The game’s the game, even when it’s played in an end zone.
That was the general sentiment among fans and players this weekend at the first basketball games played inside U.S. Bank Stadium.
Connor Bair, a senior forward at the University of St. Thomas, is the answer to the future trivia question of who scored the first basket there. The Prior Lake native made a layup in the Tommies’ game with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He also had the first dunk, near the end of the game.
“Once you start playing on the court with the lights shining on it, you don’t see anything else,” he said.
His teammate Michael Hannon, a senior guard from St. Paul, added, “You just focus on the rim.”
St. Thomas won the first game played on a 3-foot-high platform at the Vikings’ newish home, which opened in August 2016. The results mattered to the Tommies and the other teams who played Friday and Saturday nights, including the Golden Gophers, but the games counted even more as the NCAA-required warmup for the big dance — the three NCAA Final Four games that will be played in the darkened building April 6-8.
For the four games this weekend, the basketball court was nearly in the eastern end zone, perpendicular to the football field. The announced crowd of 12,357 was a fraction of the 70,000 expected for the Final Four games. The smaller crowd posed no problem for the building, which played host to the Super Bowl in February.
For the tournament games, the court will be placed at midfield and oriented the same as the Vikings’ field. The lights will be brighter, the $5 million blackout curtains will be in place, and the crowd will be louder and six times bigger.
To St. Thomas coach Johnny Tauer, the distractions of the once-in-a-lifetime game ended at tipoff. “It’s 94 feet by 50 feet, and that’s your focus,” he said.
A bonus: Beer
Fans appeared to enjoy themselves as well, lining up at the drink rail under the massive video screen, chowing down on nachos, burgers and fries washed down with beer or chatting with friends while tracking the action on the televisions ringing the concourses.
“If you’re a fan, you’re a fan and you’re going to love it,” said Joe Petrulo, a University of Minnesota alumnus who attends games at Williams Arena and came Friday night with his friends, all of them in Gophers shirts and jackets
Petrulo, 28, said the building didn’t have the intimacy, energy or noise of the Gophers’ true home court, Williams Arena, on the nearby campus, but he was forgiving. “Everyone here understands it’s a trial run,” he said, adding that the Gophers’ 83-76 victory over Oklahoma State made the venue’s shortcomings tolerable.
His friends, like many others, were enjoying readily available beers — unusual for a college game.
Sean Welch, another Gophers alum, was charging his cellphone and cracking open a can himself. “I like the beer being served; it makes a big difference,” he said, smiling.
While he enjoyed the evening, he wasn’t sure about returning for the Final Four. “We would see what tickets are available; it would also depend on the teams,” he said.
Petrulo was enthused about being in the building for the two Final Four semifinal games and the championship. “If I were here for the Final Four and it was packed and there were good teams playing, it would be awesome,” he said. “I’m a big Kansas Jayhawks fan, so if they’re here, I’ll be here.”
March Madness starts with 68 teams and is played over three weekends, culminating in 2019 on Monday, April 8. Nobody will know who’s playing in Minneapolis until the last weekend of March.
The Gophers, who defeated the Cowboys, all but shrugged off the new venue as just another court, though forward Amir Coffey called the atmosphere “exciting.”
‘A special night’
Even when the building was much quieter Friday night, the Tommies, many of whom grew up as Vikings fans, got what they called a surreal opportunity. The players said they’d had two shootarounds before the game, giving them a chance to settle in.
On their first visit, Tauer said he encouraged them to soak it in. “It’s a special night for these guys and they’ll never forget it,” he said.
Said Hannon: “We’re just excited to play, all of us; we love basketball.” His family has Vikings season tickets, but he had never been in the end zone before, and he knew right where he was going when he first took to the field a day before the game.
He sought out the spot where Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs made the catch that needs no further description for Minnesota sports fans. He smiled as he recalled the moment Thursday afternoon: “Right when we walked in, I found where he caught it on the field and I stood there a little bit and looked around.”