You never see ticket scalpers outside Sewall Center Arena on Robert Morris game days. The building only holds 3,056 people, and tickets are not in high demand. Parking is rarely an issue. And don’t worry about saving seats; you will probably be able to sit wherever you want.
The scene last night—as the Colonials downed the Kentucky Wildcats, 59-57, in a first-round NIT game—looked like Sewall was hosting the NCAA finals. Scalpers were out in full force. Almost every lot (and there are a lot of them) on the university’s campus was full. Finding seating was damn near impossible thanks to the 3,444 basketball enthusiasts who were part of the largest crowd in school history.
It was hard not to be struck by the ridiculousness of the situation in Moon Township, 20 minutes from Downtown Pittsburgh. John Calipari’s Kentucky squad was the defending NCAA Tournament champion and yet could not put together a Big Dance-worthy season in SEC competition. The Wildcats were relegated to the NIT, where they drew Robert Morris in the first round. Ironically, Rupp Arena was not available for the game because it is to be the site of second- and third-round men’s NCAA tournament games later this week.
Talk about adding insult to insult.
At least Calipari was coming home. He grew up “two 7-irons” away from Sewall and said he has “spent more time on this campus than students who have gone here for four years.” His grandmother used to work in the cafeteria.
Calipari knows Robert Morris intimately and was probably thrilled to learn that if he could not play at Rupp, at least he could have a homecoming of sorts. It was not the kind of return during which anyone was happy to see him, but it was a homecoming nonetheless.
Robert Morris treated this home game like Jackie Moon treated the Flint Michigan Megabowl in Semi-Pro. It almost made not receiving an NCAA Tournament bid worth it for the Northeast conference regular-season champions. Students came out in full force wearing Colonial red and blue, some even going shirtless and painting themselves red on a frigid, windy night. The mascot did some vertical crowd surfing, which was impressive until the students dropped him.
None of this phased Kentucky, which averages more fans per game (23,099) than Robert Morris managed to attract to all 15 of its home games this season (15,692). Heck, more people show up to a Kentucky preseason scrimmage than to an entire Robert Morris season that included crowds as low as 230.
“The crowd affected us a little, but not that much,” freshman Kentucky guard Archie Goodwin said after the game.
If the crowd was not getting to Goodwin and his teammates, something was. The Colonials started the game on a 10-0 run and never looked back while downing the Wildcats.
“This is crazy, just crazy,” said senior Robert Morris guard Velton Jones, summing up the feeling at Sewall as they stormed the court after Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer missed what would have been a game-winning three.
The Colonials won with a combination of stifling physical defense and lights-out three-point shooting. Goodwin may deny it, but the fans were in it from the beginning and never lost steam. Up 53-49 with 3:52 left to play, they started a “we can do this” chant that must have at least spurred coach Andy Toole’s underdogs.
Calipari was understandably not happy with the team he felt “hijacked” the coaches early in the season.
“We deserve to be where we are,” he said. “[Robert Morris] deserved to win the game. If we had won, it would’ve been a shame.”
He stressed that just because this was a lost season for Kentucky, there is no reason to hit the panic button yet.
“We have something to prove,” he said. “If there are any doubters have at it. This program’s in great shape.”
So are the Colonials. In fact, it is safe to say they have never been better. Toole called the victory “the greatest consolation prize you could probably have.”
He is selling his team’s accomplishment short. Taking out one of the most heralded teams in the country and making people care about the NIT is much more than 15 minutes of fame. It is history. And nothing can ever erase history.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand.