When the Pit is empty, is it still the Pit?

The Pit is the nickname of the University of Maine’s Memorial Gym. Typically, it’s the practice gym for the Black Bears women’s and men’s basketball teams, who play most home games a few miles south down Interstate 95 at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center. This season, with home games being played with no fans because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Bears are playing home games in the Pit.

In each of the last two seasons, Maine’s women’s basketball team hosted an America East Conference semifinal game in the Pit. When the old gym is packed with 1,300 or so fans, the place is a noise generator. Cheers bounce off the walls and the steel beams holding the place up, and loiter over the court. Most of the wooden seats are above the court, making opponents feel enclosed and surrounded.

When the place is empty, like it was Saturday when the women beat America East newcomer New Jersey Institute of Technology 77-60, or last weekend when the men hosted the University of New Hampshire, it was different. It wasn’t nap time quiet, but it wasn’t its typical game day self. Watching on ESPN+ (like fans, media are not allowed at games either, a result of the 50-person maximum capacity in these coronavirus times), you could tell it was different.

It was Memorial Gym. It wasn’t the Pit.

Maine head coach Amy Vachon and her team took it in stride. A few weeks ago, they thought they could play this entire season on the road. Any home game is a blessing.

“We practice there every day, so it was similar to a scrimmage, I guess. It’s not, it’s a game, but as far as the crowd noise, we had those cardboard cutouts, but they weren’t as loud as we wanted them to be,” Vachon said with a laugh after the Black Bears’ victory.

Moments that should have shaken the Pit did not. Cardboard cutouts did not erupt in spontaneous, eardrum-tweaking applause when Blanca Millan banked in a 3-pointer off an inbound pass with 0.6 seconds left in the first quarter. Kelly Fogarty’s three with 8:28 left in the second quarter, her first of the game after making 10 threes in Maine’s win at UNH last Sunday, would have made a packed Pit cheer loud enough to loosen fillings. When Fanny Wadling hit a 3-pointer late in the third quarter, pushing Maine’s lead back to double figures, the crowd noise would have been deafening.

Maybe a little crowd noise (and in the Pit, it’s never just a little crowd noise) would have given the Black Bears a boost when NJIT rallied in the third quarter, cutting an 18-point halftime deficit to five points, before Maine snapped out of its funk and pulled away.

Instead, those moments received cheers from the Black Bears bench. The rest of the Pit was full of imaginary echoes.

NJIT head coach Mike Lane knew his team wasn’t getting the full Maine experience in its first visit as a conference opponent. Lane was an assistant coach at Bucknell a few years ago when the Bison visited the Pit. He knows what the Highlanders missed.

“I regret this time, because our kids really love playing in a crowd, and we knew we would’ve had a big one. It felt like ‘Hoosiers’ walking in there. I love the old wooden chairs. It’s a great old gym and I loved it. It was a lot of fun,” Lane said. “Coach (Vachon) was apologizing to me before (the game), ‘Hey, you know I wish the game could be different.’ But I love playing in old gyms like that. We’re happy to come back tomorrow.”

On television, you couldn’t see it, but Lane said the scoreboard went out.

“When you’re playing in an old gym, that’s the kind of stuff that should happen. Who cares? We were fine. I thought the scoreboard was malfunctioning the whole game because they were up 25 points,” Lane said.

In this season of cancellations and postponements, the Black Bears are happy to be playing at all. Playing at home, even in front of nobody but themselves, is better than the alternative. We’ll get through this, and the crowds will be back soon, in the Cross Center and the Pit.

“It’s nice to be at home. It’s nice to be able to play in the place you practice every single day and spend hours and hours and hours in,” Vachon said.

The Pit is an attitude as much as a location. The Black Bears aren’t playing in the Pit this season. They’re playing in Memorial Gym. But as we fight to get through a pandemic, playing anywhere is enough.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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