MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Andy Toole only had a few brief moments to pause and take in the hysteria around him before A.J. Bramah and Terrell Brown both lunged for the opening tip inside a state-of-the-art 4,000 seat arena packed to the brim with students, fans, alumni and supporters who all once pondered if a night like this could ever actually come to fruition.
After all, Toole had a game to coach. Although the 313th game of his 10-year Robert Morris tenure was unlike any before it, marking the first of a new era for a program that’s come quite a long way since its inception 43 years ago back when the Colonials first played in a dusty John Jay Center gymnasium smaller than those in most high schools today.
From dimly-lit nights in the outdated Charles L. Sewall Center to a revolving door of home floors at PPG Paints Arena, Duquesne University and the North Athletic Complex, Tuesday night signified the end of a windy transitional road for a Robert Morris program that now proudly calls the beautiful UPMC Events Center home.
“There’s a great source of pride being able to be in this building finally,” said Toole. “A lot of people that were at the game tonight had huge hands in this happening.”
The unveiling of the university’s new prized possession – an arena fully funded by outside donors and corporate sponsorships – was a special night to remember. There within it lied a sold-out crowd, a raucous student section, a JuJu Smith-Schuster sighting, Kevin Colbert and Mel Blount courtside, hi-tech audio and visual displays, post-game fireworks, free giveaways and more.
It featured two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s college basketball scene under one roof, with the Colonials vying to knock off a local Power 5 school and begin its 2019-20 season with a bang. And aside from the game’s end result – a 71-57 loss to Pitt – there were quite a few reasons for anyone associated with the Robert Morris program to leave University Boulevard with a smile on their face and optimism for the future.
“I think it’s a breath of fresh air,” redshirt senior guard Josh Williams said. “A breath of new life. A great opportunity for us to start off in a new facility. A great way to honor those that came before us because they’re the reasons why this was put up.”
An 18-0 Robert Morris run in the first half that gave the Colonials an early nine-point lead over Pitt sparked an explosion within the building that created an atmosphere unseen in Moon Township since the NIT win over Kentucky – providing a glimpse of what Robert Morris games can potentially become in a new facility dedicated to the ultimate fan experience.
“I thought our students came out and supported the way we’d love them to support all the time,” said Toole. “I think this could become a great home court for us if we can get the campus and community support that I think these guys deserve. It was a fun environment for them to come and cheer and be connected as a university community. I think that’s something to build upon.”
Robert Morris is in the midst of its most successful stretch ever since Toole joined the program as an assistant under Mike Rice 12 years ago. In his nine years at the helm, the Colonials have earned two NCAA tournament berths, made four Northeast Conference championship appearances, and have won 63 percent (102-58) of their conference games. Oh, and they beat Kentucky – at home – on a nationally televised broadcast. Yet despite the sustained success, attendance support from students and fans alike hasn’t been there.
There isn’t a simple and straightforward solution to fixing the issue, and although the new arena is a large leap in the right direction, fan support ultimately comes down to one thing in particular.
“We’ve got to be able to execute and win games,” said junior guard Jon Williams. “Because that’s what’s going to bring people out – winning games. Nobody wants to come here and see you lose. We have to take that into consideration.”
Regardless of what happens in the future, Robert Morris can hang its hat on an incredible night for the program, university and Pittsburgh basketball community as a whole.
It certainly has been a long time coming.