Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Arena adds to big night

That was big time.

From the building to the fans to the atmosphere, everything about Wichita State's basketball game against Tulsa on Tuesday night at Intrust Bank Arena was big time.

In the arena's christening as a basketball venue (sorry Harlem Globetrotters, you don't count), the arena was the star. Which is saying something, considering Tulsa and Wichita State played one of the best basketball games of the season, with the Shockers rallying late to pull out an 82-79 win.

"If you didn't come to Intrust tonight because it was Intrust and your seats weren't good, you missed a great game,'' Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said.

There had been some sniping from Shocker basketball fans about the seating arrangement at Intrust, an unavoidable issue because of the difference in size and configuration compared to Koch Arena, the Shockers' on-campus home.

But just having a seat for this game should have been enough. It was another TU-WSU classic that leaves the all-time series tied 60-60. Dormant for six years, the Shockers and Golden Hurricane picked right up where they left off, playing a back and forth, knock-down, drag-out game that left Marshall with cotton mouth.

He had trouble speaking during his postgame meeting with the media until someone kindly brought him a bottle of water. When he did talk, he was effusive about the night, the game and the building.

"Quite a basketball game,'' Marshall said. "Unbelievable atmosphere and unbelievable performances on both sides. It's a rivalry we certainly need to be playing.''

A crowd of 14,112, around 3,500 more than can fit into Koch and the largest to see a WSU basketball game in Wichita, came out to cheer on the Shockers to their ninth win in 11 games. Most probably expected the road to the victory to be smoother, but Tulsa wasn't cooperative. The Hurricane's Justin Hurtt put on a Kemba Walker-type performance with 30 points, including six three-pointers.

The Shockers countered with a more balanced attack, led by guard David Kyles and center Garrett Stutz. Kyles had 14 points before the last note of the National Anthem had disappeared. He made his first four three-point shots. But he went 27:30 without another basket before a huge three-pointer that gave WSU a 72-67 lead with 6:07 left.

Stutz, meanwhile, had 20 points and was responsible for many of Tulsa's 27 fouls. The Hurricane had no answer for the 7-foot Stutz, marching one foul-prone defender after another at him. Stutz went to the free-throw line 12 times and made 10.

It sounded like Shocker fans had a blast. The back and forth nature of the game was titillating. The place looked and sounded great. And the beer was cold. At Koch Arena, beer isn't sold.

"It was a better atmosphere than I thought it might be,'' Stutz said. "I didn't expect that there would be this many people at the game or that the atmosphere would be as good. I was a little disappointed when I learned we were playing away from Koch Arena because that building has been so special to us. I was worried this might feel like a neutral court.''

It was anything but.

When Marshall ducked his head into the media room an hour before the tip, it was easy to tell how excited he was about showing off his team to some people who don't regularly get to see the Shockers play.

His enthusiasm hadn't waned nearly four hours later.

"Can you have it better?'' he asked. "Rupp Arena is pretty nice, I've coached there. The Dean Dome is OK. It sounded pretty loud to me in here tonight. I thought the seats looked great, they looked comfortable. I don't use mine much, but when I did it was soft. I could see having a great time at this venue.''

The arena made a great impression, I would think, as a potential NCAA Tournament site although I still have concerns about whether it has the backstage facilities to handle a large media throng.

Hopefully, Wichita State will continue to play in the downtown arena once a season, at least. Koch Arena is one of the best college basketball venues around and it, in one incarnation or another, has been home to the Shockers for close to 60 years.

But it's not a slap to Koch to consider Intrust Bank Arena a home away from home for Wichita State, is it?

I'm sure Marshall wouldn't mind coming back, considering Tuesday's debut hit. And I'd be surprised if any fans had a big issue with coming downtown now that the first such game in the bag.

"There was an air of electricity out there,'' Marshall told reporters. "Raise your hand if you didn't feel it. I can't tell you exactly why. Maybe it was being the first game here, or beating an old rival that is now a new rival. I don't know.''

It was a combination of everything. Great game, great atmosphere, great night. It was big time.