On Dec. 2, 2009, a Reynolds Center sellout crowd watched the Doug Wojcik-coached University of Tulsa basketball team defeat Oklahoma State.
Over a span of the Golden Hurricane’s next 125 home games, there was not a single sellout in the 8,355-seat Reynolds Center.
On an unfortunately frequent basis since 2009, the arena was a lot closer to empty than to filled.
There was an 8,355 sellout on Saturday, though, as Wichita State and TU met for the first time in their rebooted relationship as conference partners.
Presumably, it was an evening of mixed emotions for TU officials.
There was the appreciation of a packed venue and brisk business at the concession lines, but the color scheme had to be disheartening.
There seemed to be about a 50-50 split on the presence of Shocker and Hurricane fans. There appeared to be as much Shocker yellow as Hurricane blue. It was a Tulsa home game with a neutral-site feel.
The Hurricane hosted the No. 5-ranked team in the nation, and the opponent’s fans occupied half of the seats and made a lot of noise — first when the Shockers closed the first half with a 16-2 run, and ultimately when Wichita State escaped with a 72-69 triumph in an exceptionally entertaining American Athletic Conference contest.
At the end of a 26-point performance on Saturday, TU’s Sterling Taplin released a 3-point attempt.
At its crest, the shot looked good. It would have extended the game to an overtime period.
By a fraction of a fraction, the shot was not good.
If Taplin’s launch point had been one-tenth of one degree to his left, there would have been an extra period, and Tulsa would have continued with its quest to get a significant upset.
Not since November 1996 — at UCLA in a Preseason NIT contest — has the Hurricane beaten a team ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll.
Saturday’s game was played two days after Tulsa lost by 33 points at Houston and Wichita State won by 35 at East Carolina. A reasonable expectation would have been Shocker dominance, but Frank Haith’s TU squad was resilient. After having trailed by 10 points with 8½ minutes remaining, the Hurricane nearly pushed Wichita State into an extra period.
When asked about the presence of 4,000 or so Wichita State fans, Shocker coach Gregg Marshall replied, “Unbelievable. That’s like Koch Arena South.
“I guess (Shocker fans) are really excited about having Tulsa in the same league, and having the opportunity to make that (180-mile) drive. Tremendous following. We have that always, but we didn’t expect it to be that large.”
In 1949-96, the Shockers and Hurricane were linked as members of the Missouri Valley Conference. There had been 14 men’s basketball meetings since 1996, when TU joined the Western Athletic Conference, but those nonconference dates lacked the heat of a rivalry. They were just convenient schedule-fillers.
With what transpired on Saturday, the schools have taken a step toward the restoration of the rivalry.
In basketball, TU has competed against Wichita State more times than against any other school. Since 1930, 127 times. On 119 occasions, there have been TU-Drake games. On 112 occasions, there was TU vs. Oklahoma State.
TU-Wichita State has been an extremely competitive relationship. The Shockers have an overall series lead of 66-61. These teams meet again on Jan. 28 in Wichita.
During this era of conference shuffling, Tulsa has been a member of the WAC, Conference USA and now the AAC.
Geographically, it makes no sense that the University of Tulsa is in a league with Connecticut, East Carolina, Temple, Navy and two Florida schools. It’s just as crazy that Wichita State is in the same situation, but at least it makes sense — geographically and historically — that the Hurricane and Shockers once again are members of the same conference.
Last week, Don Tomkalski commemorated his 34th anniversary as TU’s director of media relations. He also is a senior associate athletic director. In his media role, he has been courtside for about 40 TU-Wichita State basketball games.
When it was announced that Wichita State was moving to the AAC, “my first thought was that it’s been a heck of a basketball series. I’ve seen great games,” Tomkalski said. “Wichita is three hours away. We’ll play home-and-home again every year, in the same conference. It feels natural.”
A Wichita doctor, Joaquin Santos, has attended Shocker-Hurricane games since 1967. For 30 years, he was the Shockers’ team physician. On Saturday, the 68-year-old Santos and a group of friends were seated in the section behind the bench.
“This is our first time in this fieldhouse,” Santos said.
This fieldhouse — the Reynolds Center — has been TU’s basketball home for 20 seasons.
“Well, it’s new to me,” Santos responded. “It’s a beautiful gym. Watching these teams — it brings back a lot of memories. I think the Wichita State fans were really happy to get this rivalry going again. It was an incredible rivalry.”
During the ’90s, while TU had one of the better mid-major programs in college basketball, Wichita State was mostly below average.
The Hurricane’s goal now should be to aspire to become what Wichita State is today, and for TU fans to occupy 95 percent of the Reynolds Center seats when the Shockers come to town.