to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this year, amazingly invoked names of Knick players from the past, Dick Barnettt, Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed, and their coach Red Holzman, in his post-game press conference. Blair was making the point that the early 1970s Knicks, playing in Madison Square Garden, showed how sharing the basketball among teammates was the winning way.
As Coach Blair wrapped up his post-game comments, the best team in women’s college basketball and the defending National Champions, the Huskies from the University of Connecticut, took the floor to play the No. 21-ranked team in the nation, the University of California at Berkeley.
UConn vs Cal
UConn was fresh off an 83-61 win earlier in the week on the road, against the No. 2-team in the country, Duke. This past Sunday there was no let down by UConn.
The Huskies showed how and why the game of basketball could be so beautiful. Yes, individually the Huskie players are very talented and the bench is deep. But both the ball and the players were in motion on offense and the ball was shared.
UConn established its defense early. Very tough D, helped in part by Cal’s lack of motion and ball movement allowed UConn to slowly grind out a lead. With close to seven minutes left in the first half, UConn’s lead grew to 23-9 and was clearly in command of the game.
Sophomore Huskie point guard Moriah Jefferson continually pushed the ball up court, at flying speed, yet under control, varying her direction up the court, showing a strong left hand, making you think she was a lefty. Her goal was to make that first pass as her teammates moved. If the play broke down, she quickly moved to the player with the ball to regain control and start a new play.
In boxing, there is an old maxim. Kill the body and the head dies. If Jefferson is that body, UConn can, if it had to, replace that body with two capable players, junior Brianna Banks and freshman Saniya Chong. And 2-guard, senior Bria Hartley, could run the point.
And I suspect, if he had to, coach Geno Auriemma could use the “head,” sophomore Breanna Stewart, to play point forward.
Breanna Stewart. Wow. With an easy flowing shooting motion, with no hesitation, and the ball arcing nicely with a slowly rotating back spin, Larry Bird came to mind. And if you think I am joking, it gets better. Like Bird, this teenager always seems to have her body in position to shoot. Besides her height of 6-4, her other natural gift is her ability to quickly be in shooting position. At worst, she is a second and a half, or two quick dribbles away from getting off a good shot.
In the first half, Stewart had 21 points—a little more than half of the team’s 40 points—on an array of shots, including two high-arcing jump hook shots from about four to seven feet away from the basket on the left side. Rarely, if at all, did her shots look forced.
So how does that square with sharing the ball? Balanced scoring is the utopian vision of basketball. But as Auriemma put it afterward, the ball found Stewart. The ball did move and it was shared. Three other players had five or six points at the half.
Stewart also led her team with Bird-like 8 rebounds in the first half.
Stewart came out of the game for good with about 13 minutes to play in the second half. Using a different combination of starters and subs for the last 13 minutes sans Stewart may have been Aureimma’s way of seeing how the team plays without Stewart. The score the rest of the game from that point on was UConn 19 and Cal 17.
The Knicks’ first championship season was ’69-70. As the years pass, you might tend to forget the players on the bench who contributed to that winning way. But those players, besides having individual identities, had a collective identity. They were called the Minutemen. They gave the Knicks good quality minutes off the bench and New York fans appreciated them.
If UConn gets challenged in the NCAA Tournament this year, it could very well be a player off the bench who saves them. 6-2 sophomore forward Morgan Tuck showed a nice shooting touch. And if 6-5 senior center Stephanie Dolson gets into foul trouble, junior Kiah Stokes can guard the paint. In the second half Stokes had 5 blocked shots in eight minutes of play. She looked nimble and used each hand at least once to block a shot.
The last points of the game were made when UConn walk-on 5-7 freshman Tierney Lawlor hit a three-pointer with 18 seconds to go. The joy on her face and on her teammates’ faces would have made Maggie Dixon proud.
Yes, No. 21-ranked Cal got pasted by UConn. 80-47. But that’s not the end of the story about the Golden Bears.
Cal went to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament last year after being in the tournament the year before. They beat cross-town arch rival Stanford last year in Palo Alto ending Stanford’s 81-game conference winning streak. And last year they tied Stanford for the best regular-season conference record in the Pac-12.
Hearing coach Lindsay Gottlieb, in a friendly manner, calmly and intelligently speak after the game about her appreciation for the people covering the game, the fans who came, the meaning of playing UConn, playing in the Garden, and in a tournament honoring the memory of Maggie Dixon, you understand why her players love her.
And seeing some of the Cal players outside the Garden after the game mingling with friends and relatives, you could tell the kids were far from beaten down. They had and would continue to enjoy the holiday season and the rest of the basketball season. As students at one of the best academic and freethinking schools in the country, these players had a lot going for them.
