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And the crowd goes wild

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Sunday, March 9, 2003
 

The blowout win over Ohio State had the place rocking. The nationally televised drubbing of Notre Dame found Dick Vitale in the frenzy of the student section acclaimed as the Oakland Zoo.

Those in Pitt's new, 12,508-seat basketball arena were in awe when the Panthers stomped Syracuse on Jan. 18, and especially after their 65-64 last-gasp win over Georgetown a week later.

Just when you thought the Petersen Events Center couldn't get any louder, Brandin Knight stole the ball and lobbed an alley oop to a soaring Julius Page for a two-hand dunk that ignited a resounding 71-67 victory over Connecticut last Sunday.

There was pandemonium at The Pete.

The gold T-shirt-wearing members of the Oakland Zoo, including the guy in the gorilla suit, went bananas. Pitt fans, from the high rollers in the VIP courtside and luxury suites to those who walked up several flights of stairs to get to their seats, rose to their feet in unison to cheer for the Panthers.

"The first game when it got like that was against Ohio State and I never thought it could get louder than that," Pitt coach Ben Howland said afterward. "And then, it was against Notre Dame, and I never thought it could get louder than that. And then, against Syracuse...

"Now, we need a decibel reader."

Call it the Pete-o-Meter, if you will. Give the Panthers a point for every victory on their home floor this season and you'll find out that it nearly equals their margin of victory: Pitt has won 16 home games by an average of 16.6 points.

"What helped us today was we had the crowd here behind us," Howland said after the win over UConn last Sunday. "You saw the effect of our crowd. It's a tribute not only to our players but to our fans. This is a difficult place to win. We were down by 13 to Connecticut, and we fought back as a team and as a crowd. We were inspired by that crowd."

It has been an inspiring season at The Pete, which exceeded expectations in its inaugural season and once again turned Pittsburgh into a basketball town.

THE ZOO

Start with the Oakland Zoo, located in the retractable courtside seats wrapped around the court. Zoo-landers arrive as early as three hours before tip-off to make first-come, first-serve claims.

"It's just tremendous energy," Panthers All-America point guard Brandin Knight said. "We get out there an hour and a half before the game, and the entire student section is filled - during spring break. When you're getting that type of effort, it wears on other teams."

In the Zoo, gold T-shirts are standard apparel. Creativity also is mandatory when designing your game gear. Ernie Sanchez, a senior from Johnstown, first wore a gorilla suit with Knight's No. 20 jersey as a Halloween costume and has worn it to every football and basketball game since.

Thus, the Zoo does have its animals.

"I think this makes it one of the hardest places to play and a big reason why we're undefeated here," Sanchez said. "You pay $20 for a season ticket and get a front-row seat. They're great seats for a great value."

Never mind that the students rarely sit down.

The Zoo originals are easy to spot. They stand in the front row, behind the VIP courtside seats. Last year, they wore Burger King crowns with the BK emblem - in honor of Knight - but have upgraded to fedoras this season. They hope to someday rank with Duke's famed student section.

"We wanted the Zoo to be on the level of the Cameron Crazies," said Jon St. George, a junior from Allentown. "When Dick Vitale was here - and talked about us on ESPN - that was pretty big."

Vitale has put Duke's student section on a pedestal for its energy and ingenuity, but EPSN's voice of college basketball found himself enamored with both the Zoo and The Pete while doing commentary for the Pitt-Notre Dame game Feb. 12.

"The spirit is amazing," Vitale said. "The fans and the students are right on top of the court. The sight lines are amazing, it's perfect for the fans and it creates a fan frenzy. It was much better than I thought it would ever be. It blew me away."

A CUBAN MISSILE

Mark Cuban would have been a natural in the Oakland Zoo. The outspoken owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, Cuban loved what he heard while sitting courtside for the Pitt-UConn game.

"These fans are unbelievable. What I love is how they taunt the other team's players and really get after the officials," said Cuban, a Mt. Lebanon native and billionaire who has paid hundreds of thousands in fines for criticizing NBA officiating.

"People talk about the NBA refs having it hard. Compared to this, the NBA's nothing. These guys are brutal. They're rowdy, loud and proud.

"That's the way you want your fans."

The only drawback is that the students are no longer seated behind the opposing bench, like they were at Fitzgerald Field House. Visiting coaches, particularly Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, have suggested that it is more comfortable to have the Oakland Zoo out of earshot, if not out of sight.

"We were right behind the bench," St. George said, "and those guys would hear every word we said."

The Zoo's taunting of opposing stars has paid off.

Ohio State's Brent Darby was 1 of 9 from the field at The Pete, Notre Dame's Chris Thomas 2 of 15, West Virginia's Drew Schifino 4 of 12 and UConn's Ben Gordon 4 of 13.

"It's been gratifying to see where they have taken this thing," Marc Boehm, Pitt's interim athletic director, said of the Oakland Zoo. "They've taken ownership of it. They do affect the opposing teams, they really do. And they know it."

ALUMNI APPROVAL

John Sarandrea sidled up to Orlando Antigua in Section 18, near the Pitt bench, and reflected on how he convinced Antigua to choose the Panthers when they played at archaic Fitzgerald Field House.

"All I can say is I wish I had this place to recruit to when I was here," said Sarandrea, a former Panthers assistant who now coaches at New Castle High School and serves as Fox Sports Net's Pitt basketball analyst.

"It's as good as any place in the country. People don't realize that Pitt always had good atmosphere. Now, it has the aesthetic value, too. When you brought recruits into the field house, you could not appreciate what an exciting atmosphere Fitzgerald was to play in unless it was a game night."

