“36 Hours in Vegas” - A Short, Strange Trip to the WCC Basketball Tournament

The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

When deciding upon my mode of transportation to my inaugural visit to the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, I felt it was only appropriate to take a bus. I figured you fly to a major conference basketball tournament like the ACC or the SEC, but you drive to a mid-major conference tournament. That’s just customary. So I ended up riding a Tufesa bus out to Sin City (via Salt Lake City), one that proudly markets their ability to transport you from Mexico to the Southern United States comfortably in the middle of the night. This particular Monday morning trip only produced a total of four passengers.

If you take the Tufesa to Vegas, the closest they’ll get you to the WCC Tournament is out front of the Excalibur Hotel on the strip. From there, it is up to you to hail a cab, or use the empty pedestrian overpass to simply walk over the crowded freeway in order to get to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. The Orleans is located off the strip in a relatively seedy area. One of the more prominent landmarks surrounding the Orleans is a Deja Vu “All-Nude” gentlemen's club. Across the street lies various cheap eats and convenience stores ready and willing to soften the blow of some bad-beats on a the blackjack tables.

Walking through the parking lot approaching the main entrance of the Orleans, there really is hardly any sign that a Division 1, ESPN televised basketball tournament is going on inside. It wasn’t until I reached the glass front doors of the casino and saw some “WCC Tournament” stickers that I was able to confirm I was in the right place.

As is true with all Las Vegas hotels, the Orleans casino floor is an intentional maze, free of clocks or useful maps, designed in way that makes you completely give up on where you were originally going in favor of just sitting down at a table with half drunk strangers and gambling.

By this time it was just 10 minutes until the Saint Mary’s Gaels and Gonzaga Bulldogs were set to tip-off in a semi-final tilt, and I was literally lost in the middle of the casino floor with a standing room only ticket in my hand.

“Can you tell me where the basketball game is going on in this place?” I ask a tired-looking poker dealer. “Yeah,” he responds. “Walk down past those slot machines, make a right at the T.G.I. Friday’s, and you’re there.” Easy enough, I thought to myself, and proceeded to make my way past the slots in search of the T.G.I. Friday’s landmark.

As dedicated as I was to WCC semifinal basketball, the lure of T.G.I. Friday’s happy hour potato skins and discount Bud Light proved too much for me to ignore. Minutes later, I found myself placing my order with a muscle-bound server in a Friday’s uniform chock-full of flair.

The game was on a flat screen TV, my thinking went, and how incredibly good are potato skins after a 6 hour bus ride?

“Hey man, you going to the game?” asks a heavy-set man from Washington state. “As a matter of fact I am,” I respond.

Steve was his name. And he was “In Vegas for a little while for various reasons,” some of which were to soak in both the WCC tournament and the PAC-12 tourney the following week. He, like so many other Gonzaga fans I encountered over the weekend wasn’t an actual alumnus of the school, but a fan nonetheless who “has been watching the Zags play for a long, long time.” (i.e. since the 1999 Santangelo, Calvary, Frahm team.)

One of the many backroads to the Final Four (photo by @section925 on instagram)

One of the many backroads to the Final Four (photo by @section925 on instagram)

By halftime of the Gonzaga v. Saint Mary’s semi-final, I had managed to settle up at T.G.I.’s, ride along the flat-moving-escalator to the Orleans Arena down the hall, and find my standing-room-only seat among the other degenerate basketball junkies in attendance.

The atmosphere inside the Orleans is a bit weird. The home to minor league hockey’s Las Vegas Wranglers, the arena is a far cry from the homely feel of McKeon Pavillion in Moraga or War Memorial in SF, or the Kennel in Spokane. Aside from the die-hard fans who flew in from their respective WCC campuses, most of the spectators inside the arena almost just seemed to be there by accident. Maybe they were gambling on the game, maybe they were just looking for some more Las Vegas entertainment, maybe they were staying on the 12th floor of the Orleans and wanted a break from their wife and teenage kids, maybe they liked basketball just a little too much.

Concessions sold garbage food like nachos and dippin’ dots (“the ice cream of the future”), but no beer was allowed to change hands. You also couldn’t place a bet on the game inside the Orleans Casino. To do that, you’d have to seek out one of the countless sportsbooks outside the Orlean’s property line. Somehow, this rule helped protect the integrity of the game.

On the court, Gonzaga was a flat out better team than St. Mary’s. David Stockton (John’s son) controlled the game throughout and Kevin Pangos played like his efficient self. In the post, Sam Dower dominated Brad Waldo. With Matthew Dellavedova gone to the NBA and Gonzaga laden with senior experience, the Gaels proved to be no match. The Gonzaga faithful, outnumbering St. Mary’s supporters by about 5 to 1, reveled in the victory over their arch-rival from the Bay Area. As St. Mary’s players walked into the locker room after their convincing loss, all they could hope for was a bid to the NIT. Their dreams for another trip to the Big Dance had been dashed.

Game two of this night of semi-final matchups pitted another Jesuit school visiting Sin City (University of San Francisco) versus the mormons of BYU. As it turned out, this game ended up being a Las Vegas late-night instant classic.

