Monday, March 29, 2010

Mountaineers slay Wildcats; advance to Final Four

WVU's unlikely hero, Joe Mazzulla, moves easily past Kentucky's John Wall, giving him a pimp backhand in the process, just as WVU moved past Kentucky to advance to the Final Four.

As one of what is likely a slim minority of people who predicted a West Virginia University win over Kentucky in the Elite Eight matchup in my bracket, I can't claim to be surprised when the Mountaineers defeated the Wildcats. I did not, however, predict the win would be with a large 7 point margin; 73-66.

In fact, that score fails to do justice to the Mountaineers' solid win, considering they were up by a dozen points or more several times during the second half. Their biggest lead was by 16 points, 61-45, with 4:25 remaining. The Wildcats spent the last few minutes of the game fouling WVU just to stop the clock so they could catch up. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, their plan backfired as WVU sank foul shot after foul shot.

Maybe it was Mountaineers' Coach, Bobby Huggins', magical tracksuit. Maybe it was WVU's uncanny ability to sink 3-pointers and prevent turnovers or Kentucky's complete lack of ability to do the same. The truth is, West Virginia emerged as the undoubtedly stronger team and the one more deserving of being in the Final Four with their performance in Syracuse Saturday night.

The game began more tentatively for WVU, as they were unable to make a single 2-point basket, going 0 for 16. Kentucky posted an early 16-9 lead. Astoundingly, however, the Mountaineers made eight of fifteen 3-point field goal shots. The 21 points from field goals on top of sinking a high percentage of foul shots kept them in the game and actually put them on top 28-26 going into halftime.

West Virginia barreled full force into the second half and immediately built up a 10-point lead. Kentucky chipped away at the lead and fell further behind from time-to-time throughout the remainder of the game, but never recovered.

The Mountaineers maintained their lead thanks in part to having only 3 turnovers during the game. Kentucky, on the other hand, turned the ball over time and time again. WVU also continued sinking a high percentage of foul shots while Kentucky only went 16 for 29. The quick-on-their-feet Kentucky team out-rebounded WVU 51-36, but it wasn't enough to recover from the other areas in which WVU trumped them.

Huggins also used a 1-3-1 zone to which Kentucky didn't really know how to react. It largely shut the Wildcats out of landing any 3 pointers. Kentucky's team is also young and relatively inexperienced, and just was not able to pull together what they needed for a win against the equally good Mountaineers who were on top of their game Saturday.

The Mountaineers' win was made all the more impressive due to the absence of their starting point guard, Darryl Truck Bryant, because of a broken right foot. He was replaced by Joe Mazzulla who became unlikely hero of the game. Mazzulla only played in 17 games all season up until Saturday night, and had only averaged 2.2 points per game. He played only 11 minutes in the Big East tournament and suffered from a bruised shoulder for much of the season. He posted 17 points Saturday night; a career high for him and an invaluable contribution to the Mountaineers' victory. Bryant is expected to return in time for the next game this Saturday, which will add more depth and strength to WVU's impressive roster.

If Mazzulla was the hero no one saw coming, Da'Sean Butler was the hero the Mountaineers were counting on, and, as usual, he did not disappoint. Butler posted 18 points for WVU, including making 4 of West Virginia's 10 3-pointers.

With their win, WVU advances to their second Final Four appearance in school history. The last time they made it as far was in 1959. They play #1 ranked Duke on Saturday. Duke is the only remaining 1-seed in the tournament after West Virginia (2) knocked out Kentucky (1). WVU is the only remaining Big East team in the tournament after a disappointing showing from fellow division members. The Big East was hailed as the strongest and toughest division all season.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mountaineers explore new territory; win first Big East Championship

WVU hoists their trophy in celebration. Coach Huggins and his tracksuit not pictured.

Last night after a close game fought until the bitter end, the West Virginia University Mountaineers (7) triumphed over the Georgetown Hoyas (22) in the last seconds of the game, claiming both victory and their first ever Big East Championship.

This was only the second time WVU ever reached the Big East championship game and is the school's first conference tournament victory since 1984 when it won the Atlantic 10.

