LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For a night in Louisville, it felt like old times. And maybe, it was a tipoff to some pretty good new times.
Before Tuesday night’s game against No. 4 Michigan, Louisville coach Chris Mack was told by a friend here in town that he was going to be introduced to the Louisville fan base, finally, in full force. And he said, "I can't wait."
The university pulled out every stop it had to pack an arena that hasn’t been packed for some time. It declared a "white out." It reduced upper-deck seats to $10. It promoted a halftime ceremony with former Final Four Most Outstanding Players Luke Hancock and Darrell Griffith to unveil a banner in their honor (and that of Pervis Ellison).
And, for just the second time since the 2016-17 season, attendance broke the 21,000 mark with a crowd of 21,674. (U of L averaged just under 21,000 in the 2016-17 season, the last season before the college basketball pay-for-play scandal broke.)
The crowd was engaged. It swallowed up ESPN’s Dick Vitale pregame. It came with signs and at least one championship banner. At one point down the stretch with the Cards surging, Mack raised his right hand, like an orchestra conductor, and the roar rose as the team dug in on defense.
"I am happy for our fan base," Mack said. "They've gone through hell and back, and for them to be able to enjoy nights like this, with the three guys honored at halftime. Yeah, it makes me happy."
But it was about more than that. A lot of the players in that locker room have been through hell and back, too. For many of those same players, who stuck it out at Louisville after Rick Pitino was let go, who stayed and played hard for David Padgett, to now be able to experience that atmosphere again, the atmosphere they came here to play in front of, was a fitting thing.
"I can sense how hungry our team is in the locker room," Mack said. "We knew it'd be a big game. Our guys hear the noise. They hear we haven't played anybody, whatever our schedule's ranked. They have a belief in themselves."
What they couldn’t hear was Hancock and Griffith at halftime, as a banner was unveiled in the rafters that honors Louisville’s three Final Four Most Outstanding Players but, just as important, acknowledges the now-vacated 2013 NCAA championship. Many of the fans in attendance, no doubt, haven’t been back since that title was vacated, frustrated with the whole thing.
Those fans heard the greatest Cardinal, Darrell Griffith, speak into a microphone and say, "The NCAA may not recognize the 2013 championship, but we will. . . . It's our championship. Whatever the NCAA wants to do, we're going to recognize it here at home as the 2013 NCAA Champions."
Later, Hancock said, on behalf of his 2013 teammates. "We hope it's kind of the first step, but any way our team can be recognized, that’s what we want, because we deserve it, those guys deserve it. And if this is kind of a first step or even if it's all we get, you know, it's something."
Times in college basketball are changing. Crowds are dwindling. Even the University of Kentucky has downsized Rupp Arena. The KFC Yum! Center now is the largest arena in the state, and last night’s crowd will be one of the largest of the season in this state.
The ease of staying home, avoiding the traffic and parking, the better view on television, all are competing for the loyalty of fans.
But maybe on Tuesday night, U of L reminded many of its fans that there’s fun in being a part of what’s going on inside the building.
Regardless, Mack has now met the full force of the Louisville fan base. I'm sure he hopes, it won’t be a stranger, as his team begins what could be a serious pursuit of another banner.
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