There was a buzz in the Yuengling Center on Wednesday night.
The men’s basketball edition of the War on I-4 meant something.
While UCF beat USF 75-63, it was the first time in a long time that it felt competitive.
And why not? The Bulls, who entered the night 18-9 (7-7) had a team that could compete with the school out east — and students have noticed.
“It’s the culture — the rivalry,” said Heath Rinkus, a graduate student who is frequent at USF games of all sports. “If you’re going to go to any game, it should be against your rival.”
The good news is students, among others, turned out Wednesday night. USF announced a season-high attendance of 7,231, with another season-high 1,613 of them being student tickets.
In fact, Wednesday’s attendance was the second-highest since the Yuengling Center reopened in 2012 after a $35 million dollar renovation. The only higher number was the actual night the arena reopened — also against UCF.
“Hopefully it’s a glimpse of where we can get to as we continue to grow and build our program,” coach Brian Gregory said. “And hopefully that will be a nightly occurrence. When I envision the program that we’re going to build here, I see that — I see those types of crowds on a nightly basis.”
As the program continues to rebuild, students find it important that their classmates continue to support the team.
“It’s very important,” said Charles Held, a freshman who attended Wednesday's game as the “F” in a three-man bare-chested ensemble that spelled out “U-S-F.” “It definitely creates a better environment for the games and definitely for the players and the rest of the fans.
“It’s better if the students do come out and try and fill up the student section.”
Natasha Menses, a freshman, echoed Rinkus and Held and added that a good turnout is critical to helping player performance.
“I think it’s very important because it gives the basketball players motivation and they want to perform well for their school,” Meneses said.
And filled up the student section was.
The section was rocking — everyone in the lower half stood for the majority of the game, chanting when necessary, silent when USF was attempting a free throw.
And it made a difference.
“The fans really helped us today,” sophomore guard Justin Brown said. “They were loud — they brought a lot of energy for us. It was really great to see all them in the stands. Just wish we could have got a win for them of course, but I hope they keep coming.”
Make no mistake, Wednesday was not an exception to the rule. Attendance for men’s basketball games is up on the season.
“The last I checked, we were 48 percent on last year coming into the night,” Vice President of Athletics Michael Kelly said. “I haven’t seen the final numbers yet, but clearly it seems to be the best crowd of the year so far and I’m really proud of the way the students, in particular, tonight, and the city as a whole, have come out.”
For its part, USF Athletics has done what it takes to entice student turnout at games. Wednesday’s game featured the opportunity for students to enter for an expenses-paid spring break trip to the Bahamas.
The trip is being paid for by Tampa Bay Entertainment Properties’ multimedia rights in an effort to show appreciation to USF students who come out to games. Tampa Bay Entertainment Properties is the company that directly runs the Yuengling Center for USF Athletics.
“What we’re really trying to do is continue to show appreciation for the student body here,” said Bill Abercrombie, executive vice president of Tampa Bay Entertainment Properties. “Obviously, we’ve had a successful basketball season and we’re going to continue to drive that home for the rest of the year and get student attendance up — which has been very good for this year … we wanted to finish the season strong and show our appreciation for the student body here.”
At the end of the day, the Bulls may not have earned the win, and only one student will eventually take the cruise to the Bahamas. But no matter what, finally, the War on I-4 meant something on the hardwood.
“They’re the fake national champions and everything — you have to take them,” graduate student Adam Swanson said before the game.
The trash talk was real.
The rivalry was real.
The attendance showed it.