UC-Irvine senior forward Tommy Rutherford glanced around the gymnasium inside Clark High School on Tuesday as he tried to recall the last time he’d played an organized game inside a high school gym.
He smirked. He laughed. He finally remembered.
His senior year of high school.
Rutherford and the Anteaters played two games at Clark, as did Louisiana Lafayette and Detroit Mercy as part of the MGM Resorts Main Event, a three-day college basketball showcase in Las Vegas. The other participants — No. 21 Colorado, Texas Christian, Clemson and Wyoming — played at T-Mobile Arena.
Contesting Division I basketball games at a high school is an abnormality. But the event’s senior director, Jon Albaugh, said he sought to provide the mid-major participants a more intimate experience at a smaller venue. Albaugh also said other collegiate caliber venues like Cox Pavilion and Orleans Arena were not available, so he settled on Clark — where games were played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
“We get the chance to go out and compete, that’s all I really care about,” Rutherford said after scoring 20 points in a 92-67 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. “You could hear everything. It’s a different environment. And I loved it.”
Albaugh began contacting prospective teams and venues several months in advance of the MGM Resorts Main Event, and initially tried to schedule the mid-major games at Bishop Gorman, one of the only local high schools with a regulation collegiate-size basketball court.
Gorman officials referred him to Clark — which also has a collegiate-size court — and he worked in conjunction with Chargers boys basketball coach Cory Duke to prepare the campus for college basketball.
“We like to tell the coaches ‘The goals are still 10 feet. It’s 94 feet long.’ We just want it to be a great experience for the student-athletes, the families and the coaches that are there” said Albaugh, who works for bdG Sports, an organizer for athletic events. “Going to Clark, it’s not looking at 19,000 empty seats. … It would have felt empty if it was at (T-Mobile Arena).”
Duke said the Clark County School District oversaw the logistical and clerical processes and ensured the proper waivers and insurance were in place. He also had to secure mobile shot clocks, which sat along the baseline during the games.
Chargers varsity players also sat along the baseline during games, and Duke said he was glad they got to interact with college players and teams.
“We had a good crowd…and there was just an electricity in there because very rarely do you see Division I basketball played in such a small area,” Duke said. “It was high level basketball at its finest. It was exciting.”
UC-Irvine coach Russell Turner acknowledged that the venue “isn’t what we’re used to” but said he was grateful for the school and the experience in Las Vegas.
The Anteaters lost their first game at Clark against Detroit Mercy before bouncing back with a victory Tuesday. They’ll return home to play Central Michigan on Saturday in their 5,000-seat arena on campus.
“(Clark is) not a college like arena. There’s no shot clocks in the right places. There’s some distracting things about it,” Turner said. “But my message to my players is that we’ll play on a blacktop if we get a chance to play.”