Pitt basketball fans a no-show this time

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When Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel gets the biggest cheer at a Pitt home basketball game against a Big East Conference opponent in a football season when the Steelers get Tebowed by the Denver Broncos in one of the worst playoff losses in franchise history, you know it's not a typical night at Petersen Events Center.

I mean, really.

No, there will be no wise-guy jokes here about Pitt taking nearly a full month to finally win a league game. It worked hard and took down Providence, 86-74, Wednesday night to end an eight-game losing streak and move into a tie for 15th place with Providence at 1-7 in the 16-team conference. Guards Ashton Gibbs and Tray Woodall led the way -- how long have you been waiting to hear that? -- by combining for 39 points, 13 assists and just two turnovers. The two didn't just put on a nice show; they provided at least some hope that better days are ahead for a Pitt program that won the Big East regular-season championship just last season.

But the atmosphere ...

It was hard to believe it was The Pete.

It was sad, actually. We're talking about a spectacular building in which Pitt has given fans as much entertainment value for their sporting dollars -- if not more -- than the Steelers and Penguins. If you bought a ticket, you almost were guaranteed to see a win in a throbbing environment -- as good as any in college basketball -- and were sure to go home with the crowd noise vibrating in your ears. Coming into the season, its 10th in the arena, Pitt had a 149-12 home record.

So Pitt loses five times in its first 12 games this season at Petersen Events Center and this is the result?

You easily could count the number of people sitting in the 100 courtside seats in the 12 luxury boxes. The Oakland Zoo -- the arena's famed student section -- was only a third full despite tweets earlier in the day urging kids to get off their "arse" and come out to support their struggling team. Eight minutes into the game, ushers still were moving fans down from the upper levels to make the lower bowl full. That might have happened over the years for some of the one-sided non-conference games against the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Houston Baptist and Maryland-Baltimore County, but I can't remember seeing it at a Big East game. I also can't remember coach Jamie Dixon nearly begging -- OK, lobbying -- for the fans to come out, as he did Jan. 16 after Pitt's loss at Syracuse. He and his program have been much too successful to have to do that.

Pitt has sold out every game at the 12,508-seat Petersen Events Center, a streak of 174 games. The announced attendance for the Providence game was 10,049. I could have sworn there were more empty seats.

It's just further proof of how hard Pitt has it in a pro sports town. The Steelers and Penguins will continue to sell out if they have a few bad years in a row, not that either team is likely to face hard times anytime soon. That isn't the case with Pitt. With football, it's understandable. Pitt hasn't lost fewer than three games in any season since 1981 and has been mediocre in many of those years. It also plays in an off-campus stadium, Heinz Field. But this has to be a lot harder for Pitt officials to swallow with basketball. The Pete is terrific. The basketball program has been terrific in it, the best in the Big East, at least during the regular season.

That's a pretty tough crowd to please.

Maybe this win against Providence will win some people back for the home game Saturday afternoon against Georgetown. Pitt is a different, better team with a healthy Woodall, who played just his second game after missing 11 of the previous 12 with an abdominal injury. He made 6 of his 8 shots, including all four of his 3-point shots. He also had nine assists.

That seemed to energize Gibbs, who has shot the ball terribly much of the season. During a 3:05 stretch late in the first half, he made a jump shot and four consecutive 3-pointers to help Pitt turn a 30-24 lead into 44-29.

Usually that kind of sequence would have had The Pete rocking.

Not so much this time.

The big roar went to the still-bearded Keisel, who was sitting midcourt, front row, with Steelers teammate Casey Hampton. During a timeout midway through the second half, he took a T-shirt that the two had autographed, walked to center court and played both sides of the arena against each other, pretending as if he would throw it to the loudest fans. In the end, he picked a spot in the Oakland Zoo and let loose with a toss that would have made quarterback Ben Roethlisberger proud.

Good thing Keisel was so accurate.

On this night, The Zoo didn't make much of a target.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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