Fans pour into sold out Cooper Fieldhouse

Mary Genrich | Staff Photographer | Gary Mell, seen here decently covered, is a staple of Duquesne basketball this year.

Adam Lindner | Staff Writer

Nearly three years ago, Duquesne opened the doors to its UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse for the first time. But nobody showed up.

A national television audience watched as Duquesne opened its new barn and beat Dayton, 69-64, on Feb. 2, 2021, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented all but 212 fans from attending.

On Friday, against those same Flyers, Duquesne, Duquesne hit another attendance milestone. They sold out all 3,724 seats of the arena. With a national TV audience and a high-profile squad on hand, the stage felt reminiscent of Duquesne’s Fieldhouse debut. Decibel levels beg to differ with such an assertion.

This loss stung badly for the Dukes, who remained winless in league play. Still, Friday night’s spectacle was a win for both the program and its fans.

Paul Jankowiak, a 1972 Duquesne graduate, has missed a grand total of four home games since 1968.

“Oh, this is big. This is the biggest game in years,” Jankowiak said. “Sellout crowd. It’s gonna be a great atmosphere. I’ve been pumped up all day for this.

“I was here — we counted 97 people one time back in the ‘90s that were here for a game. So, to see the place packed is just fantastic.”

Former Dukes forward Austin Rotroff, a member of Dambrot’s first full recruiting class at Duquesne, was in the crowd Friday. Having played in both the Palumbo Center and the Cooper Fieldhouse, Rotroff was proud to see his former gym astir.

“Even last year, my senior year — my fifth year — we had a couple games that were packed out, but I mean, this is just a whole ‘nother level.

“I thought the student turnout was really good tonight. We’ve definitely made an effort in my past couple years to try to get the students here, especially since the Cooper opened up, and I think tonight was one of the best student crowds we’ve seen. It’s really cool to see the kids on campus engaged as well as the rest of the community.”

Duquesne president Ken Gormley agreed.

“My mind went back to the first game in the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse,” Gormley said. “To see this packed crowd here, all of the students — and I was here at 6 o’clock, and that student section was almost close to filled already — they’re revved up, they’re ready to go. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

The loss would eventually wipe out some of the evening’s promise. Dayton, led by star DaRon Holmes, controlled play throughout. Holmes dominated en route to a 33-point statline, single handedly stifling Duquesne’s comeback efforts.

Still, a sellout crowd is no small feat for Duquesne. The team last played in front of a home sellout crowd on Feb. 7, 2009, in a win over No. 9 Xavier; before then, the Dukes’ last sellout came in 1994.

“It’s really nice to see people in the seats, even if it’s some Dayton fans,” Duquesne grad and season-ticket holder Jonny Heller said. “The kids deserve it.”

Gary Mell, a Duquesne fan with a penchant for going shirtless at games to rile up the student section, said it was beautiful to see such a lively crowd.

“It’s what the team deserves. I don’t think people understand how hard the team works. It’s like boot camp plus you’re going to school. These guys deserve attention.”

Five years ago, during Keith Dambrot’s second season at Duquesne, the coach walked off Davidson’s Belk Arena hardwood in defeat. His Dukes had just dropped their Atlantic 10 opener in front of a raucous crowd.

He couldn’t help but to dream.

“The biggest lesson to be learned is that that fanbase helps you,” Dambrot said on Jan. 5, 2019. “That’s where we have to get to in order to have a great program. You have to have that fanbase that, when you’re struggling, they can rally you a little bit.”

After an 0-4 start to conference play, Duquesne’s season is in peril. The trajectory of the program is not.

“It was a tough haul playing two years outside of the building,” Dambrot said. “But this place has good potential. It’s much better than when we came. [Athletic director] Dave Harper has done a really good job of promoting men’s basketball and really putting money into the program.

“I think the future’s pretty bright down the line. It’s just a matter of getting over the hump and getting into the NCAA Tournament one time and, you know, I think this place could be a pretty good spot.”