CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia senior Joe Harris, at the end of a marathon set of questions concerning his final college basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena, recounted this last story with particular glee. A friend in the “Hoo Crew,” the student section for Cavaliers home games, told him about it.
A couple of weeks ago, when Virginia students had to request online to be in the ticket lottery for Saturday’s game against No. 4 Syracuse, half of the more than 14,000 undergraduates on campus overloaded the system and caused the school’s ticketing service to crash.
“That’s never happened before,” Harris said, a grin across his face. “We’ve never had that kind of excitement.”
Haider Arshad, Harris’s friend and a leader of the student section, noted ticket requests were more than double what they were for any other game this year. The student section at John Paul Jones Arena only holds about 2,400 fans.
“As you can imagine, there were a lot of unhappy people,” Arshad said Friday.
No. 12 Virginia will take on Syracuse on Saturday afternoon in what many are billing as the biggest sporting event Charlottesville has seen since Ralph Sampson’s final home game at old University Hall in 1983. A victory over the Orange would give the Cavaliers their first outright ACC regular season title since 1981.
Virginia (24-5, 15-1) is off to the program’s best start in conference play after 12 straight wins, a run that has been met with growing fervor from a fan base that longed for the men’s basketball program to return to prominence.
Saturday’s game has been sold out since November, but the secondary market has exploded in recent weeks. There were fewer than 100 tickets available at online ticket marketplace StubHub as of Friday and ticket prices had shot up as high as $1,250, almost three times the cost of a courtside or lower-level season ticket ($444) at John Paul Jones Arena. The cheapest ticket was going for $214 on Friday afternoon.
Seatgeek, another online ticket exchange, declared Saturday “the most in-demand Cavaliers home game ever” and called it the most expensive ticket the company has ever recorded in the state of Virginia, with an average ticket price of $379 that surpasses a 2012 One Direction concert at Patriot Center in Fairfax.
Adding to the on-campus excitement — and potential traffic gridlock — on Saturday: Virginia’s football team begins spring practice, its No. 1 ranked baseball team hosts Monmouth and the fourth-ranked men’s lacrosse team hosts No. 8 Syracuse for the first time in ACC play.
Nothing, though, comes close to the anticipation for this basketball game.
“It’s a bigger game for our fans than anybody,” said Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, a Cavaliers assistant coach on the 1981 team that went to the Final Four. “Where I’ve seen it most is how many people are coming through here and trying to get tickets.”
Virginia’s climb to the top of the ACC standings has been unassuming yet steady. Only of late have the Cavaliers garnered much national attention, despite reeling off 12 straight wins with a blend of balanced scoring and suffocating defense.
They have benefited from a league schedule that only included one game apiece against the ACC’s top NCAA tournament contenders — Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina and Pittsburgh. But even Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim insisted earlier this week, “Virginia has played, by far, the best of anybody in our league consistently the whole year. . . . They don’t have any weaknesses at all.”
Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett said his formula won’t change Saturday, that “just because there’s so much excitement around it, we’re not going to be different.”
Bennett has won a school-record 17 consecutive ACC games at John Paul Jones Arena, but the only other time Bennett could remember coaching in a game with these sorts of stakes came when Washington State, his former team, lost to UCLA with a chance to win the Pacific-10 title in 2007. The Orange (26-2, 13-2) has far more experience dealing with college basketball’s limelight.
“Every game we’ve played, it’s been sold out and been their Super Bowl,” Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis said earlier this week.
This will not be an ordinary afternoon for Harris or fellow senior Akil Mitchell, either. The two will be recognized during a ceremony before their final home game and are the only remaining players from Bennett’s first recruiting class at Virginia; the other four transferred after arriving in Charlottesville for the 2010-11 season.
So after Mitchell left the room Wednesday night, and Harris had finished laughing about student tickets, he began to consider their place in school lore.
On March 6, 1983, Sampson hit a game-winner to beat Maryland to cap off his last appearance at University Hall. That, though, might not be as good as this story is shaping up to be.
“When we first got here as first-years, if we were to look ahead and say our last game at JPJ would be for an ACC title and it’d be a huge matchup against a top-five team, you can’t really script it any better than that,” Harris said.
“We came here to help turn the program around, and to see that we’ve made some pretty significant strides . . . it’s rewarding.”