In days of yore, Hofheinz Pavilion would've been filled to overflowing for a game pitting UH against nationally ranked UConn. In days past, students would've been camped out overnight for the chance to spend a New Year's Eve cheering on the Cougars as a national audience watched on ESPN 2.
That was before lackluster basketball season after lackluster season. Before Guy V. Lewis gave way to Pat Foster to Alvin Brooks to Clyde Drexler to Ray McCallum to Tom Penders to James Dickey. Back to the days when Houston itself was a national power going to three straight Final Fours. But that was a long time ago, and now the Coogs are in a new conference with some national basketball powers and ESPN is televising the conference games, all of the conference games, and nobody's coming to Hofheinz to watch a UH basketball team that's struggled to defeat Texas State and Howard and Rice face off against the 17th-ranked UConn Huskies on New Year's Eve.
Hofheinz Pavilion was a ghost town on Tuesday night, and that's a shame because those lucky few who were in attendance (and those not watching the Aggies versus Duke on ESPN) saw the Cougars play their best basketball game of the James Dickey era, upsetting UConn by a 75-71 score. It's a game no one saw coming. Certainly not the fans. Certainly not those watching on ESPN 2. Certainly not the coach and players of UConn, and if they were to answer candidly, it's definitely not even something the Cougars saw coming.
The Cougars improved to 9-5 for the season by playing a perfect first half of basketball for the 46-28 lead. The defense swarmed over UConn. The Cougars shot 59.3 percent from the field, including an astounding 62.5 percent (5 of 8) from three-point range. UConn coach Kevin Ollie called timeout after timeout, attempting but failing to stem the tide. The Cougars could do no wrong, hitting from inside, from outside, making the right passes, defending the correct lanes.
"They came in and played, and they beat us in every area," UConn's Ollie said. "Coach (James) Dickey had his team ready to play. We knew that. I was telling the guys we're going to get everybody's best punch. They have to understand that. They didn't understand that, and then we got down, and then we tried to start playing. That's our story."
UConn fought back in the second half, playing as a nationally ranked team should play while the Cougars played the way they'd played the entire season, like a team that'd recently escaped the cellar of Conference USA for the blinding lights of the American Athletic Conference. UH bent, and bent often before actually breaking and surrendering what appeared to be an insurmountable lead. But with the game on the line, it was UConn that wilted, missing on a long-range three pointer that led to UH free throws and the lead with just seconds remaining in the game.
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"We didn't play great for a full 40 minutes, but the first half was as well as we've played in a long time," UH's Dickey said. "We talked the entire portion of halftime about that being the most insignificant stat there is: the halftime score. We knew they would make a run, but we didn't want them to make a run to let them take the go-ahead three. Then down the stretch we had a lot of guys make plays. It took a total team effort. Really proud of our guys. We beat an outstanding team."
But of course, with no one there to witness the game, did it really happen? Official attendance was stated as 4,035, a figure that appeared to be inflated by about 3,000 people. And while it's easy to jump on the UH faithful for not being faithful and not showing up, the truth of the matter is much different. Except for some brief shining moments at the end of the Tom Penders era, UH has been a nonentity in basketball, and it's hard to expect, to demand, that the fans keep attending, to keep cheering, to keep caring.
Dickey took time to thank those who attended on a New Year's Eve when the Rockets were playing down the street and the Aggies were on TV and there were so many fun things to actually be doing. And perhaps things would've been different were the game not played on New Year's Eve. Or played at 8 p.m. But the new reality is that the Cougars are playing in a new conference in which ESPN dictates all game times, so just as with football, it's no longer about fan convenience, it's about TV programming, and the Cougars are now just fodder for empty ESPN time slots.
In years past, none of this would've mattered. Hofheinz would've been packed no matter the night, no matter the holiday, no matter the game time. But years of bad basketball have led to disinterest and apathy. Defeating a nationally ranked college power is a good start. There have been good starts in the past, though. UH needs to actually carry through with the start. Perhaps a win at Hofheinz over Cincinnati next Tuesday might help.