The game-winning shot was scored by senior guard, Da'Sean Butler. He put the final, crucial 2 points on the board with 4.2 seconds remaining. Georgetown ran the ball back down to its end of the court, but missed the shot which could have tied the game and sent it into overtime. Butler posted 20 points total in the game, went 9 of 17 shooting, and was chosen as the tournament MVP.

Butler scored his 2,000th career point late in the first half thanks to a three-pointer which put the Mountaineers ahead 24-20. Butler's achievement solidified his place alongside fellow graduates Jerry West and Rod Hundley, the only two other WVU players to have scored as many points. This was Butler's second game-winning clincher. He sank a 3-pointer in the quarterfinals at the buzzer to win 54-51 over Cincinnati.

WVU squeaked through by the soles of the sneakers both literally and figuratively throughout the tournament, winning the semifinal game over Notre Dame 53-51. They won each round of the tournament by one basket.

This game was won because of WVU's solid defense and ability to quickly snatch rebounds. They also benefited from two four-minute stretches of game in which Gtown was unable to land a single shot.

The Mountaineers' starting lineup included Butler, Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, Wellington Smith, and Truck Bryan. They were lead by Coach Bob Huggins who frantically directed his team courtside, refusing to let the importance of the championship dissuade him from wearing his signature tracksuit in favor of the business suits worn by other basketball coaches.

Oddly enough, third-seed WVU was the only one of the top four seed teams to survive the quarterfinal round. Syracuse, Villanova, and Pitt fell unexpectedly. Proving it had the best team in the Big East and consistently hailed as the most competitive conference in the NCAA, WVU enters the East bracket of the NCAA tournament as the #2 seed. I, for one, expect big things from this team, and expect to see them appearing in that tournament's championship game as well.

The WVU mens' team succeeded where their womens' hadn't. In the womens' Big East Championship game on Monday, WVU fell hard to UConn 60-32. That game was the Huskies' 72nd straight victory, the longest in NCAA history.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife: a book review

Grade: B+

The Time Traveler's Wife
, by Audrey Niffenegger, is brilliant because of the uniqueness of the concept on which the entire story is based. At the foundation of the book is a love story, but one so original there has never been another quite like it.

Henry is an unwilling time traveler. He travels backward and forward through time uncontrollably, each time appearing naked and feeling ill. Clare is the love of his life. She is his Penelope; faithfully waiting all the days of her life to be with him, knowing she is destined to be with him since she meets him in her childhood as he is time traveling.

The broad array of situations Niffenegger creates revolving around the premise of Henry's unwilling time travel are so original that the reader is simply stunned. The love story is good, but it is the adventure of a love forced to coexist in a world of inexplicable random time travel that reaches the level of greatness.

The Time Traveler's Wife truly is a modern day Odyssey; a book of adventures and, at the heart, a love story, which makes all the adventures fulfilling and worthwhile.

Favorite Quotes:
"...It's better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, then to be just okay for your whole life?"

"Why is love intensified by absence?"

"Right now we are here, and nothing can mar our perfection, or steal the joy of this perfect moment."

"Love the world and yourself in it, move through it as though it offers no resistance, as though the world is your natural element."

"There's always world enough and time."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Lost Symbol: a book review

Grade: B+

Dan Brown has to be one of the greatest mystery writers out there today. His most recent book, The Lost Symbol, is as gripping as his previous, The Da Vinci Code. It is a book you cannot put down because each chapter leaves you hanging and desperate to figure out what happens next to answer the plethora of questions in your head so you can start unraveling the mystery. This compelling story is so intricately woven that you never know the answers, do you even who are the good guys or bad guys, though you think you might

I found this book particularly fascinating because it takes place in Washington, D.C., where I live, and revolves around actual landmarks from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and the Almas Shrine temple, to neighborhoods including Kalorama, and even to actual metro stops. Symbol uses existing locations and specific details down to actual engravings to create the dramatic tale of the Masons and their symbols which protect a secret. The concept of the Masons also finds some basis in reality, as the group really exists and has previously included members including George Washington, who used real Masonic symbols and beliefs in everything from the etchings on monuments to the timing of when to lay cornerstones for the U.S. Capitol.

