BY LAFE PEAVLER
As the WCC Tournament moved into the semifinals in both men’s and women’s basketball, there’s a new sense of excitement and urgency from the fans. The atmosphere was positively electric in and just outside the Orleans Arena.
Once again, I was amazed and impressed with the number of Gonzaga fans that attended the women’s semifinal against Saint Mary’s. Dave Jones was one of those fans.
“We actually came for the women’s games,” Jones told me. “Their teams tend to be really, really fun to watch. They have a fun style of play. The players seem to enjoy it.”
He’s hardly the only fan of the Gonzaga women’s team. “The community comes out and supports the team as well. They’re almost always sold out at home. For women’s basketball, that’s unheard of. When you look at the attendance record for the teams that play Gonzaga, generally speaking it’s three or four hundred. I don’t think we’ve had an attendance of under 4,500 all year.”
I went back and checked Jones’ claim, and if anything he may have undersold the Zags’ devotion to women’s basketball. Gonzaga was No. 13 in the nation in the 2012-13 season with an average attendance of 5,678, according to the NCAA. That’s almost a sell-out every game as the McCarthey Athletic Center has a capacity of 6,000.
Little wonder, then, that more Gonzaga fans have been going to the women’s games than every other team.
While the Bulldogs dominated in sheer number of fans at the women’s semifinals, there were plenty of BYU fans on hand as well. I ran into Ben Kirk, his mother Mary Ann Kirk, and his friends Dillan Bollwinkel and Bronson Gray. Ben Kirk, Bollwinkel and Gray had just recently returned from LDS missions, so this was their first visit to the tournament since they had come home.
“I raised my kids as BYU fans,” Mary Ann Kirk told me with a laugh. “They’ve been coming to this, football and basketball, since they were little.”
When I asked them what the best thing was about being a BYU fan, Ben Kirk responded, “There’s a lot of fans at the game. They travel really well. So, that makes every game exciting as it makes it really loud, and that gives us an advantage over the other team.”
Since BYU will play Gonzaga in both the men’s and women’s finals, we can expect a clash of the two most numerous fan bases on Tuesday.
While there were plenty of fans at the women’s games, the atmosphere at both men’s games was what you would expect at the semifinals: positively electric. The Kennel Club, Gonzaga’s student section, was jumping and loud all game long. However, they were hardly alone as the thousands of more mature Zags fans that had made the journey frequently stood up and cheered on their team against Saint Mary’s. While there were a few loud and proud Gaels’ fans on hand, Gonzaga simply dominated with the strength of numbers.
Once the first semifinal was over, BYU and San Francisco fans piled into the arena. The ROC, BYU’s student section, had already taken its place even before the first semifinal. I talked to Haley Pittsenbarger, one of the members of the ROC who had made the journey. She also came to Saturday’s quarterfinal game to cheer on her Cougars.
“It’s fun and it’s loud,” she told me of her experience of cheering in the student section. “It’s fun to be with students and cheer on the team. We do the same things we do in the Marriott Center, which makes it more fun.”
BYU’s semifinal vs. San Francisco was a thriller that went into overtime, and the fans made their presence known from start to finish. The student section was on its feet from beginning to end, and the Cougar faithful cheered loud all game long.
But don’t discount the San Francisco fans that had made the journey. While they didn’t have the same numbers as BYU, this group had plenty to cheer about as their team almost pulled off the upset. They were in one great mass of green and gold, and they made sure that it wasn’t just BYU fans that had their say.
Well, that’s it for the semifinals. Tuesday, the two biggest fan bases will face off with the conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. We’ll see which fans will celebrate as they cut down the nets in Vegas.
Lafe Peavler is a sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow him on Twitter @LafePeavler.