Starkey: Oh, what a night in Pittsburgh sports
This was a first.
In 15 years of covering Penguins games from the press box, I'd never seen a group of reporters gather to watch the end of a Robert Morris basketball game.
It happened Tuesday night. A lot of things happened Tuesday night, which has to go down as one of the more memorable multiple-event local sports weeknights on record.
I remember only one that tops it — Thursday, Dec. 20, 2007. That was the night Levance Fields beat Duke on a last-second shot at Madison Square Garden, Sidney Crosby got in his first NHL fight (with Andrew Ference), and Willie Parker broke his leg (and lost the rushing title) in St. Louis.
I was at home that evening, working the remote the way Greg Maddux used to work the edges of the plate.
I was masterful.
On Tuesday night, though, I was just speechless — and I can't imagine I was alone as events unfolded a little after 9:30 p.m., with the Penguins looking for their 10th straight win and Robert Morris looking to beat … Kentucky?
Check this out: Between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m., the RMU game topped out at 217,000 viewers (6.97 rating), a trusted source in broadcasting told me. Between 9:45 and 10 p.m., the Penguins topped out at 568,000 viewers (18.2 rating). That is insane on both fronts.
The situation reached critical mass with the Penguins and Capitals tied, 1-1, while RMU and Kentucky were winding toward 57-57.
First, Matt Cooke drew a double minor for hitting Alex Ovechkin from behind and barking at the referee. Something strange and wonderful happened over the next four minutes: With each significant play, be it a Marc-Andre Fleury save, a shot block or a clear, the crowd noise intensified.
By the time Cooke jumped out of the box, it sounded like a hockey night in Winnipeg.
“The loudest I've heard this building in a long time,” Cooke would say later.
I heard all of it but saw only part of it, because my attention was diverted. The guy next to me in the press box was running a blurry version of RMU-Kentucky on his laptop — and the game was down to its final possessions. A group of media types gathered 'round the Mac as RMU coach Andy Toole called timeout to draw up the old baseline-corner-out-of-bounds-layup-play with five seconds on the shot clock (works every time).
It worked! Mike McFadden hit two free throws with 8.7 seconds left. Kentucky rushed upcourt and clanked a 3-point attempt at the buzzer. RMU students stormed the court, turning it to a sea of red.
Tweets started flying from the likes of Mark Cuban, who wrote, “Congrats to Robert Morris! My first basketball camp as a kid was at RMU.” Another came from something called the Sports Pickle, which submitted this beauty: “In fairness, if Nerlens Noel was healthy, Kentucky might have an outside shot to knock off a program like Robert Morris.”
I wondered if the RMU football team was now gearing up for Alabama. Toole's Twitter account (a must-follow, by the way) soon was trending world-wide. An incredible photo of him holding his 5-month-old son went viral.
Toole, who still hadn't slept as of Wednesday afternoon, did enjoy one quiet moment amid the madness.
“When everybody stormed the court,” he said, “our coaching staff left the court, and we went into the locker room and just sat. And there was silence. We just kind of exhaled and sat there and enjoyed it.”
Meanwhile, back at Consol Energy Center, the crowd was going nuts for Fleury, chanting his name as Cooke jumped out of the box and headed toward the Penguins' end.
Next thing Cooke knew, he was headed 100 mph the other way on a Crosby-led rush. He took a feed from Crosby and deftly delivered a one-touch pass to a streaking Matt Niskanen, who lasered a shot past Braden Holtby.
How loud was it now?
“I still think they were more excited for the PK than my goal,” Niskanen said with a laugh. “That's OK.”
Nah, it definitely got louder for the goal. In terms of sheer delirium, it appeared to be a toss-up between the court-rushing RMU fans and the giddy Penguins fans.
What a night.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.