PITTSBURGH — As game day fast approached, Point Park women’s basketball senior guard Michelle Burns went to check her phone for messages and DM’s when she realized the normal well wishes were more than normal.
Perhaps it had something to with the fact that Thursday night saw the NAIA version of the City Game as both Point Park and Carlow made the quick drive to the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse to do battle, a contest which ended with an 84-60 Pioneers triumph.
“Those text messages give me encouragement before a game and I pass that encouragement along to my teammates,” Burns said. “Everyone is incredibly happy for me and always very supportive.”
This season there have been two City Games, both on the women’s basketball side and at “The Coop” as Pitt bested Duquesne 69-64 Nov. 20.
Point Park has had multiple home venues this season as its original home gym on the CCAC North Campus was unavailable both last year and the first semester of the 2021-22 school year.
As a result Point Park’s Student Center was used last season, and this season both Oakland Catholic and now the Cooper Fieldhouse have been utilized as home gyms.
“I always have always enjoyed playing Carlow just for the fact that we have the same obstacles and challenges,” Point Park coach Tony Grenek said after the game. “It is nice for each of us to drive a mile-and-a-half to meet and play. I have nothing but respect for their program, for coaches in all of their sports. They are nothing but class acts.”
Though Point Park now owns a 28-6 overall series lead, and an 18-2 advantage in Grenek’s time on campus, that by no means defines the rivalry that has been going strong since 2005.
Both programs are members of the River States Conference where road games are routinely 6-to-8 hour drives on a bus where academics are balanced through tired bodies and eyes with contests against challenging opponents.
Point Park also has multiple graduates that are using an additional year of eligibility while balancing full-time jobs and working towards Master’s Degrees, while maintaining the sixth-best GPA in the NAIA.
In Thursday’s game, the deciding factor proved to be a 33-point output from Point Park in the second quarter, which helped the Pioneers establish a rhythm on both ends of the ball.
“We’ve had some wars over the years,” said Grenek. “They have broken our hearts with the couple of losses. Those cost us playoff spots or opportunities. It’s fun for both teams.”
Given both teams are in Pittsburgh, local recruiting can get competitive between the squads, with former AAU and WPIAL teammates often playing against each other.
That is what Grenek feels makes this rivalry have more importance, these two programs being allowed to compete against each other and bring some of the high-school rivalries into a college setting.
Burns also knows that anytime two local teams play each other at the college level, that it is a win for both sides and naturally brings fans in as well.
“That just means the world to me and I know my teammates feel the same way,” she said. “I saw a lot of alumni come to this game and it was really special to me. One of the girls at Carlow I am friends with, I played AAU with her. You’re always going to find good competition, wherever you go, especially this game. It’s always a good game.”
Burns, who scored 15 points, is two points away from scoring 1,500 in her playing career, and also needs five assists to pass Alisa Favero for most in program history.
“This team has been everything and it’s been an incredible ride,” said Burns. “I’ve been here for a long time, but my coaches, I couldn’t do it without them. I’m proud of myself, I’ve put in the work, but I could not do anything without my teammates, coaches, family and their support. Every game I am trying to take in, this is my last ride, so to be with this team is incredible.”
While the most known city game which is the men’s version of Pitt versus Duquesne has been on hiatus, both Carlow and Point Park continue to play each other.
Last year because of COVID-19, the only City Game of record was a contest between Robert Morris and Point Park’s respective men’s basketball teams, an affair the Colonials won by a 75-57 mark.
Grenek knows he will always cherish the memories of playing against Carlow, but seeing the contest unfold, he could not help but think more could be done.
“It’s something that should happen even more,” he stated. “I think both our teams should be playing the Chathams, the Carnegie Mellon’s. It’s just a great thing for Western PA small-college basketball.”
Because both teams are RSC members, they will face off once more on Feb. 17, as Carlow will look to reverse its fortunes, this time on its home floor.
Photo credit: Point Park Athletics/Nathaniel Holzer