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Panther ticket madness

Fans' extreme measures unnecessary for opener

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There were two kinds of March Madness simultaneously percolating at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center early yesterday morning.

Todd Booker, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, sleeps on two chairs while waiting for student tickets for the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament to go on sale yesterday at the Petersen Events Center in Oakland. Booker, of Philadelphia, had been camped out since Monday night. Tickets to the first game, scheduled for Friday night against Wagner College at the FleetCenter in Boston, were not that hard to come by. Only 20 students lined up for the 120 student tickets that were available. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Some students were mad with anticipation for the ticket office to open at 8 a.m. so they could snag tickets for the FleetCenter in Boston, where the Pitt Panthers will play Friday in the opening round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

But there also was a little madness -- the miffed kind -- when the 10 or so Pitt hoop diehards who had camped out all night on the center's lobby floor looked behind them to discover only a few others in line. In fact, 10 minutes after the ticket office opened, only 20 of the 120 available student tickets had been sold and no one else was waiting.

That was surprising, because Pitt students have strongly supported this year's team, even before the season began. For Midnight Madness, the official kickoff of basketball practice Oct. 12, nearly 3,000 students stood for 2 1/2 hours in a ticket-lottery line that stretched all the way from the brand new events center down Cardiac Hill to Fifth Avenue.

"I could have slept in," lamented a sleepy-eyed Matt Cohen, who two years ago with friend Zack Hale rounded up eight of their friends and formed the now famous "Oakland Zoo" cheering section.

Hale, slumped in a chair in line near the large Pitt Panther logo in the lobby, glanced at empty food boxes, rumpled sleeping bags and bleary-eyed students and deadpanned, "It's not as comfortable as it looks."

"The floor's hard and they turned on the air conditioning in the middle of the night," added original Zoo member Kim Price, who sat wrapped in a blue Pitt Panther blanket at the front of the line as fellow Zoo original Steve Bruno stood next to her.

The group had arrived at the center at 10 p.m. Monday with sleeping bags, food, camping chairs and an 80-foot extension cord to power a laptop on which they played DVDs. Also in the lobby is a gigantic video screen, the last remnant of Pitt Stadium, on whose site the center was built. All night it was tuned to ESPN, but it provided little diversion because the sound was muted.

No matter.

"We're such good students, between talking and the movies, we all had our books open," Price said.

They were good enough to share with the half-dozen other loyal student fans their viewing of the DVDs "The Others" and "A Knight's Tale," the latter title apropos of Pitt star Brandin Knight.

Some in line theorized that the low turnout yesterday was because students were saving their money in hopes of seeing Pitt's first-ever appearance in the Final Four, scheduled for the Louisiana Superdome next month.

Tickets are $50 each for Friday's game against No. 15-seed Wagner and, if Pitt wins, another $50 for Sunday's game against Indiana or Alabama.

"This just goes to show who the true fans are, not the people who just reacted to the novelty of the Petersen Events Center but those who spent the night," proclaimed Ryan Pankiewicz, a junior from Charleroi, who was surprisingly upbeat -- or punchy -- after arriving at 11:30 p.m. Monday and staying awake all night.

He hadn't figured out how he's getting to Boston, but he had the outline of a plan:

"Get the tickets, get the housing, then figure out how to get there."

Perhaps the most clever ticket buyers were graduate students C.J. Miller and John Bendick, who confidently arrived about the time the line opened at 7:55 a.m. They knew there wouldn't be a problem because friends -- true friends -- Fernando Aguel and Brad Golish got there at 12:30 a.m. and promised they'd call if the line grew dangerously large.

"We're good guys," a good-natured if ragged Golish said of Aguel and himself. "We take the bullet for everybody else."

The time passed -- eventually.

"We read USA Today -- I could probably tell you everything that's in USA Today. We watched eight episodes of 'SportsCenter' without the sound. We got pretty good at reading lips," said Golish, who like his friends is a grad student in his seventh year at Pitt.

"We decided we couldn't leave until Pitt wins a national championship in something," he said, smiling broadly. "We hope to give it a shot this year. Not that we want to get out of here, but we want them to win."

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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