In Moon, March Madness comes early as Colonials stun Kentucky
The tiny gym was packed and jet-engine loud. A constant din blasted from the Robert Morris student section, painted–up kids screaming war cries like, “Let's Go Bobby Mo!” and lobbing insults at the opponents.
This was 90 minutes before the start of the game.
Later, things would really get crazy. The Colonials withstood a furious Kentucky rally and won, 59-57 on a pair of free throws by Mike McFadden with 8.7 seconds left, igniting a wild, court-swarming scene.
After things quieted a bit, the players came back out from the locker room and mingled with the mob, soaking in their victory over perhaps the most storied program in all of college basketball.
“This is the greatest feeling I ever had in my life,” said guard Karvel Anderson, a junior college transfer in his first year with the Colonials and a key contributor. “No greater feeling than I have right now.”
On paper, it was merely a first-round NIT game, an appetizer before college basketball's main course later this week. But long before tipoff Tuesday night, Sewall Center had become the epicenter of a major happening.
Failing to make the NCAA Tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats endured a down year. But the program remains college basketball royalty, the blue bloods from the bluegrass playing little ol' Bobby Mo, the pride of the Northeast Conference. They were here because NCAA Tournament games this week are taking up residence inside Rupp Arena, the Wildcats' home court, of all places.
Kentucky coach John Calipari grew up less than a mile from RMU and played basketball and coached summer all-star camp teams there. It was a great story and a huge factor in bringing these teams together for the first time in a 3,000-seat bandbox that somehow accommodated another 400. Tickets sold out in less than three hours, and many fans stood three-deep behind one of the baskets. Such was the stage for an unexpected and completely different form of March Madness.
Even Franco Harris had to check it out.
“My first Robert Morris game, I have to admit,” said Harris, who visited with his old Steelers teammate, John Banaszak, the RMU football assistant and head coach-in-waiting.
“This is a pretty important game, and I like that it's happening to Robert Morris University,” Harris said.
The doors opened at 5:45 p.m., and the students poured in and squeezed into the pullout bleachers. Several waited three hours just to be the first ones inside.
“This is like the biggest game in school history,” said Matt Hudak, a senior from Export who splotched blue and red paint over his face, chest and hair.
Hudak said he has never missed a home game, but this was beyond compare. “The craziest one ever,” he said. “It's gonna be awesome.”
Just then, a camera from ESPN, which televised the game, whipped Hudak and his red army into an additional frenzy.
That was nothing compared to what transpired. Dan Mignogna, a senior who played linebacker on the football team, hugged everyone in sight on the court, yelling, “We just beat Kentucky!”
Mignogna, who is from Cleveland, said he never before stormed a court, and he knows the practice is frowned upon by some. “But it's got to come in this situation, where a small school like us goes against a big, nationally ranked team and takes 'em down,” Mignogna said.
Before the game, in a sedate third-floor dining room, Greg Dell'Omo glanced at the big screen TV and noted with obvious glee, “It's been like this all day.”
Dell'Omo is the university president. He was practically giddy.
“I couldn't pay for this advertising,” he gushed. “It's phenomenal.”
Afterward, on the court, accepting congratulations and other glad tidings, Dell'Omo, deadpanned, “Just another game.”
“Unbelievable,” he said. “Probably, no, the greatest sporting event in Robert Morris history.”
In a corner of the bleachers sat the Kentucky fans, who a year ago were headed toward celebrating their team's eighth national championship. This season brought a disappointing come-down. Yet here they were in their blue and white. Many drove six, seven or eight hours.
For an NIT game?
“This is Big Blue Nation,” explained Jeff Elkins of Pikeville, Ky. “We've got to support our team.”
Elkins' friend and travel buddy, Nathan Reed, also from Pikeville, elaborated. The tradition and history of Kentucky basketball “is preached at you from the time you're born. It's something that's bigger than you are.”
Suzie Hammonds, a Kentucky graduate who lives in Butler, could barely believe how close she was to the action.
“We paid 15 dollars for these tickets,” she said. “At Rupp Arena, they're a hundred dollars, at least.”
Hammonds was sporting blue and white beads, a UK medallion, a Kentucky sweatshirt, Kentucky-blue leg-warmers and the same shade of nail of polish.
But for Hammonds and the downcast Wildcats fans, by the end of the game, and their season, blue once again proved to be the primary color.