Looking around the McCarthey Athletic Center on Thursday night, something didn’t seem quite right.
There certainly wasn’t a lack of bodies. It was a full house again at the arena, with every seat accounted for at the Bulldogs’ conference opener against the Pepperdine Waves.
But even with 6,000 fans cheering on Gonzaga to a 92-62 victory over the Waves, there was something glaringly absent at the Kennel, of which the fans and the players took notice quickly.
GU’s athletic director Mike Roth accredited it to one thing – no students.
“We have a full building, of course, but we don’t have the same energy that we do with 1,200 students in the stands,” Roth said. “It’s just the nature of college basketball that you end up playing games over Christmas break when students aren’t on campus.”
Gonzaga students were let out of class for winter break on Dec. 19, leaving the Zags without a band – and a well-known student section that can shake the arena every home game.
“When our students are here, we have one of the best atmosphere in the country,” Roth said. But when there’s no chanting, no dancing to the music leading up to tipoff, no band members playing “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen and no giant heads to throw in the air every time a player scores, “It’s just not the same,” Roth said.
Classes at Gonzaga don’t start for the spring semester until Jan. 18. That means the Bulldogs will be without their student section and band members for two more home games – Loyola Marymount on Jan. 12 and Saint Mary’s on Jan. 14.
“It doesn’t make for a great environment or something we’re use to,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “We talk about creating our energy all the time. But yeah, it’s definitely not the same venue as it is when (the students are) here.”
It certainly wasn’t what the Gonzaga fans were use to either.
It’s safe to say there weren’t too many worried fans in the stands at the start of the game between the No. 7 Bulldogs and the Waves, who are currently ranked last in the West Coast Conference standings. But after tipoff, the Bulldogs couldn’t seem to grasp a rhythm against Pepperdine – and it showed on the scoreboard during the first 10 minutes of the game.
GU fell behind in the first half, tying it twice before grabbing the lead for good when Silas Melson knocked down a 3-pointer with 9:16 left until halftime.
“We came out lagging a little bit tonight and it showed,” Melson said. When there are no Gonzaga students jumping on the stands and cheering on their Bulldogs, “it’s a lot less energizing. So we have to create our own energy. I think tonight we didn’t do a good job with that,” Melson said.
Did an absent student section have something to do with the deflated energy on the court in the first half?
“I hope not,” Few said. “Obviously we’ve got road games that we have to deal with where we don’t have that. We didn’t have that down in Florida. We didn’t have that in Tennessee, and all that. We’ve got to be better than that.”
Roth said the GU dorms won’t open to students before Jan. 15, but Student Development, which runs student housing at Gonzaga, will open the dorms early the week prior for any students who plan to attend the game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels.
But the dorms won’t be open before Gonzaga hosts the Loyola Marymount Lions on Jan. 12, which means that contest will not likely have a prominent section of students in the stands. However, Roth said there could be a small wave of students at the arena two days later when the Zags’ take on a tougher contest against No. 19 Saint Mary’s.
“Over the years there have been really key matchups, like the Saint Mary’s game or the BYU game, that fall during the Christmas break. It’s just the nature of college basketball,” Roth said. “But every (school) has to deal with it. We’re no different.”