Tudor Fieldhouse was filled to the rafters with 4,000 kids — “with a decibel level to match,” Rice President David Leebron tweeted — when Rice men’s basketball hosted its first “School House Mania” Dec. 19.
Children from 25 area elementary schools were treated to the game and joined 1,000 other fans to cheer the Owls on to a 69-56 victory over Northwood University. The noise was deafening at times. And it was awesome.
“To have 5,000 people here is great for college basketball, it’s great for our community, it’s great for Rice University, it’s great for our players, our recruits, our fans and our students,” head basketball coach Ben Braun said. “It was a great atmosphere, and I’m just pleased that we pushed the limits and reached out to our community and made it happen.”
School House Mania was the brainchild of Shu Muthyala, Rice Athletics general manager of ticket sales and service, but he’s quick to point out that it took many people to put together such a large event.
“We had a similar program in the NBA’s Developmental League, where I used to work,” Muthyala said. School House Mania reaches out to local area elementary schools to promote healthy lifestyles and to challenge students to learn in a fun way. At the game, students received a School House Mania program, which included educational components that binds basketball together with core educational subjects, he said.
For Tinsley Elementary in Houston, which brought 195 children and 13 chaperones, teachers made the field trip and game experience available to students who met one of three criteria this fall. “We based it on perfect attendance, excellent behavior and excellent academic status,” said Lauren Adams, math specialist at Tinsley.
The Owls hosted Northwood for the special 11:30 a.m. tipoff. The Owls had to play from behind from the get-go after starting out slow. They shot only 28 percent from the field and were 7-13 from the free-throw line, but with only seconds left and down by four in the half, Rice forward Seth Gearhart hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to get the Owls within one at the half, 32-31.
Gearhart opened the second half with another quick three, spurring the Owls onto an 11-0 run to take the lead 42-32. The Owls (5-5) held off Northwood from then on with their improved shooting. In the second half the Owls shot 32 percent from the field and 86 percent from the free-throw line. Austin Ramljak and Keith Washington led the team with 14 points each, and Sean Obi collected his second straight double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds).
“It was great that we could turn things around in the second half and use the crowd to really make a difference, and it really did,” Braun said. “The crowd was a big factor for us in the second half as we put a surge on.”
For Robin Rayford, a fourth-grade teacher from Betsy Ross Elementary, the game was another way to teach her students.
“Each teacher in second through fifth grades was given permission-slip forms to give to those students with good behavior and deserved to go,” Rayford said. “I think it’s a wonderful experience, because we have a lot of at-risk children. So they don’t get the opportunity to come to events like this. I think it’s a great opportunity for them. They really enjoyed this.”