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Pitt Basketball

Saunders: The Oakland Zoo Is Back



PITTSBURGH — The Oakland Zoo is back.

Pitt’s student section, long notorious for being one of the loudest and toughest to play in front of in all of college basketball, has seen its fortunes mirror that of Pitt’s basketball teams over the last few years.

As excitement in the program waned in the latter part of Jamie Dixon’s tenure and bottomed out during last season’s embarrassing 0-18 run through ACC play, the Zoo went from ferocious and frenzied to meek and mild — when it was there at all.

That’s been changing this season, with excitement and attendance building in the first year of Jeff Capel’s new era — or #ZooEra if you prefer.

Tuesday, that came to a head, with the No. 2 Duke Blue Devils on the schedule and a 9 p.m. start giving plenty of time for the Zoo to get warmed up and ready to go for opening tip-off.

Were they ever:

As the Panthers battled the Blue Devils to a draw through the first seven or eight minutes of the game, the crowd was as loud and as into the game as it’s been in years.

“Love them. Loved them even last year, the people that did come out,” senior wing Jared Wilson-Frame said. “Last year was a hard season for everyone that was involved, especially the people that were here watching, hoping that we would win. Love them and really appreciate them every single night.”

It’s not just a show of support, either. Players and coaches on both side said the Zoo can have a real impact in the game.

“We need that,” Wilson-Frame said. “As a team, it helps us get energy.”

“We beat a good team [Tuesday night] and a crowd that was ready. What a neat atmosphere,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “What a great atmosphere that is back at Pitt. … Pitt had a great brand that needed to be reignited.”

When it comes to takeaways on the court against the Blue Devils, it’s clear that the Panthers have a long way to go if the way to compete on a nightly basis with the top dogs in the ACC.

But off the court, the program appears to have turned a significant corner when it comes to reigniting and reconnected with its fanbase as a whole, and perhaps most importantly, the student section that both made the Pete a tough environment and built years and years of future fans for life.

“One of the great things about tonight was seeing The Pete like that,” Capel said. “That was really cool and I think that’s a big step in the right direction for our program.”

It’s incredible to see the 180-degree turn most Pitt fans have done in nine months with regards to the basketball program. Enthusiasm is not only higher than it was during Stallings’ era, but has even surpassed the end of Dixon’s time in Pittsburgh.

Tuesday night, Pitt basketball was the marquee event in the city, and even though the Panthers lost, it didn’t disappoint. That’s a huge step forward for the Pitt program.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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