Ivy League Basketball: A Brown Bear Legend Is Born
There we were with 70 or 80 of our closest friends, on a night that a dog wouldn’t have sent us out into.
I was with old friend and hoops aficionado Doc, and we were making the best of a bad situation. Ice-stormed out of an originally scheduled pilgrimage to see Doc’s beloved Syracuse Orangemen play against Connecticut, we had opted for a somewhat less glamorous Division I basketball contest – an Ivy League game.
We were at Brown University’s Pizzitola Center, where the Bears were playing host to the Columbia Lions. Somewhere in there was a joke about tigers just begging to be cracked, but we were still a little despondent about the weather having forced us to stay close to Doc’s Pawtucket, RI home.
We weren’t expecting much from this game as we sat watching warm-ups. Columbia’s players averaged roughly 8’ 4” in height, and the team had arrived with a lengthy bench. Ten Lions sat at the ready should any of the starting five need a breather.
As for Brown, they had half that many people on the bench, and the one that stood out the most was dressed in street clothes. Peter Sullivan, the team’s co-captain and leading scorer was injured and unavailable for anything other than moral support. I’m not saying that the Bears were completely outmanned, but Columbia had as many nattily-attired coaches as Brown had subs. And twice as many wins.
This could be ugly. Perhaps that’s why the Brown fans had stayed away in droves.
If there is a key lower than low-key, it was on full display at “The Pitz”. Which was fine with us, as we stretched out in what was almost our own private section of stands. I quietly hoped that the event staff would just leave it at that and not trot out all of the clichéd attempts to whip the few hundred fans in attendance into a “frenzy”. But nothing doing. My Cringe-O-Meter was pinned to the right for a couple of promotional activities, but thankfully they were few and far between.
Brown’s Sugar Bears dance team was a highlight, although they did need to do a little work on their timing. In one appearance they were still going strong when the time-out ended and were forced to abandon ship in mid-routine as the players returned to the court. Come on ladies, this isn’t rocket science. Hey wait a second…these are Ivy League girls – so this was much tougher than rocket science.
Halftime brought some more traditional fan-based promotions, in which people chosen at random from the stands had the chance to compete in shooting contests. And wouldn’t you know it – even Ivy League fans have a pure shooting touch. One kid named Sam knocked down 15 three-pointers in 2 minutes. And those that weren’t good were lucky. Later on during another break in play, one kid banked in a three-pointer to win his challenge. Oh, to be young. And smart. And lucky. I bet they even have credit scores north of 820.
In the game’s early stages, it had all the earmarks of the blowout that it was on paper. The much taller Columbia front line looked to be able to score at will any time the ball went inside. In fact, it almost looked like the Lions got bored with easy baskets after a while. They started setting up for more outside jumpers – perhaps just to keep their interest level up. Pretty much everything worked, and in a relative eye blink they rattled off a 13-0 run that put them up 28-15.
And then for some inexplicable reason, they took their foot off the gas pedal. Brown made a scrappy run of their own and went into the locker room down just six points at the half.
A major factor in the Bear’s ability to hang tough was guard Sean McGonagill. The game program listed the Brookfield, Illinois native as 6’ 1”, but I think that was a generous assessment of his true height. And his physical stature wasn’t exactly enhanced by the longest pair of basketball shorts I’d ever seen. Doc wondered aloud, “When did they make coolots part of the uniform?”
But the most noticeable thing about McGonagill was not his attire – it was his headgear. At first glance, it looked like he was wearing a full retainer, a la Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. After all, he is just a freshman.
Closer inspection revealed however, that he was wearing a clear mask that covered the vast majority of his face. This was obviously not a fashion statement. In fact, we would learn later that in practice just two days earlier, McGonagill’s face had been on the losing end of a collision with teammate Dockery Walker’s knee. No matter – it was nothing that couldn’t be taken care of with a little surgery.
Wait a second…surgery? Less than 48 hours earlier? And he was out here not only playing, but running the Brown offense? In the highly unlikely scenario in which I would have ever taken the court two days after facial surgery, I would’ve been outfitted like The Boy In The Plastic Bubble.
But here he was playing at full tilt, and playing quite well. A three-pointer here, a nifty assist there, then another three-pointer. He was easily Brown’s leading scorer in the first half, and had played every second to that point.
But McGonagill was just getting warmed up.
I’ve seen a lot of basketball games in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of players “in the zone”, where for some portion of a game, absolutely everything goes in. But I’ve never seen what I saw Sean McGonagill do in the second half of this game. He was everywhere – on defense, and especially on offense.
Just six minutes into the second half, he had already crossed the 20-point mark, doing so with a three-point shot that pulled the Bears to within two points of the Lions.
And then he got hot.
It didn’t matter where he was when the ball left his hands. He scored from long-range, shooting over players much taller. He scored on twisting drives, maneuvering under and around the huge Columbia front line. And with the score tied at 67, he disappeared into a crowd of players on his way to the basket, and emerged to toss in an opposite-hand reverse layup. Without looking at the basket.
His fellow Bears couldn’t help but be inspired, and they responded by hitting the glass relentlessly. Dockery Walker, he of the knee that had rearranged McGonagill’s mouth, wound up with a dozen boards by himself, as Brown wound up outrebounding Columbia 37-30.
Coming down the stretch, it never really got that close. The underdog Bears had pulled out to a fairly comfortable lead with four minutes left, and Columbia could do nothing to close the gap. They tried desperation fouling inside of two minutes, but with McGonagill handling the ball, all that the Lions accomplished was to send the white-hot freshman to the foul line again and again.
When it was over and Brown had posted an 87-79 win, McGonagill had broken the record for points by a Brown freshman, and tied the record for most points in a game in the 22-year history of the Pizzitola Center. His 39 points came on 15 of 19 shooting, including 3 of 4 from three-point range. He made 6 of 8 foul shots, passed for six assists, made one steal, grabbed four rebounds, and at 6’ 1” (wink, wink) even blocked a shot, for crying out loud. And he played every second of the game. With a mask on.
(BTW, that’s Doc yelling “Shoot!” as time ran out. A Hoops Fan to the last, he desperately wanted to see a 40 point game.)
I imagine that by the time he’s a senior, McGonagill will be a major force in the Ivy League – and perhaps beyond. That is, unless he turns pro early and jumps to Wall Street with collegiate basketball eligibility still remaining.
That’s the thing about sports – I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
Next Up: More Alma Mater Hoops – Once A Bomber, Always A Bomber