THE MONDAY TIPOFF: Vibrant Lights Lit Up Leathernecks’ Doubleheader

By JOHN BOHNENKAMP

There are video boards, and then there are video boards the size of the one at the west end of Vibrant Arena.

If anything gave Friday’s basketball doubleheader in Moline, Ill., a big-time feel for Western Illinois men’s and women’s teams, it was that.

“I know we’ve got our new video boards at Western Hall, but…” said women’s basketball player Allie Meadows. 

“I said to her coming in here, ‘Man, this place is bright,’” guard Jada Thorpe said, laughing.

The big board and the bright lights of the arena gave the games a big-time feel for a first-time event created out of necessity.

Neither game was close — the women’s team defeated St. Xavier 84-69, and the men’s team beat Eureka College 79-50. And only a few hundred people showed up on a cold night.

But athletics director Paul Bubb wanted to lay a foundation in the Quad Cities community, and the university’s campus near the arena with the event, and he felt like he did that.

The games were announced just a couple of months ago. Both had been scheduled to play at Western Hall on the Macomb campus, but there was a conflict with fall semester graduation ceremonies. Since the Leathernecks open Summit League play on Monday night, both women’s coach JD Gravina and men’s coach Rob Jeter wanted to have one more nonconference game, but they needed somewhere to play.

Bubb, wanting to create some exposure to Western Illinois athletics to the university’s Quad Cities campus, thought Vibrant Arena would be the perfect place.

But a Friday night in mid-December, especially competing with high school basketball games in the area, wasn’t conducive to drawing a big crowd.

“I know it’s going to take a little while to develop a fan base up here doing this,” Bubb said. “But I want to look to see what we can do to get an opponent in here that people want to see.”

Bubb’s goal is to have a doubleheader with a November weekend date against NCAA Division I opponents — St. Xavier is an NAIA school, and Eureka is a Division III school.

Bubb hinted during a press conference last Monday at one school he wanted, saying, “There’s some people down the road on I-80 (Iowa), sure, we would like to play them.”

But getting the Hawkeyes to come play, or Iowa State or Illinois, would take some incentives. Still, there are some connections to those Power 5 schools.

Iowa’s men’s team will have two Moline High School players — Owen Freeman and Brock Harding — on the roster beginning next season. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder began her coaching career at St. Ambrose in Davenport. Iowa State women’s coach Bill Fennelly is a native of Davenport, while men’s coach T.J. Otzelberger was a head coach at South Dakota State in the Summit League. Illinois men’s coach Brad Underwood is a former Western Illinois assistant, and women’s coach Shauna Green is a native of nearby Clinton, Iowa.

There are other options besides the big names. Vibrant Arena is the site for the Missouri Valley Conference women’s tournament in March, so a Valley school might be interested in coming in for a game to get used to the court. Northern Illinois from the Mid-American Conference is just 100 miles away from Moline.

But before thinking big, the inaugural event had to happen, and the first run seemed to work.

“I think from a game operations standpoint, we were able to do everything up here that we can do at Western Hall, maybe even a little bit better,” Bubb said.

It felt different than a normal nonconference game.

“Knowing the effort that like our administration and people in the Quad Cities, the media, put into it makes it have a bigger feel,” Gravina said. “It felt a little bit like a first-round conference tournament game, which is a good experience for us.”

“We have a community here, and to be able to connect to the WIU community here, I think that’s great,” Jeter said.

The players liked the feel.

“When I first heard about the game, I wasn’t too sure,” Thorpe said. “When we got here, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I definitely would like to do this more often.”

Meadows, who grew up in nearby DeWitt, got to see several friends from high school who came in for the game.

“I think playing in a big arena like this is huge,” she said.

“It’s always nice to play in bigger venues, because it’s where we play in the conference tournament,” said guard Trenton Massner. Upperclassmen like (Quinlan Bennett) and I, we’ve played in venues like this, but for more inexperienced players, I think it’s really helpful for them.”

It worked, and Bubb wants to see if it can work again.

“For me, this just proves, more than anything else, that we can have a good event up here,” Bubb said. “This facility is magnificent, and it would be a great place to come back to.”

Photo: Western Illinois’ women’s players warm up on the Vibrant Arena court before Friday’s game.

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