The upper decks of Verizon Center sat empty as Nebraska and Penn State tipped off in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Wednesday. The league’s first postseason step toward expanding its footprint on the East Coast was mostly a quiet one.
The fact that the Huskers and Nittany Lions entered with a combined nine straight losses didn’t stop Lindsey Wagner-Oveson from showing up. She grew up in Doland, S.D., just like Huskers Coach Tim Miles. She once played on a softball team coached by Miles in elementary school, she said, and while she now lives and works in Washington, she was able to return to her roots Wednesday. She wore a red and white T-shirt emblazoned with the name of her home town and was one of the only fans in the arena waving a sign, which read “Coach Miles Fan Club.”
She was part of a demographic that the Big Ten had hoped would show up in droves at Verizon Center this week — a transient fan with Midwest ties who wouldn’t be afraid to experience the league’s experiment.
“It’s unusual that it’s in D.C., but it’s fun,” Wagner-Oveson said. “With D.C., no one is from here, so it’s nice for fans, local fans, to be able to come to this, too.”
Wagner-Oveson, who sat in a lightly filled section, had turned to converse with a few friends at halftime. They laughed about the fact that two of the Big Ten’s football powers were opening the league’s first basketball tournament outside Chicago or Indianapolis.
Penn State outlasted Nebraska, 76-67, in overtime, but the irony of the meeting of conference blue bloods was not lost on just her. A large swath of Ohio State fans — whose largest fan base outside of Cleveland is located in the Washington area, according to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany — began to trickle in during the second half between the Huskers and Nittany Lions. Their arrival helped liven up the crowd before the Buckeyes lost to league doormat Rutgers, 66-57, in the first-round nightcap.
The four teams playing Wednesday certainly illustrated the league’s ambitious plan to exist in two regions. Nebraska is the farthest-flung Big Ten school and is roughly 1,200 miles from Washington, while Penn State is at the epicenter of the East Coast corridor that Delany projects carries just under 1 million alums.
Ohio native Jason Spahlinger didn’t have much trouble getting tickets Tuesday night. He and his 12-year-old twin sons showed up at Verizon Center wearing Buckeyes football jerseys and took a picture together inside the concourse to commemorate their first Big Ten tournament together.
“Ohio State is typically really competitive . . . but I think this is really cool,” said Spahlinger, who lives in Maryland and works in the District. “This gives us a chance to see them play.”
While the Big Ten did not release attendance figures with the official box score, the Nittany Lions players said afterward that they could feel the energy provided by the droves of fans that made the trip. That included a pep band and a small student section, which tried its best to hum to distract Nebraska each time it touched the ball. Their voices seemed to fade in the cavernous arena, although the energy began to pick up by the second half.
“Being so close to home, I felt like we had a little bit of a fan advantage,” Penn State freshman forward Lamar Stevens said.
Even though freshman center Mike Watkins has grown accustomed to travel in the Midwest during his freshman season, his first Big Ten tournament “felt like home.” The Philadelphia native had scores of family show up to watch him finish with 18 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks in the win, and he could hear their voices as he ran up the floor. He hoped that his team’s performance Wednesday, even in a half-empty arena, would help change the perception of the program.
“Penn State is like a football school, but we came to Penn State to make a change,” Watkins said. “To make it a football and basketball school.”