Syracuse 2009: Don't Stop Believing and Other Platitudes from Power Ballads

Feb. 16, 2009



10:18pm, Friday the 13th, somewhere outside of Cortland, NY.


The bus speakers set to sonic boom levels, Jonathan Cain bangs away on a familiar keyboard riff, and someone climbs atop a cooler.  There will be a sing-a-long.


This is the sixth time I've traveled on one of Hoya Blue's buses to a Georgetown away basketball game, and I can't recall once when the experience didn't involve Journey's 1981 uber-power ballad "Don't Stop Believing" being blasted over poor-quality bus speakers.


The popularity of Steve Perry and Co. to a bunch of college student basketball fans is unsurprising--Don't Stop Believing pedals the very kind of small-town-girl/lonely-world optimism packaged inside of a soaring chorus that over-exuberant partygoers buy wholesale.  It's the same formula recreated to perfection in the second most popular song on the Hoya Blue Top 40 that was belted out moments before--Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" (which holds an added advantage in that Tommy and Gina almost certainly lived in New Jersey, rather than South Detroit).


But is something else at work here?  After all, we at the Hoop Club Blog live in a world in which pop songs are windows into the outcome of basketball games.  As we hurtle through the darkness of I-81 in Upstate New York, is Steve Perry belting out a prediction about tomorrow's Georgetown-Syracuse game?  Is Journey laying the path for Georgetown's journey to the postseason?  Is that girl climbing on top of the cooler taking a metaphoric stand against the negativity of the past few weeks and declaring: we're holding on to that feeeeeeeeeeeeellllllllllliiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnggggggg for the Hoyas?


Let me stop you there for one second.


I'd love nothing more than to tell you that every Georgetown fan on that bus was holding on to what we've got, that it didn't make a difference to them if we made the NCAA Tournament or not.


But it's not true.


Hours before, a heated argument broke out in the back of the bus (around the cooler) over whether Georgetown's offense was at the root of the team's recent struggles and...strangely...if the Hoyas and their fifth year head coach should go their Separate Ways.  Were we serious here?  I tend to doubt it--when asked who might replace JTIII in the event such a scenario played out, the most vocal detractor replied with too much of a hint of seriousness that he'd be available for the job.  All the same, the exchange proves if nothing else that even among the self-selecting most dedicated fans of Hoya basketball, anxiety is a real thing.  So too is a lack of recent historical perspective.


"Kids these days man," I joked with the pro-Thompson protagonist at a Pine Grove, PA McDonald's whose map indicated our distance from Quebec, "they don't have any idea what it's like to lose."



What unites generation after generation of "kids" though is the strength of the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry. 


Soon after Steve Perry belted out his final note, the bus rolled through downtown Syracuse, everyone loudly booing as it passed the Carrier Dome.  The ferocity of mutual hatred between Hoyas and Orange is something rarely seen and rarely sustained for such a long period of time in college basketball.  We'd be lying if we said the matchups held the same weight as they did in the 1980s--for much of this decade it's been rare to see a ranked Georgetown team play a ranked Syracuse team.  But that hasn't bothered the players or fans one bit--when was the last time you saw a home team or home crowd in this series not give their absolute best effort?


Say what you will about Syracuse, NY but this is a region that is unconditionally and devotedly behind its college basketball team.  My in-room complementary regional guide at Nameless Highway Motel contains no less than five references to the Orange basketball team--the inside cover displays a picture of Syracuse students storming the court at the Carrier Dome after last year's victory over Georgetown.  Each local news broadcast I catch will mention tomorrow's game.  Once during the weather forecast.  Traffic will be heavy on the downtown highways 75 minutes prior to tipoff.  Everyone I see in their cars will be wearing orange.



"Please Go to Your Seats.  This is a large crowd."   


I couldn't help but think of the three ticket scanners I'd met last season at the Carrier Dome's Gate N, who had an uncanny knack for predicting game attendance (think "Winning Both Showcases on The Price Is Right" close).  They were convinced that day we'd see a season-high attendance standard set, and by golly they were right, as 31,327 fans packed the Dome on 2/16/08.


A year later, we did them 514 better--the announced attendance of 31,841 for Georgetown-Syracuse will almost certainly be the highest for a regular-season college basketball game this year (Notre Dame's visit to the Carrier Dome in January drew a hair over 30,000, and only 25K saw the made-for-TV UNC-Michigan State contest at Ford Field).  Amazingly, the 2009 version was only the 10th most attended Georgetown-Syracuse game at the Carrier Dome.


