Friday, March 06, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: End your search here for no-frills, high-stakes hoops

RADFORD -- It's funny what you don't miss.

Exploding scoreboards. Laser shows. Halftime magic acts. Star TV analysts. Rich people sitting in all the best seats. Erin Andrews strolling the sidelines.

OK, let's not go crazy. We did miss Erin a little.

But not a single thing else. For a basketball fan -- shoot, for a sports fan -- this year's Big South tournament has all the good stuff you crave: The noise, the stakes, the nerves, the fear, the joy.

The pared-down, no-frills fun.

When the first semifinal ended Thursday night, with VMI defeating Liberty 78-58 in front of the school's juiced-up corps, players danced with the Kangaroo mascot, leaped in the stands and hugged whomever would take them. Later, when top-seeded Radford claimed the other spot in the finals with a 94-86 win over UNC Asheville, the ball sailed into a sea of student-stuffed red as point guard Amir Johnson skipped down the court and belly-bumped a male cheerleader.

And they should do that. Go wild. Drink it. Love it. Because there's no bubble talk here, nobody spinning on the selection committee's rim, no postgame lobbying for second chances. You either win or you're done -- at least when it comes to the tournament that people care about most.

"I feel like I'm a part of something special," VMI sophomore Austin Kenon said. "This tournament, there's nothing like it. Everything's amplified up to the fullest. I mean, crowds were big. Everything was big."

Kenon embodied the wild swings of this night. Early in the second half, when VMI was still trailing and struggling with its shooting, he missed his seventh straight 3-point attempt of the night, then stood and let out a primal scream.

Not long after, as the Keydets made their 40-12 run to take command, Kenon banked one in from beyond the arc and grinned.

Was it always the greatest basketball? Of course not. But this night wasn't about style points.

This night was about VMI twins Travis and Chavis Holmes refusing to let their team go down. About UNC Asheville's Sean Smith canning 3s, trying in vain to do the same.

It was about RU's Kenny Thomas swerving for a career-high 35, VMI's Ron Burks playing killer defense on Liberty standout Seth Curry.

It was about Radford's Art Parakhouski playing fearlessly with four fouls as the team's lead dwindled, throwing his 6-foot-11, 260-pound frame around the paint. When he finally did pick up his fifth foul, and the student section chanted "Let Them Play!" it brought a tear to your eye just as it did in that "Bad News Bears" movie.

Fortunes changed quickly and dramatically, and they'd better they change in your favor when you're playing with no net.

"Tonight," RU coach Brad Greenberg said, "was an event."

There's a reason VMI coach Duggar Baucom showed up nervous Thursday. The Keydets had just beaten Liberty badly. He knew the Flames would have a good game plan, which turned out to be true when they took a 32-27 halftime lead.

But shortly before the game, Baucom got a text message from his son, Travis, who lives in Charleston, S.C.

"Good luck," it read. "I love you."

And the word "significance" took on a new shape.

"For some reason, that relaxed me," Baucom said. "It's a basketball game. It's just a great experience for the kids. You sell these kids on this, this opportunity, and it's just come around so rare for anybody at VMI."

The small-conference tournaments are always major for the participants, but Saturday's final will have a historic feel. VMI's shooting for its first NCAA tournament bid since 1977. Radford's chasing its first berth since 1998.

A No. 1 seed against a No. 2 seed -- neither of which was predicted to perform this well -- for a spot in the field of 65.

It's funny what you don't miss.

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