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College Basketball

Patrick Gardner Was Great, No Matter His Number

Right: Patrick Gardner in number 15. Left: Patrick Gardner in number 33.
Left: Hannah Fountain - CameraSport via Getty Images; Right: ESPN

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Number 33 on Marist was clearly the team’s best player. The whole offense ran through him. If only we could figure out who the heck he was.

There was no one with his number on the roster, but he was touching the ball every possession. From our seats in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall we couldn’t hear the announcer say his name. Finally my friend and I noticed, at basically the exact same time, that he did not have a name on the back of his jersey. Surely number 33 was Patrick Gardner, a 6-11 senior who’d averaged 19 points and 7 rebounds this year.

Stats from Kenpom say he took 35 percent of the Red Foxes’ shots this season, a usage rate that is sixth in the nation. This was actually his first year of NCAA Division I basketball! His team bio says he spent three seasons at Nassau Community College and was at Division II Saint Michael’s last year. “Gardner is a skilled big man who has an exceptional ability to shoot the ball,” his bio also reads, and that was accurate.

Some searching led to a tweet from a high school senior, Sam Federman, who had the scoop (and, I hope, a future in this business). “Breaking News: Patrick Gardner does not have a red #15 jersey, as his ripped. He will wear #33 during road games.” It had been three weeks since that tweet, and apparently there is no one who can sew in Poughkeepsie, as he was still in No. 33.

The Red Foxes were the No. 11 seed in the 11-team MAAC tournament, and they were facing top-seeded Iona. The game ended up looking like it was a blowout; Iona won the game going away, 76-55. Early on, it did seem like it was going to be this easy win. Rick Pitino’s squad will be a tough matchup in the NCAA tournament. Their full-court trapping press is incredibly well executed; Marist struggled to get the ball in multiple times.

But the Gaels—it’s a reference to Ireland—are also just good. They went 27-7 this year, have won 14 in a row and have a trio of high-usage, high-talent starters: Daniss Jenkins, Nelly Junior Joseph and Walter Clayton Jr.. There’s one caveat: The top team in the MAAC has also struggled with big leads this season, including a loss to Rider where they led by 18. In an interview with Iona student newspaper The Ionian, Rick Pitino said he “made a mistake” by bringing in five freshman recruits this year. The big blown leads were going to make him rethink recruiting. (He may be doing it at a different school, as he has been linked to Texas Tech and St. John’s; Jeff Goodman says Georgetown is not interested.)

The Gaels led by as many as 11 in the first half. But Marist rallied from a double-digit deficit to tie it at 46 with 10 minutes to play. If I had to pick a play where they started their run, it would’ve been this dunk by Jaden Daughtry.

Then Gardner hit a three. When Marist tied it on a Sam Farris three with just over 10 minutes to play, I was ready to believe we’d see the last-place team in the conference win its auto-bid. It didn’t work out. Iona ended the game on a 19-2 run. They won going away. Iona still had about a 75 percent chance to win with 10 minutes to go, but a team that came into the MAAC tournament with 10 wins made it a game for a little bit.

This is the beauty of this time of the year in basketball. I came into Atlantic City angry and possibly basketball’d out. I’d seen four basketball games in the last two days. Friday night the doubleheader I attended included my old high school playing Imhotep Charter, ranked seventh in the nation by MaxPreps, in a state playoff game; it doesn’t matter what the final score was. (Fine. It was 85-33.) The next day I attended two Ivy League tournament games in the early afternoon. The bathrooms and my section somehow smelled like shit despite repeated cleanings that blocked our view of the game, my alma mater lost to Princeton, and then it took an hour to get out of the parking garage after the game. I will never attend a game at the airplane hangar known as Jadwin Gym again (don’t hold me to this).

And yet once I got into the saga of Patrick Gardner’s number, I was right back into being a hoop-head. When Marist tied it in the second half, our whole section of neutrals was rocking. Suddenly I was a big Red Foxes fan. I would die defending Patrick Gardner’s honor. Of course, I ended up disappointed, but I liked how Gardner’s career ended: Being taken out in the final minute, tears in his eyes… and then a big laugh when he realized he was on the big screen for all the arena to see.

He scored 23 and had 7 rebounds in his final college game. I did not know who this guy was two hours earlier, and now I hope he gets to keep playing somewhere. I just hope they have a backup jersey for him.

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