Cedar Falls, Iowa – It is about three degree outside, with a stiff wind blowing across the Iowa plains. People walk quickly and silently as they try to get inside to avoid the cold.
But in the brand-spanking new McLeod Center on the campus of Northern Iowa University it might as well be Miami Beach as the cheerful fans go crazy cheering on their beloved Panthers.
Tonight the opponent is their in-state rival the Drake Bulldogs. There are no easy conference games in The Valley. Drake is only 12-12 coming into the game, but they have beaten every Division I team in Iowa except Northern Iowa.
As the fans stream in and find their seat the UNI pep bands clad in purple and yellow stripe rugby shirts plays. Their up-beat music adds to the festive atmosphere.
The lighting in McLeod Center is bright giving the arena an open, airy and fun feel. As the huge student section located at one end of the court starts to fill up it becomes apparent that there will be close to 1000 students attending tonight’s game.
The McLeod Center opened this year. It took the place of the UNI-Dome located adjacent to the new arena. The Uni-Dome was an all-purpose dome that normally seated about 10,000 for basketball but at times it was expanded to seat over 20,000.
It was not a good venue for basketball.
So Northern Iowa decided to build a new arena and they set out to raise enough private money finance a 12,000 seat arena. As the money commitments started to trickle in they started to down size their dreams.
The final product is a 7018 seat pit-style arena. The design is similar to Iowa, Kansas State, Wright State, San Diego State and New Mexico.
This is a no-frills arena, but make no mistake about it, they got the essentials right and it is a nice place to see a basketball game.
When fans walk in they enter on a concourse above the seating bowl. They then descend down to their seats. The student end is bleacher seating, but almost all the other fans get seats.
At the end of the court opposite the student section the seats only go half way up and there is the Hall of Fame room that will be completed by next year and it offers a great view of the court.
There are some bleachers on the concourse above the Hall of Fame room.
Tonight the visiting Bulldogs maintain a small lead through most of the first half. The home team Panthers do get a brief five point lead four minutes into the game before Drake grabs a 28-22 lead at half time.
Northern Iowa runs probably as many promotions as any team I have seen.
There is the standard having kids dress up in a player’s uniform and shoot a basket. There was the floppy disk toss sponsored by a Mexican restaurant, a student lies down on a mattress and tosses a ball over his head trying to make a basket. Of course, there were various fans and students shooting baskets for prizes.
It was like a minor league baseball game; there was never a dull moment during the breaks in the action.
The dance team, the cheer leaders and band were entertaining too.
Oh and the food, can’t forget the yum yums.
There were the delish nachos with cheese, very good hot dogs, soft serve ice cream in two flavors and decent pop corn. But the real crown jewel of the concession stands was the shake machine that spits out shakes in eight different flavors. No mixing, just push the right button and presto, you get a pre-made shake.
All for pretty reasonable prices.
Oh, I almost forgot the Italian Ice that came in a bunch of interesting flavors; it was a big hit with the kids and me.
Back on the court, things were not looking good in the second half for the Panthers. Five minutes into the half the Bulldogs had a nine point lead.
But the fans kept cheering, the band kept playing and the Panthers slowly started to ship the lead down until at the 5:39 mark they got it down to two points at 50-48.
That was as close as they would get as Drake won 67-59.
That makes if very difficult for the 16-9 Panthers to get into the NCAA Tournament without wining the conference tournament next month in St. Louis. In conference play they are just 7-7.
Going into tonight’s game South Illinois was 20-5/11-3 MVC. Creighton was 17-7/11-3 MVC. Missouri State was 18-7/9-5 MVC.
In other words, The Valley teams are beating up on each other and they will be very fortunate to get three teams in the NCAA Tournament.
It is just another night in the Missouri Valley Conference, when about any team can win on any night.
As the fans button up their coats to go combat the frigid cold out side, they are a little sad their team lost.
But they should remember they just saw some great basketball in one of America’s most exciting conference and that should be worth something.