Since the doors opened on what was then simply known as the Shoemaker Center in 1989 the number 13,176 has held special meaning for Cincinnati basketball fans.
That was no more evident than Thursday night as the Bearcats played in front of a full house as they knocked off the Louisville Cardinals 60-56.
While there have been 13,176 in attendance five other times since Mick Cronin took over the program in April of 2006, there was something different this time. Something electric that hasn't filled the air at the now Fifth Third Arena.
From a raucous student section to season ticket holders to the walk up customers that filled the not so luxurious upper deck corners the place was fully engaged from the opening tip to the final horn and beyond.
As someone that was going to games with my dad when the building opened, that feeling that existed through the heart of the Huggins years was finally back on display.
And make no mistake, it had an impact on the court. Cincinnati took a body blow early in the 2nd half, and at times it looked like the Cardinals just might pull away. The team, fueled by the fans just wouldn't let it happen.
By the time Dion Dixon threw home a powerhouse dunk to regain the lead the roof was ready to blow off the building, and the crowd was almost exclusively on its feet until the final second ticked away and the Bearcats rushed the student section to celebrate.
In the sleepless hours after the game I wondered why this felt so different than the previous 5 packed houses since Cronin took over. Sadly, yes. Just 5 times at 13,176 since November of 2006.
No question the close game throughout and often questionable officiating helped build the intensity, but it wasn't just that.
The huge 22 point performance by Cashmere Wright can't be discounted as the roar after each of his 6 made three point shots grew louder.
How about Justin Jackson and his Eric Hicks like effort in the final 10 minutes as he threw his body all over the court with reckless abandon, and when he had a moment pounding his chest at the student section as his emotion overflowed.
Then it really started to dawn on me. After 7 years of a fan base fractured, and emotionally weary of buying back in to what UC was selling, just maybe the corner has been turned.
So the next logical question is why. Why did things change so suddenly, and where did it start?
Obviously winning on the court against high powered opponents is the largest slice of the pie. Cincinnati is notorious for being slow to buy in as a sports city over the years, and after a total rebuilding process in the wake of firing Huggins the casual fan checked out.
The final push to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Cronin exactly one year ago was a start in the right direction. Even then, though, the only two times 13,176 was hit were for games against Xavier and Huggins trip back to town coaching West Virginia.
Late season games against Louisville, UConn and Gerogetown hovered abound 12,000, but not even Senior Night against the Hoyas to honor a team pretty much locked in to make it to the NCAA Tournament filled the place.
So it can't just be the winning, right? This team has had its ups and downs, and isn't going to land a #1 seed in just over 2 weeks.
So I kept rolling back, and it started to become clear.
Maybe it started with the departure of the ultimate villain in Nancy Zimpher. The first line of resentment for many packed her bags for SUNY, and the University hired Gregory Williams to take her spot.
Williams is a sports guy, and there was an immediate sense that maybe things were starting to move in the right direction. The former athlete at Muncie Central (IN) was going to look after the Bearcats, and not treat athletics as an afterthought.
Certainly a step in the right direction.
It took a while for the next step, but late in 2011 the news hit that AD Mike Thomas was leaving for Illinois. While Thomas certainly had his positives, he lacked in several areas that seemingly stunted the ability to turn the casual fan back into paying customers.
Enter Whit Babcock as his replacement, and almost instantly there was a different feel around the athletic family at UC. From sitting in the press room after basketball games patiently waiting to chat for a few minutes with Cronin before they headed home to roaming every corner of Fifth Third Arena during games to get a feel for the land, he was visable.
It was no longer a faceless operation operating well enough to tread water in big boy athletics. There was some substance brewing that hadn't been felt since Huggins was forced out the door.
That was followed by a renewed marketing effort that saw the “Happy Hour” promotions in the ticket office where exclusive deals were offered to try and put fans back in the seats.
Then there was the Liberty Bowl surprise as UC fans that bought tickets to the New Years Eve Bowl Game in Memphis received a pair of tickets to see the basketball team take on either Seton Hall or DePaul for free in a gesture of remarkable customer service.
It was all starting to add up. The bad taste left lingering for many were starting to diminish.
The team was playing hard, and recovered from the ugly incident across town on December 10th.
The athletic department was once again making an effort to create an atmosphere at games. The team was starting to feel a true home court advantage once again.
Thursday night it all came together in what was a true showcase of UC basketball. It took a while to get there, but the fun was back once again.
It was a turning point. Without question. Now its time for another one against Marquette on Wednesday, February 29th. Senior night against a team the Bearcats will be looking to knock off after a bad showing earlier this month in Milwaukee.
Momentum is an amazing thing as long as it's maintained. See you there.
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