This version had a hook though--an "Orange Out" (when was the last time you watched a game at the Carrier Dome and thought "Well, it's nice and all...but it just isn't orange enough."?) that brought those 31,481 out for...well, what the shirts said on the back: FOR REVENGE.


Which is a perfect plot for a big budget action movie.


A few weeks ago, in a post discussing home court advantage, I wrote the following about Syracuse:


The Carrier Dome is the basketball equivalent of a big budget action movie.  It's eardrum-splitting loud, it has a great set, all of the latest special effects, and action sequences that blow you away.  In the end though, it's a decidedly superficial sensory experience.  You leave the theater saying "WOW!" but the experience doesn't linger by the time you get home.


There's a reason big budget action movies end up in IMAX theaters more often than arthouses: nobody's going for the acting, or the plot, or the cinematography.  Nobody cares about subtlety--they just want to see stuff explode.


Explode they do at the Carrier Dome--but not always when you'd expect.  Sure, the Orange fans are there many times you'd expect them to be: the third of Andy Rautins' first-half three-pointers, any of Jonny Flynn's devilish creations off the dribble, and certainly Eric Devendorf's dual daggers in overtime. 


Beyond this though, there's a strange sense you get watching a game in the Carrier Dome that they've all lost the plot.  Arinze Onuaku's made free throws are a cause for mass celebration (Vernon Macklin might have stuck around if he got as much love for finally making a few).  Cuse fans are oddly quiet going into timeouts with a big lead--even during a big run--until the Dome announcer reads off the score.  The Syracuse student section...well, you can't well cheer for your own team whilst constantly looking behind you at the group of 75 Georgetown students in the upper deck.


The Carrier Dome at the end of the day still offers the one advantage no other venue in college basketball can match--size.  The crowd was slightly larger (31,814 vs. 31,327) and the scoring run depressingly longer (42-19 vs. 26-4), but the effect the same: it's loud in there.


(It's also dangerous in there: the sad subplot of this year's rivalry was the behavior of a few Syracuse fans during the closing seconds of the game.  I'm the fella at the bottom of the screen between :31 and :35 leaning over to retrieve my jacket.  Strangely, I had no idea I was that close at the time to some of the worst incidents.)



The 42-19 scoring run in question brought the score to 66-50 Syracuse with 8:14 remaining.  Was it loud in the Carrier Dome?  You betcha.  Was the game out of reach?  Sure seemed like it for about 31,739 in attendance.


And then the spirit of Steve Perry took over.


There's little that would have made anyone but the most fervent Hoya supporter believe that this movie was going to end any differently that the last one, with Georgetown on the short end of another difficult loss in the Carrier Dome.


Gradually the Hoyas chipped away at the lead.  With eight minutes to go GTown trailed by 16 points.  With five minutes to go the lead was 9.  With a single minute left, the Hoyas were down by 7 points.


But in the upper deck of the Carrier Dome, still they sang.


And with 10.7 seconds remaining, Chris Wright tied the game with a three-pointer from the E in SYRACUSE.


Talk about livin' on a prayer.



Are we in Manley Field House-Pearl Washington territory here?  Not really.  The 2009 edition of the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry is more properly the sequel to the 1983 contest recently replayed on ESPN Classic that saw Syracuse come back from a 21-point halftime deficit only for Georgetown to snatch victory away in the final minute.


Unquestionably though, Saturday's overtime blockbuster added another to the reel of Georgetown-Syracuse classics.  At the very least, it was by far the most compelling and exciting game I've witnessed in 2009. 


It's also the most painful...and encouraging.


I got the distinct sense that the Hoyas turned a corner as a team with 8:14 remaining in the second half.  Down by sixteen in a hostile environment, no one would have been surprised if the Hoyas had simply faded away down the stretch--let's be honest, they'd done the same against Pittsburgh, Duke, West Virginia, and Marquette. 


But they didn't.  Those 494 seconds of basketball were the best 494 seconds the Hoyas have played all season.  There wasn't one single hero--all five Hoyas on the floor during the run scored, and more importantly all five were at long last on the same page.  This was, in the darkest hour of the Georgetown season, at long last the light at the end of the tunnel.


Nobody wondered on the bus ride home whether Georgetown's offense system was fatally flawed. 


Nobody argued they could do a better job coaching the team. 


Of course, nobody danced on a cooler either.  In fact, there was nary a power ballad to be found--no one was in the mood for music.


Instead, we watched a blockbuster action movie...that one hopes offers a window into the remainder of Georgetown's season:


Die Hard With a Vengeance


John Hawkes (SFS '04)

Proud Member of Generation Burton


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