Symbol is compelling because it is founded in reality and simply expounded upon to show us a world which could exist beyond and beneath the world the reader can see. The many facets to his novel keep the reader guessing and craving more, devouring chapters to uncover answers. There are so many "Wow! I never saw that coming." moments the reader is constantly on his or her toes and consistently finds that everything they thought to be true is not what it seems. The best mysteries are exactly that; a mystery right up until the very end.

The only flaws I found with this book is that it is very similar to The Da Vinci Code, which had all the good qualities for Symbol, but was original in that it was the predecessor. In both, the hero is reluctant but brilliant and can't help but continue to stumble upon clues and fortunate circumstances that help him along the way despite all the pitfalls. His sidekick, with whom there is a romantic tension, is an attractive female who is incredibly intelligent and passionate in a specific field which happens to be related to the storyline. The antagonist an odd looking and intimidating man who is a brilliant and relentless in his pursuit of something, but is blinded by their single minded determination to stop at nothing to achieve their goal. In the end of both novels, the books get rather preachy about morals.

This still makes for a fascinating and wonderful mystery novel, but Brown is going to need to find a different formula in the future if he is to continue his reign as one of the best writers in his genre. Be warned, once you begin reading this book you will not be able to stop.

Favorite Quotes:
"Order from chaos."

"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal."

"Small minds have always lashed out at what they don't understand."

"There are those who create... and those who tear down."

Blind Trust: a book review

Grade: C

Blind Trust is a Washington DC insider's glimpse into life on Capitol Hill and is proof that the best look at the intricacies of DC politics comes from the perspective of a seasoned insider. This is Senator Barbara Boxer's second book.

Boxer writes about a fictional Senator Ellen Fischer Lind, who is, coincidentally, also a senior liberal Senator from California. Lind finds her world rocked by scandal and accusations of impropriety that threaten to damage her credibility and end her political career. As her political enemies and the right wing media team up to destroy her, the reader gets a unique look at the dirty inner workings and dealings of political smear campaigns.

Boxer also elaborates on the inside deals necessary in politics that often force a politician to choose between doing what is right with doing something they do not believe in to save their political careers and hopefully do more positive on down the road in the future if they remain in office.

This is not a book praising one political party over another or depicting one party in the right while the other is in the wrong. Instead, it praises truth over lies and gossip and good intentions over personal ambition. The book reminds readers that what is popular isn't always right, and what is right isn't always popular.

Boxer's first hand knowledge of politics is brilliantly conveyed in this book. The only reason I did not give it a higher grade than a C is because the end wraps everything up a little too quickly and too neatly. It is as though Boxer set out writing the book with a purpose and then got too busy with a piece of legislation part way through to take the time to give the book the ending or devote the time to the conclusion that it deserved.

I think Boxer would be a great author if she wrote non-fiction books about politics rather than a half-finished story masquerading under the loose pretense of fiction. She is a gifted politician and she knows how to talk politics. She is not a gifted story teller. She offers wonderful insight which is quite eye-opening about the way American citizens can have the wool pulled over their eyes and be lead to believe what those in power want them to believe. She should have stuck to discussing that though, which she lays out in great detail and with much thought, instead of attempting to weave it into a rather poorly crafted story.

Favorite Quotes:
"The higher you go, the more of a target you are."

"But remember three things: First, there are good people out there; they just don't make so much of a racket. Second, if you don't make waves, then the bad guys don't get washed overboard. And third, nobody bothers to bad-mouth you unless they're afraid of you. So think of it as kind of a compliment."

The Weight of Water: a book review

Grade: B+

The Weight of Water
, by Anita Shreve, draws a parallel between the lives of a photographer in the 1990s, Jean, and a fisherman's wife, Maren, in the late 1800s. Maren is the sole survivor of a brutal double murder, and Jean is seeking to uncover more details about this unresolved crime by traveling to the site on a remote island off the coast of the northeast US shore and photographing it nearly 100 years later.

This is not, however, a murder mystery. Rather, it is a journey into the minds of the main characters and a drawing of parallels between their lives. The main focus and question of the book is this: by telling a tale, can you lift the burden of what you have told from your shoulders? Can you finally let it go so that it can stop haunting you?

The book reinforces the idea of mind over matter, as the two women both create ideas in their minds that overtake the reality of the world around them. Eventually, as they change their behavior in accordance with the visions in their heads, they unintentionally sculpt their actual realities until they become the haunting world in their minds.

