PITTSBURGH — For the first time in a long time, the Petersen Events Center got loud on Friday night.
The building wasn’t near full, with a paid attendance of just over 10,000. A solid quarter of those in attendance were cheering for the other Gold and Blue, as members of an invading West Virginia Mountaineers nation. But it was loud.
At least since before the pandemic, and probably for a little while before that, the Pitt basketball team played a game worth getting excited about.
The Oakland Zoo arrived early, with some students camping out hours before the game to get a good seat. The gold-clad cadre of undergrads wasn’t as rowdy as it was in its heyday, but the students showed up and made their presence felt.
“They have been outstanding so far,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “They were here early. They were in the lobby. They were standing in the rain, all of those things. We’re incredibly grateful for it.”
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) November 11, 2022
During the frenetic start to the game, when both teams made basket after basket, the decibels climbed in a building that has sat far too dormant for far too long.
I’ve had the unique perspective of covering more bad basketball games at Petersen Events Center than just about anyone. The early days of my time on the Pitt beat coincided with the end of the Jamie Dixon era, when Pitt would play the lightest possible home schedule year-in and year-out.
Big games, if there were any, in the non-conference schedule, were played in New York or Hawaii or even an aircraft carrier in Japan, but rarely at the home of Pitt Basketball.
Since then, things have gotten worse. There have been some bigger games scheduled at the Pete. But the Pitt basketball team has not inspired much confidence against even middling teams in that time.
To say that things have not gone well for Jeff Capel would be a massive understatement, but he has put together a team that appears to be worthy of some excitement. Blake Hinson showed what he can do in the opener. Nelly Cummings is a Pittsburgh-tough guard that probably played it a little too tough against the Mountaineers and got himself into foul trouble as a result. John Hugley, whenever he gets back into the lineup, could be a star.
The college basketball season is a long one, probably too long. For the teams like those Dixon-era Panthers that figure to play deep into March, a sleepy November might not be a big deal.
But for Pitt, with no certainty of playing meaningful games late into a daunting ACC slate, the opportunity to connect with the fanbase is hugely important. They need moments like the first five minutes of Friday’s game.
“The atmosphere was crazy,” guard Greg Elliott said. “It was a great crowd to play in front of.”
Pitt didn’t take advantage of that crowd on Friday night, getting run out of the building in the second half after a competitive first 20 minutes. But it was a strong sign that if they can get the program back to where it needs to be on the court — and continue scheduling meaningful games at the Pete throughout the calendar — that the fans will come back to the team.
“(I’m) just disappointed that our performance wasn’t deserving of the energy they gave,” Capel said. “Grateful for that and hopeful, that’s something that continues.”
There’s too much history in this program — this building — to let the memory of what Pitt basketball has been and can be fade. Friday was a good reminder. The pressure will be on Capel to prove that his team can perform up to the level of his crowd going forward.