Step foot inside of Wharton Field House and you can’t help but feel the history reverberating through the old brick house. Ask anyone who’s been a part of the Quad-Cities basketball scene over the past several decades and they’ll have a Wharton story or two for you that’s emblazoned in their minds.
As a sports reporter who’s been in the Quad-Cities for nearly three years, I’d heard of the good old days when Wharton was packed to the rafters for Western Big Six classics or playoff showdowns. I’d witnessed a few great games with rowdy crowds myself inside the building, but those paled in comparison to what took place on Tuesday night.
United Township had sold nearly 2,700 tickets in the two school days leading up the Panthers’ sectional semifinal against Rock Island. When I got to the parking lot at 5:30 for the 7 p.m. tip there were already throngs of hundreds of people standing in line waiting to get through the doors. The hype before the game was tremendous and the environment it generated was unforgettable.
“Before the game even started people were sending me pictures of everybody waiting outside in line. I came to get my wrist wrapped and I saw all the bleachers already filled,” UT guard Tray Buchanan said. “It was just a great atmosphere to play in front of. I’ve never played in front of anything like that.”
When the doors were opened a little before 6 p.m. the fans poured in and the student sections rapidly filled out. The place was packed 25 minutes prior to tip and people kept filtering in and jamming into any open crevice they could find. Just after tip Moline athletic director Todd Rosenthal told the media that the doors to the building had been locked. There was simply no more room to stuff people.
First-year UT coach Ryan Webber played in games at Wharton when he was a student at Galesburg and he coached the Moline Maroons from 2008-10. Even he had no comparison for what he saw Tuesday.
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“I was fortunate in high school to play in a few good games like this and I’ve coached in some games that I thought were pretty good crowds at the time. This one kind of ruined those memories because there was nowhere to be,” Webber said. “Whenever I coached here I wondered what it would have to be like to have people sitting in those corners (at the top of the field house) against that wall. And they were sitting against that wall (Tuesday night).”
The scene was spectacular with waves of orange and red/gold spread throughout the sea of people. Everywhere you looked there were students and adults alike who were snapping photos, not of the game, but of the spectacle around it.
But that game, though.
Many times a huge crowd and high stakes make for tight teams in the opening minutes. That wasn’t the case Tuesday. Both teams came out roaring to start and kept trading big buckets and key plays throughout the contest. Neither team led by more than five points at any time. It was seriously about as close of a game as you will see from start to finish.
“It was fun. We had guys making shots and making plays and they had guys doing the same,” Rocky coach Thom Sigel said.
The noise level was almost deafening at times, with the two massive student sections leading the roars. The loudest point was probably when Alek Jacobs banked in an incredible 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to its first overtime and the fans into pandemonium.
The shear size of the crowd noticeably rose the temperature inside the building and it got downright muggy by the second half. Rock Island guard Jason Jones even cramped up and the Rocks had to take a timeout for him to get his calf stretched out.
Rock Island brought a strong effort despite playing without leading scorer C.J. Neville, who was out with a concussion suffered last Friday in a win over Ottawa. The Rocks had their chances, but Buchanan and the Panthers had the last word. Buchanan was tremendous once again with 30 points, 10 boards and a couple of emphatic blocked shots. The junior scored 80 points in UT’s three wins over Rocky this season, the last two points coming from the free-throw line to clinch Tuesday's 55-54 double-overtime victory.
Webber says Buchanan lives for big games and the bright lights, and he showed out in the biggest game of his career to date on a night those fortunate enough to fit inside Wharton will likely be talking about for years to come.