St. John’s vs Texas A&M
Coach Blair’s Aggies lost the first game of the double-header to the St. John’s Red Storm in a thriller that went down to the wire and could have gone either way. It was a hard fought game by the players and a game that tested the wits of Blair and St. John’s Coach Joe Tartamella.
Red Storm sophomore and go-to scorer Aliyyah Handford scored the winning basket on a drive up the middle with two seconds to go to break the tie and give St. John’s the win at 72-70.
The lead changed hands 12 times in the first half. With less than six minutes left in the first half, the Red Storm took a seven-point lead only to allow that to become a one-point deficit three minutes later. The Johnnies took the lead for good with less than two minuets to go in the first half and held it until the Aggies tied it up with 42 seconds left in the game.
It was a big win for St. John’s after having lost its last three games.
Both teams have a strong and proud basketball tradition. The Johnnies made the NCAA Tournament the last four seasons. The Aggies game into the game ranked No. 24 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. They won the 2011 NCAA Championship and have been in the NCAA Tournament the last eight years.
Texas A&M came into the game at 7-3, ranked 11th in the nation in defense. Its starting front line was bigger than that of St. John’s with Karla Gilbert, Courtney Williams and Achiri Ade at 6-5, 6-1 and 6-1, respectively.
Bigger opposing front lines has forced the Red Storm to leave their staple man-to-man defense that has been a hallmark for years and go zone.
Early in the first half, playing a 2-3 zone, St. John’s was still able to ball hawk a bit with the front two. The quick hands of Eugeneia McPherson and Aaliyah Lewis helped some create ball movement problems for the Aggies. And the Aggies were not as patient early on in trying to get the ball inside. The 6-5 Gilbert scored two points in the first half. The Aggies had 10 turnovers in the first half.
But late in the first half, Coach Blair switched from a man-to-man defense to a 1-3-1 zone, which helped get them back in the game. In the span of a little over three minutes late in the first half, the Aggies had three steals and took a one-point lead after trailing 27-20. The first half though closed with the Red Storm taking a three-point lead.
Handford who comes from Newark, NJ, finished the game as high scorer with 27 points. She reminds me of many a quintessential New York City player who can really drive to the basket from almost anywhere on the floor and has the ability to pull up for a short jumper. With great speed, quickness and handle, she is very tough to stop. And she can create foul problems for the opposing bigs when she gets into the lane.
Although Handford is not the point guard, she is free to push the ball up guard and take it to the hoop before the defense is set.
Because Handford is such a tough match-up, teams will go zone against St. John’s. But Hanford drives so well, she can slice through a 2-3 zone. And St. John’s has the ability to hit the outside shot. Against a Harvard 2-3 zone earlier in December, Briana Brown hit a deep three from the left wing in the late second half to help ensure an eventual five-point victory.
This past Sunday it was senior Keylantra Langley who hit a deep three from the left wing with 7:42 to go against a 1-3-1 Texas A&M defense that seemed to pose a challenge to the smaller St. John’s unit on the floor. That three put the Red Storm up 58-50 and may have been the impetus a few minutes later for Coach Blair to go back to man-to-man.
The Aggies were able to come back and tie the score, utilizing their height underneath against a smaller St. John’s unit and some full-court pressure.
For me, the key to the game, and what may be the key to a successful St. John’s season, was the bench players who provided good defense with more height and bulk underneath in the 2-3 zone and seemed to give the Johnnies some different ways to score against a 1-3-1 defense. They also provided a rest for the 6-2 Amber Thompson, and for Brown and Langley who at 5-8 and 5-9, respectively, have to work real hard in the back of the defense to keep the opposing bigs off the boards and from getting in scoring position.
Two of the players off the bench, Selina Archer and Danaejah Grant made their St. John’s debut in this game, as they just became eligible after transferring from other schools. And Coach Tartamella gave 6-2 sophomore Sandra Udobi her first start this season and her 16 minutes were meaningful.
At one point early in the second half at with 16:38 left to play, the 6-4 Archer and the 6-1 Jade Walker, along with the 5-9 Grant were playing the three across underneath on defense in the 2-3, with the Johnnies up 39-37. Archer went out with 13:07 to go with the Johnnies winning 46-41. Walker left the game for Udobi at 11:54 with the score 46-43. And when Udobi left the game with 10:30 to play, St. John’s was up 48-46. The game was kept in check. Grant played the last 16:44 of the game.
The Maggie Dixon Classic was a nice gift for fans of the City Game. And for the four teams that played in it, the promise of dreams come true will be with them as they start conference play.
Andy Lipton is a free-lance writer who has lived in New York City his whole life and who welcomes conversations on his essays. He can be reached at [email protected]