Life is short…Eat the cake, buy the shoes and go to the Final Four! | Sports | The Press and Standard

by | April 13, 2017 5:00 pm

Last Updated: April 12, 2017 at 11:16 am

By Dr. CRAIG WARD
Contributor
Hello, my name is Craig and I’m a “SPORTS-A-HOLIC.”
As an alumnus of the University of South Carolina, I have been in a little bit of a blue funk since that agricultural school in the upstate won the 2017 NCAA National Football Championship in January … again (I still remember 1981, Danny Ford etc, etc. … like it was yesterday and I’m still “healing” from that NOXIOUS INSULT, 36 years ago.)
I’ve always believed that it is EASY to be a Clempson tigger fan, but not so easy for us beleaguered Carolina fans.  They not only won a national football championship (OK … TWO national football championships … but who’s counting), they beat the defending National Champs, the SEC’s mighty Alabama Crimson Tide on a last second catch by a WALK ON in what was arguably the best college football game in history.
They ALSO have cool colors — purple/orange rocks (whoever thought garnet and black was a good choice for college color scheme should have been on a better antidepressant.)  AND Clempson’s mascot is a 600 lb. predatory carnivore — ours is a dern CHICKEN!  I could go on, but … BUT only if I had an adult beverage to ease the pain.
As March Madness arrived this year (as most years), I was pretty much disenfranchised from my usual preoccupation with all of college sports. The USC Men’s BB team had started its season pretty well, but then the best player (Sindarius Thornwell) got in some trouble.  He got suspended and pretty soon the Cocks’ season seemed on the rocks.  They finished the year just ranked #34 and were 7-6 in the last half of the season and had a 21-10 overall record after losing in the 2nd round of the SEC tourney. They did qualify for the NCAA tourney, but their “bracket” included Duke (who seemed like the hottest team in America).
The Lady Gamecocks finished their season with four (4) losses (which sounds pretty good, but really was a little bit of a disappointment.) Arguably, the Lady Gamecocks’ best player was out for the entire NCAA tourney.  Senior center Alaina Coates had to miss the tournament with an ankle injury she suffered against Missouri.  Coates was a four-time All-SEC selection, the first player in program history to accomplish the feat. She was a first-team honoree in her final two seasons as a Gamecock, including this season when she averaged 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.  Coates completed her South Carolina career as the program’s second-leading rebounder with 1,230 and second in double-doubles with 57.  And of course, the MIGHTY Connecticut Lady Huskies, as usual, were a force to be reckoned with.  UConn has been a dominant force in women’s basketball for the last several years.  They had won over 100 consecutive games, three consecutive national championships and had beaten USC every time they played — for years.
It seemed hopeless for both of my teams, so I buried myself in work, began reading a fascinating novel and started cleaning up the boat for fishing season.
And then on March 18, 2017, in one of the most stunning upsets of this NCAA tournament, No. 2 seed Duke was knocked out, 88-81, by No. 7 South Carolina in front of a rowdy Greenville crowd. It ended late Sunday night.  Sidnarius Thornwell had 24 points, six rebounds and five assists to lead the Gamecocks to a thrilling upset. The Gamecocks advanced to play in the Sweet 16 in New York City, where they would next face No. 3 Baylor. The Blue Devils, had been one of the hottest teams in the country coming off their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and few saw the upset coming — I SURE DIDN’T!
The Cocks then beat Baylor and Florida in NYC and suddenly something happened that had NEVER happened before.  Many people used “The USC Gamecocks” in the same sentence with the term “Final Four.”  WOW……. just WOW!
April Fools’ weekend came around and suddenly THE University of South Carolina was once again in the national sports spotlight!  Actually we had “DOUBLE THE FUN”with our ladies’ and men’s basketball teams making it to their respective Final Four.  FABULOUS!
And — I had five (5) days off  of work, coincident with the entire Final Four Event in Phoenix.  I haven’t had five days off in a row in a loooooong time.  I felt like God, himself was telling me,“Life is short. Eat the cake, buy the shoes AND GO TO THE FINAL FOUR!”
To make it even more enticing, my best friend (Bruce) and his son are Gonzaga grads and live in Phoenix (actually my friend Bruce lives in Phoenix but Ben, his son lives in San Diego) and our first Final Four game was with the Zags.