What I loved best about this book are Shreve's descriptive details and the way she made things come to life and appear so vividly.
"Rich walks about the Morgan with athletic grace, and he gives the impression of a man for whom nothing has ever been complicated."... "I watch Thomas bend over the stern to snag the mooring. His legs are pale with whorls of brown hair above the backs of his knees. Over his bathing suit, he has on a pink dress shirt, the cuffs rolled to the elbows."... "The sand, I discover, has held the sun's warmth, and it feels good against my bare legs." ... "...I asked with the irritation that comes of not wanting to think about anything except the thing that is frightening you."

It is with this level of thought and detail that the author describes everything from the island of Smuttynose, where most of the womens' stories take place, to every character in the story. As she writes, the reader is in the character's shoes, seeing the men work on the boat, feeling the warmth of the sand, hearing the sloshing of the waves slapping against the hull of the ship...

Shreve's writing is incredibly perceptive not only in terms of character and scene details, but in terms of observances of human feelings and emotions. The tale she tells is realistic and believable, and the reader is transplanted into the minds of both Jean and Maren. The reader can see and feel their worlds through Shreve's vivid and brilliant descriptive details, and can relate to their thoughts and emotions.

This is a good book, but it is Shreve's unique, perceptive descriptions that push it into the category of those I recommend.

Favorite Quotes:
"She was, it must be said, a plain woman with a melancholy aspect, which I have always understood is sometimes appealing to men, as they do not wish a wife who is so beautiful or lively that she causes in her husband a constant worry..."

"...I think we both felt the stricture to be pale reprimand for the thrilling loveliness of the crime."

"I learned that night that love is never as ferocious as when you think it is going to leave you."

"I have never appreciated women who resort to histrionics or who show themselves to be so delicate in their constitutions that they cannot withstand the intense images that words may sometimes conjure forth..."

"There are moments in your life when you know that the sentence that will come next will change your life forever, although you realize, even as you are anticipating this sentence, that your life has already changed. Changed some time ago, and you simply didn't know it."

"I have observed that while fishermen do take seasonal rests from their labors, their womenfolk do not, and do not even when the men are too weak from old age to draw a trawl and must retire from their labors. An aging wife can never retire from her work..."

"I no longer had anything compelling to pray for. Not his arrival, not his love, not even his kindness or presence. For though he was in that room all the days, though we were seldom more than a few feet from each other, it was as though we were on separate continents, for he would not acknowledge me or speak to me unless it was absolutely necessary, and even at those times, I wished that he had not had need to speak to me at all, for the indifference of his tone chilled my blood and made me colder than I had been before. It was a tone utterly devoid of warmth or forgiveness, a tone that seeks to keep another being at bay, at a distance."

Monday, March 1, 2010

America loses to its hat in hockey gold medal round

You know the scene in Titanic where Rose wears her diamond necklace for Jack, and only that? ... Crosby, meet me in a car on E Deck. Bring the gold medal.

There was no miracle on ice for this year's USA mens' hockey team. Just like the USA womens' hockey team this year, they lost to Canada in the gold medal round. America lost to America's hat.

This was the most watched Olympic gold medal game since 1980 and, showing that fans are loyal to not only their country, but to players from their NHL teams, Buffalo and Pittsburgh had the top number of viewers per city.

The bronze medal was awarded the night before to Finland after they defeated Slovakia. Slovakia went from a 3-1 lead to a 5-3 loss. I cared about this game because Marian Hossa (first of all, that's a girl's name) plays for Slovakia and he is universally despised by Penguins fans for leaving our team to go to rival Detroit Red Wings. Hossa played for the Pens in '08 when we fell to the Wings in the Stanley Cup game, then turned down a contract with the Pens to go to the Wings, who fell to the Pens in the '09 Stanley Cup game. Once again, Hossa walked away without anything to show for his efforts as his team placed fourth. Suck it, Hossa.

Coincidentally, Finland's women also won bronze, resulting in a gold / silver / bronze identical medal podium placement in both mens' and womens' hockey.

The Finland / Slovakia game, where the winning team overcame a two point deficit to win, could have served as inspiration to Team USA which would find itself in a similar predicament in the gold medal match.