The upstart Dons of San Francisco, coached by the fiery ex-NBA sharpshooter Rex Walters, played above their heads against the Cougars of BYU. Walters, who earlier this year watched his starting point guard Cody Doolin quit the team after a inter-team fight in practice, was a joy to watch coach. Screaming one second, laughing the next, Walters provided a welcome sideshow on the USF sideline. He was gunning for a huge upset win and his freewheeling coaching style was on full display. The Dons took the Cougars into overtime, but eventually fell two points shy of the upset, 79-77. Walters, gracious in defeat, will hopefully be back in Vegas next year for another crack at the big boys of the WCC.

Not long after the Dons loss, I found myself sitting in the lobby of the Palms Casino food court, eating the only food that was readily available, which happened to be a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal. ESPN announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham apparently weren’t hungry, as they slowly walked by with loosened ties, only to disappear into a sea of slot machines. However, it wasn’t long before a couple members of the USF team arrived at Mickey D’s, jonesing for a postgame meal of any sort.

Tim Derksen, USF’s sophomore guard who played valiantly in the OT loss, sat quietly with a couple college buddies wearing “USF Sixth Man” T-shirts. Far across the casino floor, the Palms Sports Book’s giant big screen TV is airing SportsCenter on loop. Derksen’s friend nudges him on the shoulder, encouraging him to look up and watch his highlights play out on the big screen. Derksen raises his head for a moment, only to look back down and resume eating his french fries before the ESPN anchor can tell us who won. He, like the rest of the patrons at this late-night Vegas McDonalds already knew the outcome.

The Dons would ship out of town the next morning, while I would stay one more night to watch Gonzaga win the 2014 West Coast Conference crown. Only one team from the WCC would get to head back home a winner. The rest of the league would have to concede that Sin City had gotten the best of them. As history shows, it’s never easy to leave Las Vegas on top.

David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

St. Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova: In the Midst of a Basketball Odyssey

Driving on Robert Sacre in the WCC title tilt in Vegas (photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Driving on Robert Sacre in the WCC title tilt in Vegas (photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com

In order to trace the steps of St. Mary’s College point guard Matthew Dellavedova, one must fly all the way to the southeast edge of Australia to Melbourne, then trek a hundred miles northwest to a city called Maryborough. There, you’ll find an unassuming town that prides itself on having an historic train station and a competitive Aussie Rules football team. This, as it turns out, is the corner of the globe where “Delly” first fell in love with the game of basketball. A game that is now taking him on a trip to places he could have only dreamed of as a youngster growing up down under.

It goes without saying that Dellavedova grew up far removed from the competitive playgrounds of US cities where the NBA’s future stars typically cultivate their games. He was just as far removed from the brightly-lit gymnasiums where suburban ballplayers attend summer hoop camps and AAU tournaments. Matthew Dellavedova grew up off the grid of competitive basketball. Fortunately for Matt, basketball turns out to be a game that requires very little infrastructure, so long as one has a penchant for putting the ball through a hoop. If we learned anything from Larry Bird a.ka. “The Hick From French Lick”, a dirt driveway with a shoddy hoop in the front yard can supply all the tools one needs to make it as a basketball player.

It was at the tender age of 16 when the lure of fierce competition, state of the art facilities and worldwide exposure led Dellavedova to the Australian Institute of Sport. Built in 1981 in an effort to improve Australia’s Olympic team, AIS has slowly evolved into a place where the best young sports stars of Australia go to hone their skills and market themselves as great athletes to a multi-national audience. During his time at AIS, Dellavedova began to set his sights on coming to America and following in the footsteps of the likes of Adam Caporn, Daniel Kickert and Patty Mills.

As Dellavedova began to wind down his youth career, his relatively modest tool-kit of height and athleticism left Matt with a limited number of Division 1 scholarship offers. “I only went on two visits,” explained Dellavedova. “I went to the University of the Pacific and then to Saint Mary’s. I ended up really liking the people and the atmosphere here at SMC, so I decided to come.” And with that, the 18 year old from rural Australia showed up in Moraga, California, equipped with an unorthodox jump-shot and “deceptive” athleticism. He was in theory joining Saint Mary’s to replace perhaps the best point guard the college had ever seen in Patty Mills, but no one would have blamed him if he didn’t come close to achieving such a tall task.

Instead, Dellavedova burst onto the scene as a freshman during the 2009-2010 season to help lead St. Mary’s to their greatest basketball season of all time. Dellavedova made the WCC All-Freshman team, scoring in double figures and leading the league in minutes played per game. On a team led by guard Mickey McConnell and forward Omar “Broadway O” Samhan, Dellavedova surprised everyone by how quickly he assimilated himself to major D1 college basketball. Using a formula of two parts grit and one part talent, Dellavedova hounded opposing point guards on the defensive end, looking more like a weathered boxer in the twelfth round than a basketball player in the fourth quarter.

When asked about SMC’s run into the sweet 16 during his freshman year, Dellavedova tends to play it down, as he does with most things he talks about. There is no question Dellavedova prefers to simplify things and keep his basketball career in perspective. In other words, Matthew Dellavedova refuses to believe the hype.