My son, Cam is also a USC alum and may be the biggest Gamecock fan in the Lowcountry.  I wondered what Bruce and I would have thought, 50 years ago, if we’d have known then that we would reunite and meet up with our sons to watch our respective alma maters play each other for an NCAA Basketball National Championship in the FINAL FOUR in 2017!!!!
So at 9:32 p.m. on March 26th, after it was apparent that USC was going to beat the Florida Gators and “qualify” for the Final Four, I immediately went to my computer, emailed my colleagues and asked if someone would cover my Friday March 31 swing shift in the ER (and my good friend Robert Gray volunteered — THANK YOU, Robert!),  ordered four tickets to the games, a rental car in Phoenix and two round trip tickets on American Airlines from Savannah to Phoenix.
As we flew to Phoenix from Charlotte (after connecting from Savannah), we shared our plane with MANY Gamecock fans and UNC Tar Heel fans who were headed to see their team rebound from last year’s last-second loss in the 2016 National Championship game. This year is UNC’s 20th Final Four appearance.  The other three teams in this year’s Final Four were Final Four VIRGINS!  Although the UNC fans were excited, there was a little bit of a “HO HUMNESS” to their enthusiasm. Needless to say, us championship-starved Gamecock fans were anything BUT “Ho Hum.”
During that four-hour leg of our trip, I dozed a little and somewhere in that happy dream state, I had some enlightening revelations — you know, when that light bulb seems to go off over your cartoon head!
1) A fella on the plane had a “Delaware Blue Hens” shirt on and suddenly, my Gamecock mascot didn’t seem so bad
2) The “Blue Hen” mascot, thing for some reason made me think about South Carolina’s  Presbyterian College Blue Hose  (I wondered if it was Blue Hose or Blue Hoes. ) Either way, once again I was beginning to appreciate that whole “Bad *** Chicken,” with spurs and stuff.
3) TWO teams in the Final Four had mascots that were POULTRY (the Gamecocks and the Oregon Ducks). There somehow was redemption in that realization too
4) As good as our men’s team was, our ladies’ team was even better and also in the hunt for a national championship. “Gamecocks” was being uttered by nearly every ESPN announcer and Sports Center mentioned my teams lots and lots and essentially didn’t say “Clemson Tigers,” a single time.
5) The State of South Carolina is the 24th most populace state (4,625,364 people), and ranks 40th in land mass/ size (32,020 sq miles). It’s the 10th smallest state in America, YET no other state has had recent athletic success like us — NOT California, not New York or the Delaward Blue Hens for that matter. And NOT just USC’s two recent baseball titles (2010 & 2011) BUT……
 Dustin Hunter Johnson is an American professional golfer who is the current World Number 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking.  He is from Columbia, SC and a grad of Coastal Carolina University.  But he isn’t the only claim to fame for my adopted home state.
 Clemson – 2017 NCAA Football Champs
 Coastal Carolina – 2016 NCAA Baseball Champs
 USC – 2016 NCAA Equestrian Team Champs
 USC – 2017 NCAA Fishing Team Champs
 USC Women’s Basketball Team  – 2017 National Championship!
 USC Men’s Basketball Team played in the final 4 and for the 2017 National Championship.
 AND to top it all off, Frank Martin (our USC Men’s BB Coach) was named the 2017 Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year  and Dawn Staley was named the Coach of the Womens Olympic Basketball Team.
For the first time in my whole Gamecock-lovin’ life, I was able to see beyond my limited garnet and black backyard and embrace my WHOLE state as the home of CHAMPIONS!
As I sat on that plane, heading to Phoenix, awaiting the Final 4 semifinals, it struck me that the PALMETTO STATE IS INDEED THE CENTER OF THE SPORTS UNIVERSE!
Well, as you may have noticed, our ladies are the 2017 National Champions (thank you Mississippi State for knocking U Conn out of our path) and although they lost, the men played very well.  I’ve never been prouder to be a Gamecock.  As soon as I got home, I sent off my USC season football and basketball request and looked to see when I had a day off to go to Columbia to catch a USC baseball game.
I’m once again looking forward to family reunions (where all my Clemson alum nieces and nephews will have to listen to me brag about MY teams for a change!)  Life is good in the Palmetto State — the  Center of the Sports Universe!
And this SPORTS JUNKIE is jonesin’ for yet another national championship fix!

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