Pitt fans' spirit gives team a boost in big basketball victory

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It was all about revenge.

Not that artificial sweetener-no carb type of revenge, but that pure cane sugar-high fructose-all carb kind of revenge.

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Members of the "Oakland Zoo" cheer their team as Pitt defeated Connecticut yesterday, 75-68.
Click photo for larger image.

And it was sweet, indeed.

The University of Pittsburgh basketball team's 75-68 victory over the University of Connecticut yesterday avenged its 68-65 loss to the Huskies Jan. 19 in Hartford. It also was a salve to the sting of a loss a couple of years back.

"They stole it from us two years ago," said sophomore Brian Francis, 17, a journalism major from the Bronx, N.Y., who believes the Panthers haven't received the respect due them from other teams in the conference. "It's important that we make a strong statement and make them realize we're a force to be reckoned with."

It was a battle for the No. 1 ranking in the Big East conference, bragging rights, and the intimidation edge in future conference and NCAA tournament meetings.

"People realize this year our team is better than last year and we could win the whole thing," said former Pitt football player Chuck "the Kamikaze Kid" Bonasorte as he sold Pitt T-shirts and blue-and-gold Oakland Zoo fright wigs at the Pittsburgh Stop stand at De Soto and O'Hara streets in Oakland before the game. "We have that capability for the first time ever."

Temperatures had barely cracked 20 degrees as game time neared. It was a skin-cracking chill that made the eyes water, but no one heading into the game seemed to mind.

"My adrenaline is pumpin' so hard, I ain't even cold," said Bonasorte, a member of the 1976 Pitt National Championship football team.

"Get the wigs while they last," he told the crowds making their way to the stadium.

In crisp air under a blue sky, thousands of Pitt men's basketball fans trudged up the front stairs of the Petersen Events Center yesterday to see No. 4-ranked Pitt take on Connecticut. Fans were lined up three to four hours ahead of tip-off rather than the usual two hours. By twos, threes, fours and more, they came -- some in wheelchairs, some with canes -- hoping this game would be the all-important next step toward a trip to the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio.

"I just like to watch basketball," said one elderly season ticket holder who walked slowly but with great purpose with her metal cane. "I like the little guy that plays for Pitt."

It was the hottest ticket in town, with sets of tickets on eBay listed anywhere from $50 to $600 the weekend before the game. Ticket scalpers were out in full force, wearing their "I Need Tickets" signs and cutting deals in the shadow of the Pete.

"Wouldn't you rather sell them to students?" said Megan Kelley, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a ticket scalper as they both leaned into the open window of a car in which two men were trying to sell two game tickets.

In the end, the men didn't care for Kelley's $200 offer or even the scalper's bid at $250. Her boyfriend, Mark Esterheld, 26, of the South Side, was somewhat dismayed because he recognized one of the men in the car as a former high school basketball coach of his. But his old coach showed no favoritism for him on that day.

"It all comes down to money," said Kelley, 26, of the South Side, now an elementary school teacher.

Undaunted, they continued their quest.

"Anybody want to sell tickets? $200," she said.

Ticket scalpers reported business was "going good, REAL GOOD!"

A man who identified himself only as Scalper Dan said ticket scalpers were working every corner within a quarter-mile radius of the Pete and getting upwards of $100 a ticket.

If the team came to play, the fans -- all 12,508 of them -- came to froth their team into a frenzy, screaming and yelling them to victory. Once inside, it was Panther Pandemonium, a constant cacophonous thunder of sound. The Oakland Zoo, the student booster group some 800-plus strong, was a sea of gold, filling the first six to eight rows of seats halfway around the court.

"No one escapes the Oakland Zoo," read one sign.

"You missed it! You missed it!" Zoo member Francis yelled, then chuckled after a UConn player's shot didn't drop.

Shouts of "Let's Go Pitt! Let's Go Pitt!" and "Defense! Defense!" filled the air. The crowd roared almost nonstop and fell momentarily silent only when Connecticut scored.

"Oh my gosh, it's incredible," said Oakland Zoo member Michelle Brito, 21, a communications major from Kutztown, Berks County. "I'm not going to have a voice tomorrow, but it's great to see us play so well against a team so highly regarded."

There were the three shirtless guys in blue-and-gold body paint and metallic blue-and-gold wigs with the letters of a certain Magic Kingdom network on their chests, hoping to get on national TV.

There were acrobatic cheerleaders and the rhinestoned dance team members who wore blue velvet and shook pompoms that looked like oversized gold Christmas ribbons. The Pitt mascot high-fived crowd members and did some bad-but-loveable break dancing during time outs. The band -- horns, woodwinds and drums -- rocked hard, swinging their instruments from side to side to the beat of the music.

"Seven, six, five, four," yelled the crowd, shouting out the seconds ticking off the shot clock until a Pitt player scored.

Everybody loves a winner and several local dignitaries were on hand for the game including former Pittsburgh City Council President Bob O'Connor, Steelers coach Bill Cowher, former Steeler Mel Blount and former NBA star and Penn State Altoona basketball coach Armon Gilliam, to name a few.

"One of the reasons it's so hard [for Pitt opponents] to win here is because the fans are so dedicated," said Brito, a junior communications major.

After players made a big shot, they turned to the crowd, clenched their fists in victory and screamed.

"They're pumped because they know we're pumped for them," Brito said.

A sign hanging from the club level seats said it all:

"You Can't Beat Pitt at the Pete!"

L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.


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