Team USA had gone undefeated throughout the tournament to earn its spot in the final game. Team Canada had won all but one game in its journey to the finals. Its previous loss was 4-1 to Team USA.

Canada's goalie, Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks, had replaced Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils who was Canada's starting goalie throughout most of the Olympic games. This was a crucial element of Canada's success. Brodeur was good, but not great, and not always reliable. Luongo proved to be a much better choice and was particularly comfortable playing on home ice since the game was held in the Canucks' arena. Personally, I think Marc-Andre Fleury, Canada's third sting goalie and member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, would have been an equally good choice and an asset to Canada on the ice, but he did not get to play.

This game was 2-0 by midpoint as the result of goals by Canada's Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry. This wasn't thanks to any lack of effort on the part of Team USA, who was largely going shot-for-shot with the Canadians. USA had its game face on and its enforcers out in full force, including Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins who was laying hits on the Canadians left and right, including shoving one up and into the box in the first period.

Team USA came rallying back with a goal by Patrick Kane which may or may not have been tipped in thanks to the help of his teammate Ryan Kesler.

The third period was a fast and furious blur of shots on goal on both ends. Luongo and Ryan Miller, the US goalie and member of the Buffalo Sabres who would later be awarded the well-deserved title of MVP after his incredible performance as a brick wall in front of the goal throughout the Olympic matches, were both holding strong.

USA pulled its goalie with over a minute left as a last ditch attempt to catch up to the Canadians and put the added pressure on Luongo. With 24.4 seconds left, USA's Zach Parise shoveled in a puck that had rebounded off Luongo's pads to tie the game 2-2. My family and I jumped from our seats cheering. We knew Team USA had it in them, but it was still unbelievable. These are the moments fans dream of.

Team USA fans and Canadian fans were getting the game they deserved between these two evenly matched teams. The game went into a 20 minute overtime.

About halfway into overtime, Canada's Sidney Crosby, member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and my boyfriend, hovered near the Team USA net, screaming for the puck from teammate Jarome Iginla. Iginla, swarmed by two USA defensemen, frantically heard Crosby's calls of "Iggy!" and quickly passed the puck between the defensemen to him.

“There's different pitches to a guy's voice when he's yelling for it. This was pretty urgent, so I knew he had a step. I didn't see it go in, I just heard everybody yelling, and saw him jumping around, so I knew we won.” said Ignalia.

Crosby, who would later tell interviewers he wasn't even looking at the goal because he knew he had to react immediately and just feel it out, quickly struck the puck as it reached him and sent it barreling toward the goal... and into it. It was so quick Miller never had time to stop it.

"CROSBYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!" is what I was yelling with my arms in the air in momentary happiness when my favorite hockey player scored. I'm pretty sure all of Canada was cheering it with me. It's one of those knee jerk reaction moments where you're incredibly happy for an individual before the larger ramifications dawn on you.

As soon as I put my arms down, I was sad for Team USA, who I had been rooting for throughout this game and the entire Olympics. Team USA is my team and, like the rest of the country, I really thought we would win when we rallied back to tie the game in the last seconds of regulation. I was sad for Orpik, as a Penguin, who played his heart out on the ice. I was saddened by the looks on the faces of all of our team, and the way they dragged their sticks solemnly across the ice behind them as they slowly skated off. Team USA left it all on the ice, and as US citizens, that's all we asked for.

Crosby and the Canadians won Olympic gold. At that moment, Team USA and fans could probably only think about how we had lost it. But, the truth is, Team USA won silver in a game that could not have been any closer. And if there is one team to which the US should not feel bad about losing, it is Team Canada. The Canadians invented hockey and it is their national sport. Crosby is the face of Canadian hockey, the face of the '09 Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, and one of the best hockey players in the world.

As Crosby's #1 fan and also rabid Team USA devotee in every sport throughout the 2010 winter Olympics which I followed religiously, I was torn. I supported and stood with Team USA in this game. I wanted us to win. I also wanted Crosby to have a good game. It turns out I can't have my cake and eat it too.

There is no shame in only winning silver, and hopefully Team USA won't be having any "coulda, shoulda, woulda" moments when looking back, because the truth is they played like gold.