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UI students Dennis Zaslavsky and Nick Lenz sit close to the court Wednesday at State Farm Center.

CHAMPAIGN — University of Illinois students Dennis Zaslavsky and Nick Lenz looked at each other sheepishly when asked how they scored such nice seats in the middle of the lower bowl of State Farm Center for Wednesday’s game against No. 11 Wisconsin.

“We snuck down here, so don’t say anything,” Lenz said with a laugh. “Normally, we don’t go this low, but we don’t think there will be too many people saying anything.”

While students like Zaslavsky and Lenz, who trudged through the snow from their campus apartment, were out in full force and the Orange Krush was full, the rest of the arena was far more sparse as a winter storm slammed the area.

The game was never in doubt, said Kent Brown, UI associate director of athletics. Of course, he and his co-workers were asked again and again whether it would be postponed, like many other area events.

The game did offer complications in terms of staffing, already an issue amidst a nationwide labor shortage, but that problem was curtailed by staffing fewer entrances.

“We live in the upper Midwest, and basketball season is in the middle of the winter, and many, many times we’ve had games during storms,” Brown said. “But, I understand that people make an effort to get to the arena, and they want to make sure there’s a game being played. As long as the teams are here and the referees are here, the game will be played.”

Brown, who has been with the athletic department since 1989, said he can’t recall a game being called off because of the weather. In the 1950s, he said, an Iowa bus was hours late to a game at Huff Gym because of a winter storm. In a stroke of luck, Bob Hope happened to be in town for a performance. He dropped by the arena to entertain the waiting fans.

A few years after he was hired, the team made a 12-hour drive to Memphis amidst a snowstorm, arriving at 5 a.m. and delaying the game against the Tigers by a day. The team won that game 84-75.

“It was one of those coming together games for everybody,” Brown said.

Luckily, longtime Illinois fans David and Debbie Hegger didn’t leave their timely arrival up to chance. The couple from the southern Illinois town of Aviston made the 180-mile drive a day early and stayed in a hotel for Debbie’s first Illinois game ever.

“We’re retired, so we’ll see what it looks like tomorrow,” David said. “We may stay another night. We were worried they might call the damn thing off. I wasn’t worried about getting out here. I’ve got all-wheel drive.”

Of course, for those who attended games in a nearly empty arena last year, simply having anyone in the stands won’t be taken for granted.

“Having experienced last year with nobody in the stands, it can’t get any worse than that,” Illinois play-by-play radio announcer Brian Barnhart said. “So even 4,000 or 5,000, that’s pretty good. We’d have loved to have that last year.”

With students out in normal numbers, Zaslavsky and Lenz weren’t worried about a stale atmosphere.

“I think the atmosphere will still be pretty good,” Zaslavsky said. “We’ve got all of the students here still, and they’ll show up no matter the weather. We probably won’t have nearly as many fans, but it should still be fine.”

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