My first visit to the Petersen Events Center, on Jan. 24, was one for the history books.
Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals rolled into Oakland on a bus filled with the nation’s 12th-ranked team. The Pete was rocking and ready for a rematch with the team Pitt almost upset a couple of weeks earlier in Louisville. The Oakland Zoo, Pitt’s student section, had its paper torn up and ready for a confetti celebration with the first Pitt basket. Minutes after the confetti rained down, however, Pitt was losing 10-2. No reason to panic, though.
The sharp-dressed Pitino looked like a high-priced lawyer on the Louisville sideline. Pitino is fourth on the wins list among active college basketball coaches. Incidentally, fifth on the list is Bob Huggins, known for his stylish track suits, who coaches down the road at West Virginia University. If Pitino were standing next to Huggy Bear, it would look like Pitino is the lawyer defending Huggins in a money-laundering case.
The Zoo, normally pumped up in any situation, started quieting down when the score opened up to a 17-5 Louisville lead. Once the score hit 27-9, Louisville eased up on offense slightly by bringing in backup players. Guys that looked like 10th-graders came off the bench and drained every shot. The Cardinals defense was just as relentless, using a full-court press to disrupt any sense of stability the Panthers were trying to achieve on offense. Even Pitt standouts Jamel Artis and Michael Young couldn’t hit anything.
Louisville would go on a 21-6 run, making it 48-15. On the bright side, Pitt hit 10 of 11 free throws in the first half. But that was no consolation as Pitt headed to the locker room trailing 51-18. It had been 48 years since Pitt was losing this bad at the half. In 1969, LSU had a 33-point lead thanks to Beaver County’s own “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
The second half was a little better for the Panthers, as they added another 33 points to the scoreboard. But while Rozelle Nix, the 6’11”, 300-pound crowd favorite, got some playing time, the Cardinals never let up. Pitino was still in the face of players who were not in sync with his defense, despite the Cardinals leading by more than 40. The Cardinals had added 55 points by the time the buzzer went off to mercifully end the game with a final score of 106-51.
So the moral of this story is, the first time I had the privilege of being at the Petersen Events Center, sitting right next to the court, the Panthers sustained their worst loss since 1906. That’s not just bad luck; that’s historic bad luck. In 111 years, Pitt has lost slightly more than 1,000 games and has won about 1,600. On this night, the Panthers suffered their worst loss since Teddy Roosevelt was president. Back then, I think, players still threw the ball underhanded into a peach basket and pulled a string to get it out.
Live college basketball is so much fun to see. On a normal day, the Pete has all the enthusiasm, excitement and energy that is the trademark of ACC basketball. Future home games in February include Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Florida State and North Carolina. Not an easy schedule, but this is the team that upset Virginia, the ACC’s second-best team.
Since lots of sports fans superstitiously equate team performance with something that they did, I promise never to sit in that particular press seat again. This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day; in fact it happens every 111 years, so don’t be discouraged from checking out Pitt basketball. Since the Panthers play in the ACC, you’ll see perhaps the most talented basketball players in the NCAA. Pitt just had one bad game, a really, really bad one; I blame myself.
Man, I hate me so much!