Anyone lucky enough to be at North Allegheny for the Mars-Hampton game last night can understand what I'm about to say:
The WPIAL basketball semifinals are the best thing in the entire year of Western Pennsylvania high school sports.
Yeah, I know Western Pa. is a football-crazed area, and I know Western Pa. doesn't exactly produce tons of Division I college basketball players. So what. I'll take the basketball semifinals any day. Heck, I'd take the basketball semifinals over some college games.
I've seen some football semifinals in recent years and truth be told, some don't draw all that well, for various reasons (weather being No. 1). And since the WPIAL no longer stages semifinal games at places like Duquesne's Palumbo Center or Pitt's Fitzgerald Field House, games are played in gymnasiums that are often packed with 1,500 to 2,000 fans close to the court. I swear you can almost feel the electricity, especially for the games in the larger classifications. You don't get that stuff in football. Nowadays, I swear crowds are bigger for a big regular-season football game than the quarterfinals or semifinals.
Take the Mars-Hampton game, for example. People were standing in aisles because it was so crowded. You take two large, boisterous student sections (especially on the Hampton side), throw in a close, exciting game that includes some talented players, especially Mars' Robby Carmody, and you've got a tremendous event with great emotion. (Check out Lake Fong's picture of Hampton players celebrating with students after the game).
At times in the second half, the place was deafening. At one point in the fourth quarter, when the game was close, storylines were developing and the noise was deafening, Post-Gazette colleague Brian Batko leaned over to me at the press table and said, "This is really good stuff."
Rob Carmody Sr. is Mars' coach. He lost, but his comments afterward are an example of how good semifinal games can be.
"Since I've been at Mars, you're talking maybe 34-35 times us and Hampton have gone against each other," said Carmody. "That's probably the best game of them all because you had so many different runs and momentum."
Tonight is the final night of the semifinals. I bet a few of the gyms will be dripping with emotion. Butler and Woodland Hills will probably have a great atmosphere at Fox Chapel. Butler fans are traveling well. I'll be at North Allegheny for Pine-Richland vs. North Hills. I can almost feel the charge now.