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Published: Thursday, 12/4/2008

Traffic jam at UT music to the ears

It was 40 minutes before last night's tipoff and there was a conga line of headlights as far as you could see at the University of Toledo's entrances off Bancroft and Douglas.

The last traffic jam for a weeknight basketball game at UT? Good question. We're talking gridlock, a good old road-rager, the kind where you want to pull up against the curb, lock the doors and walk the rest of the way, the kind that causes fans to continue streaming into the gym midway through the first half.

I'm guessing Dec. 9, 1998, when Xavier played at Savage Hall four nights after the Rockets defeated Ohio State on the same floor.

It may not take that long for the next one.

Toledoans, ranging from the staunchest of UT fans to the merely curious, flocked to opening night for the renovated Savage Arena. The packed house numbered 7,252 and the only empty seats were a sliver of a section behind one bench reserved for fans of the visiting team.

That was the University of Massachusetts, which dropped a 57-56 thriller to UT when Justin Anyijong grabbed an offensive rebound for the Rockets and guided it through at the buzzer, setting off a raucous celebration as the student sections emptied along each baseline and rushed the floor.

Maybe nobody told them UMass is now 1-5. But maybe they could not have cared less. It was a night, a game, a finish that demanded some histrionics.

Truthfully, win or no win, the Rockets have a way to go to catch up to their new digs. But when they get there the place will absolutely rock on a regular basis the way it did so many times last night, especially when Anyijong ended it in breath-taking fashion.

The last time there was this kind of excitement around these parts for an indoor sporting venue was, well, the first time this building opened.

It was called Centennial Hall back in 1976 when the defending national champion, Indiana, helped the Rockets open their spanking new facility. Bob Nichols was on the bench for Toledo that night and he got the better of Bobby Knight by a 59-57 count. Of course, Nichols used to get the better of just about everybody.

He was back on the floor last night, both literally and figuratively. The winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history stood by as the words "Bob Nichols Court" were unveiled to a standing ovation during a brief pre-game ceremony.

"This is just incredible," Nichols said, his eyes darting around the new arena, part of a $30 million project. "It's hard to remember what might have been going through my head 30-some years ago, but I imagine I was probably thinking how far we'd come."

A lot of Rocket fans in the building last night might have had the same thought because, capacity aside, they were sitting in an arena as nice as any in college athletics.

"Back in the '70s, the new building helped us further develop our program," Nichols said. "With the new court and the big crowds, when a game started, we had the confidence so that we never backed down from anybody. I hope this building does the same thing for this program."

So does Gene Cross. Nichols coached 588 games during his UT career. Cross has coached seven so far in his. No matter what the final total proves to be, he'll never forget last night.

"That was almost story book," he said of the finish. "It was almost the same score [as UT-Indiana] even. The whole night, but especially the way it ended, that was so fitting for our guys and for these fans.

"In the last timeout, I looked them in the eye and said, 'There is absolutely no way we're going to let this one get away. This is our house and we protect our house.'•"

Darn fine house, too.

Worth protecting. And well worth visiting.

Two little boys, jumping around and walking at the same time as little boys tend to do, headed toward the exit holding hands with their father, one on each side, like stereo.

"Daddy, can we come to the next game? When's the next game, daddy? Can we daddy?"

Ah, yes, that's what has been missing.

That and the traffic jam.



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