RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — A converted airplane hangar on the west side of a darkened Ramstein Air Base lit up late Friday night with the sights and sounds of major college basketball.
Storied men’s NCAA programs Michigan State and Connecticut opened their 2012-13 seasons with the Armed Forces Classic, the first regular-season NCAA college basketball game played in Europe. The hard-fought game between Big East and Big Ten powers went in favor of UConn, 66-62.
A gleaming hardwood court was installed at the heart of the conventionally drab hangar for the event. Scoreboards dangled from long chains on opposite ends of the vaulted ceiling, swaying in the occasional cool breezes admitted by the huge facility. An American flag was raised behind one scoreboard, its German counterpart behind the other. Flags of U.S. states and territories hung from partitions atop each of the four sets of seating surrounding the court.
As ESPN personalities Andy Katz, John Anderson, Jay Bilas and Jay Williams prepared for the network’s national TV broadcast, they paused to shake hands, pose for pictures and converse with uniformed personnel.
The audience of some 3,000 servicemembers and a few fortunate civilians erupted when Michigan State took the court at 11:30 p.m., followed minutes later by UConn. As the midnight tipoff neared, the teams discarded their warm-up attire to reveal camouflage uniforms and matching sneakers custom-made for the event. The teams’ coaching staffs, including Spartans legend Tom Izzo and UConn’s debuting head coach Kevin Ollie, wore khaki cargo pants tucked into rugged high-laced boots.
Competing chants of “Go green!” and “Go white!” reverberated through the crowd, divided roughly evenly by team loyalty. Visibly enthused by the atmosphere, the players provided the raucous fans an immediate payoff.
UConn jumped out to a 20-6 lead over favored Michigan State, leaving much of the crowd jubilant and the rest in shocked silence. The unranked Huskies continued to outplay the No. 14 Spartans for the rest of the first half, a sustained run highlighted by a rim-hanging slam dunk from UConn’s crowd-pleasing 6-foot guard Ryan Boatright. The teams left the court for halftime to a huge ovation and a 40-33 Huskies lead.
Sgt. Maj. Allen Taylor, 95th Military Police Battalion, stood courtside at halftime taking in the impressive layout. Taylor said he was thrilled when the Classic was announced, along with its prominent participants.
“I definitely wanted to come. I didn’t believe it at first,” said the North Carolina Tar Heels fan from Chesapeake, Va. “I thought, ‘UConn and Michigan State?’ That’s like an NCAA playoff game.”
The second half certainly had the intensity of a postseason encounter, complete with hard fouls, diving hustle plays and coaches pleading with referees. A motivated Michigan State team took its first lead of the game early in the second half but couldn’t separate itself from the persistent Huskies as the teams exchanged scores. UConn inched ahead in the game’s final minutes and maintained its lead to the end with successful trips to the free-throw line.
The Armed Forces Classic, however, carried a meaning beyond winning and losing.
“It was a great experience. Coming over here and playing for the troops was a great feeling,” said Michigan State guard Gary Harris. “This is going to be a lifelong memory.”