March Madness Has Returned to Atlantic City
Tuesday Night marked the return of March Madness to Boardwalk Hall when Manhattan's Ethan Lasko nailed a 30-foot three point jumper right before the buzzer to tie the game at 50, sending the First Round MAAC Tournament Game into Overtime. Yes, there were games played earlier in the day, but Boardwalk Hall seemed to come alive with a feeling that had not been seen in Atlantic City in 12 months. At that moment, it didn't matter if you were a fan of Manhattan or Fairfield or if you were working security or if you were seated at the "Socially Distanced" Media Row, every person reacted when Lasko hit the shot and it was in that moment I knew for sure: Normalcy is almost back in South Jersey.
I was at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall for the 2020 MAAC Basketball Tournament on March 11th sitting at Media Row across from the baseline when the news came across Twitter on the laptop in front of me about the Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19 and the Jazz-Thunder game being cancelled. I did not know that would also be the last time I would be at Boardwalk Hall or any sporting event in Atlantic City for 12 months. That night, Saint Peter's defeated Iona 56-54 in an exciting, competitive game. The next day was the domino effect of each sport taking actions that led to the Pandemic Shutdown of all sports at all levels as the whole work seem to go dark.
Tuesday March 9th in 2021, I arrived at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall for the First Round of the 2021 MAAC Men's Basketball Tournament featuring a rematch of two teams that have faced each other multiple times in their conference tournament over the last few years. No one would mistake the Manhattan Jaspers or the Fairfield Stags for the best teams in the MAAC with their below .500 records for the 2021 Basketball season, but those teams delivered the excitement that every sports fan identifies with College Basketball in March.
While sitting at a table by myself with my closest companion a power strip as I was stationed in front of the 206 level at Boardwalk Hall, I watched a sluggish first half in which Fairfield shot just 25 percent (7-28) on their Field Goal attempts and Manhattan held a 25-16 lead. The second half the basketball action came alive as Fairfield scrapped and fought to get back into a game that most people watching assumed Manhattan was going to win. Led by Jake Wojcik three point shooting, Fairfield took momentum from Manhattan and forced their opponents to play keep up the rest of the second half.
It was also during the second half that I heard a couple of Manhattan fan sitting behind me talk about how "this game is definitely not hitting the OVER" and then proceeding to yell at the Refs for "too many foul calls on green". With not many people in the building, I can promise you that the officials on the court could hear the fans but were purposely ignoring them. I could not help but smile because hearing these fan reactions reminded me about what we have missed from sporting events for the last several months; Fan reactions are sometimes predictable but they are raw and honest in the moment without any pretense.
After two free throws by Jake Wojcik, Fairfield had 50-47 lead with five seconds left on the clock. Manhattan would run a play out of a timeout that appeared to be setup for one scenario but Fairfield's defense forced them into a bad situation when they were forced to hand the ball off to Senior Ethan Lasko for a deep three point shot that he barely had any time to set his feet for. The moment the shot went through the cylinder, the sound of people screaming and yelling echoed all around the historic Boardwalk Hall. Yes, March Madness had officially returned, alive and well, to Atlantic City.
Fairfield had to fight hard to pull out a 59-58 win over Manhattan, avenging their loss from last year's First Round in the MAAC Tournament. On Wednesday Night, Fairfield will face one of the best teams in the MAAC Tournament, the 12-7 Monmouth team that finished with the second best record in the conference for the 2021 season. But as Fairfield Head Coach Jay Young told the media in the postgame Zoom Press Conference, this win meant so much to his players and the school.
While Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall has fewer people sitting in the stands and walking the hallways than last year, even though the ESPN TV Broadcasters were stationed in a encasement that resembles a Hockey Penalty Box, even though the building had hand sanitizer dispenser stations setup everywhere you looked, the reality of meaningful College Basketball games back in Atlantic City could still be felt in the building. It was refreshing to see College Basketball in person, hear the fans in real time and not fake crowd noise, to see the emotion on the players faces, observing the people working security in a building that was dark for longer than some people had previously anticipated at this time last year.
The 2021 MAAC Men's Basketball Tournament winner will get an automatic bid to the 2021 NCAA Tournament being hosted in Indianapolis and you can watch the games on ESPN+ all week with the Championship game on ESPNU. This is the first sporting event in Atlantic City since the COVID-19 Shutdown last March and it is not the last. The Professional Fighters League (PFL) will being hosting their 2021 Regular Season in Atlantic City starting in April. It is so encouraging to see progress that is tangible with College Basketball action back in town. There may be only "Friends and Family" of the participating schools allowed in the building for the games, but the excitement is still there and I can confirm that March Madness is alive and well at Jim Whelan's Boardwalk Hall.