New York has never been a Big Ten town. The biggest college sporting events associated with the pro sports city are St. John's basketball and the formerly awesome Big East Basketball Tournament. We all know that the Big Ten had New York in mind when it added nearby Rutgers as a member two years ago, but let's face it: The university in New Brunswick, New Jersey has always been very separate from the bright lights of the big city.
So imagine my surprise when I heard that Penn State would be playing in my backyard not once, but two times during the 2016 season. Once in a basketball game on January 30, and once in a hockey game on... January 30. IT'S A BIG TEN SUPER SATURDAY DOUBLEHEADER!
Getting tickets was an easy decision. Especially since getting into Madison Square Garden usually requires paying the price for a Knicks or Rangers ticket. Instead, I got to see two games for the price of half a game. Not a bad deal. An even better deal was scoring free food and drinks at the "BTN Live" show on Friday afternoon in the Flatiron District. We're dealing with a network that knows how to treat its fans very, very well, as my new Penn State friends and I were treated to unlimited drinks and appetizers while waving giant novelty signs behind Jon Crispin's head.
That's usually more than enough fun for me to fit into a single weekend, but there were still two sporting events to attend on Saturday at the World's Most Famous Arena. As we walked in, my friend Chris from Philadelphia was not very impressed. I admitted that there was nothing explicitly special about MSG. Even after the major renovations that took place only recently, it is still an ordinary building on the inside. What's really special about the place is that it's one of the only indoor sporting venues that's not named after a commuter airline that saves money by taking snacks and legroom away from its customers. Now that's something deserving of fame. Don't even mind how awesome it was when the Rangers finally won the Stanley Cup in 1994 after a 54-year drought.
But we weren't going to see one of those incredible Garden moments on Saturday. Instead, we were treated to the lowly Nittany Lions gunning for an upset against a jump-shooting Michigan team that didn't even shoot too well from beyond the arc on this day. The result was not a blowout, but it wasn't a Penn State win, either. Here's my quick recap from Stew's wonderful basketball column:
On Saturday in New York, Penn State finally got both Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner going at the same time. Taylor was nigh unstoppable with 24 points and 10 rebounds, while Garner knocked down five triples en route to a 22-point outing. Still, it wasn't enough to overcome a Michigan team that shot just 6-for-20 from beyond the arc. The outstanding Zak Irvin (20 points) led a Wolverine offense that relentlessly attacked the basket and took advantage of transition opportunities. Michigan never trailed on the way to a 79-72 win.
It wasn't my favorite ever Penn State game, but it certainly could have been worse (just look at the effort the Lions put in against Ohio State earlier that week). I got to watch my basketball team play live for the first time in a long time, and I even jumped out of my seat a couple of times when Garner got hot in the second half. If only Pat Chambers would leave Isaiah Washington on the bench and give Brandon Taylor another shooter to pass to. Oh well. The result wasn't unexpected and everyone around me was just looking forward to the hockey game, anyway.
Another good thing about MSG is that it's surrounded by bars and restaurants in midtown Manhattan. Yes, that part of town tends to get awfully crowded, but we stayed far enough away from Times Square to avoid the true tourist madness. After meeting up with friends for drinks and dinner, it was time to return to the Garden for the part of the doubleheader that Penn State had a chance to win... or so I was told.
Although Penn State hockey is the newest varsity program at the school, it has tremendous support already. Not only is the relative level of talent higher than that of the basketball team, but Pegula Ice Arena on the PSU campus is one of the top collegiate venues in the country. Add in the fact that many Pennsylvania residents are bigger fans of the Flyers and Penguins than the 76ers, and you have a fan base that is ready to jump headfirst into college hockey.
That support was apparent in the nightcap, which felt more like a Penn State home game than the neutral-court basketball contest. Yes, it would have been cool if the Big Ten had been able to put together its own logo at center ice, but the atmosphere more than made up for that small oversight. The Lions and Wolverines played pretty evenly through the first two periods, with the action really heating up early in the second when the two sides exchanged odd-man-rush goals during the same Penn State power play. When the Lions took a 3-2 lead on Ricky DeRosa's goal and held onto the advantage for the remainder of the second period, it looked like the underdogs could earn a series split.
But Michigan had other ideas and stormed past Penn State in a dominating third-period performance. Not only did the Wolverines score four times (including an empty-netter), but they managed an astonishing 22 shots on goal against a PSU defense that appeared worn out at times. When Tyler Motte ripped a shot past Eamon McAdam to make the score 5-3 Michigan with five minutes to play, it signaled the unofficial end to the game. All that was left was another Motte goal to add to the final tally. At least McAdam proved himself worthy with a career-high 43 saves during the game. But also, that is proof that the Lions aren't yet a competitor for the conference title.
Even though Penn State lost twice to Michigan on Super Saturday, getting to see my team play so close to home was an awesome experience. Plus, the Big Ten is committed to playing in Madison Square Garden for the next three seasons, which will hopefully give alumni and fans from other schools a chance to enjoy their teams on the east coast. Hopefully they'll come close to filling up the building the way Penn State and Michigan fans did this year and start to build a new Big Ten tradition.
If nothing else, these new Super Saturdays are a way to put Big Ten hockey in front of fans who don't have access to local broadcasts on regional sports networks. If a game isn't on BTN, I haven't been able to see it, and that made this year's event a great opportunity. I came away a fan of college hockey, and if others do the same, perhaps we can have a full schedule of hockey events on national television one day.