Road trip: Senior night at St. Mary’s

11:42. We drop off the keys with the woman who will be watching our dog. For the drive Sarah has packed Dubliner cheese and locally grown olives so we’re off to a good start. I ask what is in the flask. It’s Jameson for a nightcap or three. The first hour and 15 minutes of the drive is through rice country. Every couple of miles we pass a check full of several thousand waterfowl – pintail, wigeon, giant flotillas of snow geese. The Sierras are to are left, and the coast range is to the right. It's been dry, but the peaks and high places are still covered in snow.

12:17. On Road Y we encounter an old Ford Bronco that is perpendicular to the road, blocking both lanes. There is a woman at the hood, trying to figure out how the thing opens. I tell Sarah to wait in the truck in case this becomes one of those situations you read about in the paper, but the woman – and the infant in the back – have just broken down. She doesn’t say why she’s perpendicular to traffic, and I don’t ask. I’ll push her forward a couple of feet (there is no shoulder, just road and irrigation ditches) and call someone, but that’s the best I can do. As I get her ready to do this, a couple of good-ole-boys in their 60s pull up and immediately take their toolbox and duck underneath her hood. We’re gone.

12:24. Now 3 Chihuahuas are in the road. We’re never going to get there. One has a tag so we spend a couple of minutes trying to seduce it. No luck. Sarah tries a piece of the Dubliner cheese – which seems a bit drastic, we only have so much – and this fails as well. Finally, Sarah herds the dogs about 300 yards down the center of the road until we hit a small group of houses that appear to have fallen off of a truck. The dogs duck into some bushes, and again, we’re off.

1:01. We’re on I-5 now, which means there are other cars around. At this point it is about 4 or 5 vehicles per mile of roadway. The valley on the west side is almost pure almond groves, which are currently in peak bloom. The world smells of almond blossoms and in a couple of weeks little pink drifts from the petals will build up on the side of the road.

The word almond, if you don’t know, when pronounced by those of us who live in northern California, rhymes with the word ‘salmon.’ If you’ve been to Sacramento or San Francisco and are saying, “wait a minute, that word sounded like it does everywhere else” it’s because you weren’t in northern California. Yes, the cities like to claim they in northern California, but they aren’t. Look at a map. They are on the north end of central California. There are no cities in northern California (and subsequently, there is no Division I basketball). We think of Sacramento as that place which has the political horsepower to steal our water and ship it south so that corporate farmers can grow cotton and alfalfa in a desert while farmers elsewhere in the country are paid not to grow those crops. It’s a great system. All it cost us was one of the great salmon fisheries in the world. I guess we didn’t give the politicians enough money.

1:58. Now we’re on I-80. Traffic sucks. Everyone drives 80 mph and there’s never more than 100’ between vehicles which run 10 lanes wide. We're no longer in northern California. We have to focus. We even turn the music down a bit.

The rest of the drive is a moderately stressful blur.

2:58. The reason I stay at the Lafayette Park Hotel is that Sarah loves it. A side bonus is that they have ridiculous Kobe beef burgers and Pliny the Elder on draft. I eat and watch the Duke – Miami game, catching a catnap during halftime.

5:20. We head to Moraga. The drive is quick and through steep hills thick with live oak and buckeye. The houses are small, typically about the size of double-wides, and they’re latched on to hillsides. They have no yards to speak of. The typical car parked out front is a Mercedes S600.

5:41. Tailgating at a St. Mary’s game involves wine and hor d’oeuvres. But it’s Moraga, so it is good wine and homemade treats. Otherwise, it’s your typical tailgate. Kids are practicing their through-the-legs dribbles. People are telling stories.

6:31. Inside the gym the place is already almost full.  Only the student section remains empty. And that will fill all at once. The students have the entire center block of seats on the side across from the benches. And that’s how college basketball should be. The students should have the best seats, or at least their share of them.

People around us are talking about the sanctions. Many question the timing of the NCAA dropping the hammer on the day before senior day, especially when the infractions don’t involve anyone who ever played at St. Mary’s, and the implicated coach was here for one season three years ago. I hear the name ‘Andy Katz’ mentioned a couple times, and in both instances it sounds as if the person is spitting.

6:54. Coach Bennett, who never takes the court while his kids are warming up, comes out of the locker room. The reason you know he’s hit the floor is because the entire place goes nuts. Within seconds all 3,500 fans are standing, applauding, and yelling. It’s the loudest cheer I’ve heard at McKeon Pavilion. The players on both teams stop what they’re doing and watch Coach Bennett walk the length of the court to find Santa Clara’s head coach Kerry Keating. The two shake hands. Keating claps Bennett on the back a couple of times. And Coach Bennett heads off to shake hands with the refs.

A ceremony ensues where they walk the seniors out one by one. There are five players and a manager. Matthew Dellavedova, obviously, gets the huge cheers, though they aren’t as charged as the cheers Coach Bennett received.

7:03. The tip, as seen by Sarah's phone.

7:08. Matthew Dellavedova, who might be the best point guard in the country at using his body, rides a defender to the baseline, explodes a step ahead, and drains a runner. The bucket puts him 1-point behind Daniel Kickert, the Gaels all-time leading scorer.

7:10. Dellavedova uses one of his trademark moves – the step back three – but comes up short. The rebound gets tipped to Delly who immediately fires again. Short.

7:15. Brad Waldow does a good job sealing Delly’s man to free him up on the left wing. In and out.

7:24. St. Mary’s uses their high-ball-screen offense to isolate Dellavedova on a Santa Clara big. He gets him backpedaling and takes an open three. Long. He’s clearly pressing at this point and 30-seconds later Coach Bennett sits him for a breather.

7:36. Finally.

7:51. Halftime. Two students are brought out onto the court. They have to do ten pushups and then they’ll have 30-seconds to make a 3-pointer. The girl finishes her pushups when the guy is on No. 7, but she air-balls her first shot attempt. He grabs a ball and it’s nothing but net.

The TV guys are busy interviewing Tom Meschery. Meschery foreshadowed the current foreign-player pipeline that the Gaels maintain. He was born in China to parents who had fled the Russian revolution, and he lived for a while in a Japanese internment camp. He starred for St. Mary’s from 1958-1961, before moving on to the NBA. After the NBA he became a poet.

8:54. The second half is way too close for comfort. The Gaels are likely on the right side of the bubble, but losing at home to Santa Clara could change that. Dellavedova has stayed cold (eventually going 0-7 from the arc for the night). It’s just a 63-62 lead at the under-4.

The final four minutes, though, are all Gaels. Most of it is Dellavedova living at the free throw line. He’s finally giving up the jumper for the night and spends his time getting hammered at the rim and accepting his free throws. He makes 11-11.

9:06. The student section begins chanting “Let Tim play.” They’re referring to the only senior who hasn’t played – Tim Williams. Williams, from nearby Antioch, started 26 games in his sophomore year. But then he got hurt. And then he got hurt again. He hasn’t suited up this season, much less played. But he has his uniform on, and the kids want to see him play. Nevermind that his knee is so messed up that he can’t run.

9:09. Tim Plays. And, since this is college basketball, Santa Clara has the heart to let him play.