To be sure, there was no shortage of hype when St. Mary’s took the court versus second seeded Villanova for a chance to advance to the sweet 16. While Samhan stole the headlines, it was Matthew Dellavedova who quietly added 14 points while keeping Villanova’s dynamic guard duo in check for all 40 minutes. If ever there was a game that put St. Mary’s on the map, it was their Cinderella victory over Villanova. “I remember it all going by very fast,” said Dellavedova. “I was just focused on the games and really had no idea how big the tournament was to all the fans throughout America. When it was all over, I finally had time to appreciate how big of a win that was for the St. Mary’s community.”

Following a sophomore year in which the Gaels narrowly missed the field of 64, Dellavedova took over the reins as the undisputed team leader for his junior season. With the graduation of point guard Mickey McConnell, it was finally Dellavedova’s team, and he certainly knew what to do with it. After Gonzaga’s decade reign over the WCC, Delly and company were finally able to dethrone the Zags and win both the WCC regular season and tournament championships in the same season.

In what was a thrilling conference tournament final in Las Vegas, Dellavedova found himself locked in a pick-and-roll chess match with 7-foot Gonzaga forward Robert Sacre. “Sacre kept guarding me at the top of the key, because when we screened, they would switch defenders on us,” explained Dellavedova. Fortunately, Delly’s love for the art of the running floater proved to be a pivotal asset down the stretch. Delly repeatedly grinded his way into the lane, somehow always finding a way past Gonzaga’s athletic defenders. St. Mary’s looked to have the contest secured, when the Zags’ Elias Harris’ last second prayer from the top of the key was answered, sending the game into overtime where the Gaels narrowly eked out a historic victory.

Guarding Tony Parker in international play (photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

Guarding Tony Parker in international play (photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

Perhaps it was fitting that when I got a chance to chat with Matthew Dellavedova, he arrived at the interview wearing his St. Mary’s practice gear, still sweating, fresh off a Tuesday morning workout. It was mid-April and the sun was shining bright on SMC’s sprawling countryside campus. Needless to say, it was a perfect time for Dellavedova to be out enjoying himself. If ever there was an “offseason” for Matthew Dellavedova, this would be it. Instead, St. Mary’s feisty point guard showed virtually no signs of sun exposure, a gym rat in the truest sense of the word. Beside getting out to Bianca’s Deli at the intersection of Moraga Road and Moraga Way for his regular Grilled Chicken and Jack (add Avocado), Dellavedova is most comfortable staying dedicated to the gym, and it shows.

Dellavedova’s commitment to constant improvement now has him set to cross paths with basketball’s greatest collection of current talent, the 2012 edition of the USA Dream Team. Dellavedova recently earned a spot on Australia’s national team, known as the Boomers. He will get to play alongside SMC alumnus and current NBA guard Patty Mills, as well as the Golden State Warriors’ new aquisition, Andrew Bogut. With the London Olympics starting in late July, Dellavedova is now preparing to square off against the likes of Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. When asked about his thoughts on playing against such extraordinary talent, Dellavedova responds in his signature low-key manner, “It will be good to test my skills against the best.”

There is no question that Dellavedova has leveraged his international basketball opportunities as a means to improve his play as a Gael. Last summer he got to play against France’s Tony Parker, and at the 2011 FIBA Oceania Championships Dellavedova was able to go up against the Spanish national team, in Spain. Facing a raucous home court advantage for the Spaniards, Dellavedova ran up and down the floor with Spanish legends in the making: Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Ricky Rubio. Games like these go a long way in explaining why Delly plays with such a high level of poise in the WCC. A road game at Gonzaga versus Kevin Pangos doesn’t exactly intimidate a player who is used to matching up with Ricky Rubio in front of his home country crowd.

Go to any St. Mary’s game at McKeon Pavilion in Moraga and it doesn’t take long to notice how important Australian basketball is to the Gaels, and vice-versa. Year after year, SMC opens up their campus to basketball stars in the making, looking for a place to call home and a platform to pursue their dreams. Aussie flags and chants are common at McKeon, and St. Mary’s games are closely covered back in Australia.

Come late July, St. Mary’s students and alums will undoubtedly tune in to follow their adopted native son, Matthew Dellavedova. Who knows how he will perform under the bright lights of the Olympics, stuck with the task of guarding Chris Paul, Kobe, or even LeBron. However, one thing Dellavedova has proven thus far in his distinguished career, he won’t be overwhelmed by the situation.

For 30 minutes I talked to Matthew Dellavedova, and for 30 minutes I tried to uncover some insight on what it’s like to take St. Mary’s to the sweet 16 as a freshman, or win the West Coast Conference title in overtime, or guard Ricky Rubio on his home soil of Spain. But, no matter how far I dug, the more I became content with the fact that Dellavedova really doesn’t believe the hype. The intrinsic satisfaction of seeking out and playing against the best basketball players in the world is what seems to drive Dellavedova to continue to strive and improve. Luckily for Moraga, they get one more year to call him their own.