Antigua is one of a handful of highly visible former Panthers players at The Pete. Don Hennon attends regularly, Curtis Aiken and Jason Matthews sit in VIP courtside seats near the band and Clyde Vaughn visited last Sunday for the first time - as a UConn assistant coach.

"It was an unbelievable experience," said Vaughn, who helped usher Pitt into the Big East Conference in the early 1980s. "You had 12,000 here. When I played, a good night would be 6,000. To see this many people at a Pitt game is amazing."

That Pitt sold out The Pete in September and broke the school record for average attendance at 10,932 this season is not lost on Panthers' alums.

"It's unbelievable to see the atmosphere here," said Antigua, who went on to become the first non-black player for the Harlem Globetrotters. "We had thought so long ago we'd get this. To see the support we get is amazing, especially after all the talk that this isn't a basketball town."

BUILT TO PERFECTION

Robert and Jeryl Lynn Paoletti don't hold a grudge against their daughter Lauren -- even though she sits as close to the game as possible and they sit at The Pete's highest point.

The Paolettis, of Glassport, are spaced a few seats apart in Sections 201 and 202. Lauren, a freshman cheerleader, sits on the edge of the court.

The parents wouldn't dare trade their spots now, though they admit to some trepidation at first.

"She's afraid of heights, so we were a little nervous," Robert said of Jeryl Lynn. "The players looked like little dots, but my first reaction was, 'At least I'm in the building.'"

What the Paolettis soon learned is something Panthers fans in others sections also have discovered: There isn't a bad seat at The Pete.

The arena was designed by Atlanta-based Rosser International -- which built Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena -- specifically for basketball. That makes for a great view from virtually every angle.

"Our main objective was to make sure we created that atmosphere, and the architects did that to a T," Boehm said of "We knew it was going to be an intimidating place - and that's what we wanted."

There are random complaints, however, about the Daktronics scoreboard that hangs above the court: It doesn't show enough replays. It obscures the view of the scroll-screen scoreboards in the upper decks. And those sitting behind the Pitt bench are occasionally forced to watch the game on the scoreboard when the players stand up.

But, from their seats, the Paolettis have no gripes.

"When you're up here, you see the whole court," Robert said. "I have the freedom to do everything up here. I have aisle room, I can scream and yell and there's no one to bother me. The top row is the best seats, as far as I'm concerned.

"I might stay here forever."

SHOW OF GRATITUDE

The Panthers not only fed off the atmosphere created by their fans at The Pete this season, they personally thanked them after completing the third undefeated home campaign in school history with an 86-54 victory over Seton Hall on Wednesday.

Howland addressed the home crowd during the Senior Night ceremony and credited it for making Petersen Events Center one of the nation's toughest places to play.

"This is the best basketball atmosphere in the country," Howland said, "and I love that."

The Panthers' three seniors - Knight, Ontario Lett and Donatas Zavackas - climbed over courtside chairs to show some love, as well, embracing the Oakland Zoo fans who have followed so faithfully.

And, one last time, the crowd went wild.

Facts and figures about Pitt


Did you know?

  • The average attendance at the Petersen Events Center this season was 10,932. It marked the first time the Panthers averaged more than 10,000 per game. The previous best was 9,464 in 1989-90.

  • The Panthers are 32-1 at home the past two seasons, posting back-to-back 16-win seasons. Both are school records.

  • The Panthers have won 35 of their past 37 home games, losing only to Notre Dame (56-53) on Feb. 12, 2002, and to Mississippi State (66-61) in the NIT on March 19, 2001.

  • The Panthers have had 24 consecutive home sellouts, starting with the Notre Dame loss.

  • The Panthers ranked fifth nationally in attendance increase last year (+1,971) and should overtake the top spot after selling out the 12,508-seat Petersen Events Center this season.

    Perfect at The Pete

    Pitt finished with a 16-0 record in its inaugural season at the Petersen Events Center, joining the 1973-74 (13-0) and 1974-75 (10-0) squads as the only teams in school history to go undefeated at home.

    Here is a game-by-game look of the Panthers at The Pete:

    Nov. 23 Duquesne 82-67

    Nov. 27 St. Francis (Pa.) 69-46

    Nov. 30 Arkansas-Pine Bluff 89-49

    Dec. 3 Norfolk State 96-51

    Dec. 14 Southeast Louisiana 89-55

    Dec. 18 Ohio State 69-49

    Dec. 28 George Mason 65-41

    Jan. 4 Robert Morris 85-49

    Jan. 6 Notre Dame 72-55

    Jan. 18 Syracuse 73-60

    Jan. 25 Georgetown 65-64

    Feb. 4 Providence 68-61

    Feb. 12 West Virginia 82-46

    Feb. 22 Rutgers 86-65

    March 2 Connecticut 71-67

    March 5 Seton Hall 86-54

    Home-court advantage

    Pitt's 22 consecutive wins on its home floor, dating to last season at Fitzgerald Field House, is the fifth-longest home winning streak among NCAA Division I men's basketball teams. Here is how the Panthers compare to the all-time and current home winning streaks:

    All-time

    1. Kentucky 129 1943-55

    2. St. Bonaventure 99 1948-61

    3. UCLA 98 1970-76

    4. Cincinnati 86 1957-64

    5. Arizona 81 1945-51

    (tie) Marquette 81 1967-73

    Current

    Team No.

    1. Western Kentucky 36

    2. Duke 28

    3. Southern Illinois 27

    4. Pitt 22

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