Basketball practice

The Towson men's basketball team practices before the team's last scheduled home game. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / February 28, 2013)

Towson plays its final basketball games Saturday at the Towson Center, its home for 37 years. And then?

Lights out. Court adjourned.

Next year, the Tigers graduate to the Tiger Arena, a glitzy $72 million, 5,200-seat venue being built adjacent to the present facility. But not before the school pays homage to the Towson Center with a men's-women's doubleheader.

At halftime of the men's game against Hofstra, more than two dozen former players and coaches will be introduced, including most of the 1976-77 team that christened the building and went 27-3 — Towson's best mark ever. The worst? Last year's 1-31 finish.

In between, the Tigers won two Mason-Dixon Conference championships and made two NCAA tourney appearances. They also suffered 16 straight losing seasons — a streak that ended this year. In fact, a win Saturday would give Towson (17-13) the record for the greatest turnaround over two years in NCAA history.

The women's team had 16 winning seasons in those 37 years and, in 2009, scored a home upset over nationally-ranked Maryland.

"There's been a real mix of success in that place," said Bobby Washington, who starred on the 1976-77 team and who'll be one of those honored today. "When we go back to the gym now, it looks small. But back then, it seemed humongous — and it was state-of-the-art, too."

Built for $12 million, the 5,000-seat Towson Center replaced Burdick Hall, a bandbox that seated 1,500. Burdick had bleachers on one side only and thick pads on the walls close behind the baskets to cushion against routine collisions.

Vince Angotti, then Towson's coach, couldn't wait to play in the Towson Center, with its synthetic floor and spacious setting.

"Compared to Burdick, it was the Taj Mahal," Angotti said.

Then Towson held its first scrimmage, in which several players twisted their ankles and Greg Jordan, a senior guard from Cardinal Gibbons, broke his leg trying to pivot on the newfangled surface.

"My foot just stuck to the [rubberized] floor," Jordan recalled. "You could hear the bone snap. The pain was excruciating."

Jordan's season was over, and his teammates worried who'd be next.

"Aw, man, is this an omen of what's to come?" Washington remembered thinking.

"I wondered if we should go back to Burdick," another player, Brian Matthews, recalled.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to lose all of my players,' " Angotti said. "But my worst fears didn't come true. We never had a problem after that."

In fact, the Tigers won their first 12 games in the Towson Center, and 30 of their first 32, winning back-to-back Mason-Dixon titles before their jump to Division I in 1979. What part did the new arena play in that success?

"The building was certainly part of it," Jordan said."But that first year, we'd also picked up a (junior college) transfer, Roger Dickens, a guard who made a big difference. So everything was coming of age. It was, like, our time, you know? A nice coming together of all the good stuff."

In 1997, Towson — by then the only Division I school playing on a non-wood surface — did install a portable hardwood floor. Officials also improved the lighting in the Towson Center, which was originally dim enough that, in 1987, ESPN had to bring its own lights to brighten the place for TV.