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Gonzaga Basketball
Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Table for 6,000: With fans in stands for both Gonzaga men’s and women’s games, Kennel gets its bite back

Some of them may have been on the unlucky side. Others never stood a chance. Regardless, the 20 teams who traveled to Spokane last season to play Gonzaga’s men and women would be justified if they walked out of McCarthey Athletic Center feeling as though they let an opportunity slip through their hands.

Even when the fans were made of cardboard and the noise in the gym was reduced to the squeak of a rubber basketball shoe hitting a wooden floor, both Gonzaga teams were still untouchable at home in 2020-21, combining to go 21-0 in games played at the Kennel.

If opponents found it difficult to steal a game in Spokane last season, that should be an even greater undertaking in 2021-22 as a basketball-deprived fanbase returns to McCarthey for the first time since February of 2020.

After closing doors to the general public last season – only select family members and friends could attend a handful of games down the stretch – Gonzaga is allowing full capacity this year. A new rule requiring attendees to either show proof of immunization against COVID-19 or provide a negative test taken within 72 hours of the game before entering the arena didn’t seem to discourage the large crowds that took in Kraziness in the Kennel on Oct. 9 and the Fan Fest event that was held a week later.

“I’m super excited to watch basketball again in person, I missed it so much last year and I think there’s going to be a sense of that,” said former Gonzaga women’s standout Heather Bowman, who spent four years at McCarthey establishing the school record for career points (2,165). “I’m guessing for the coaches especially if some of the players haven’t played at the Kennel or in front of folks yet, it’s going to be ‘Hey, we’re going to take this calm, we’re going to go into it.’ Because they’ll just be automatically elevated in the best way and they’ll get to enjoy it. So I think overall it’s just going to be really exciting.”

Though Gonzaga will never claim any national records pertaining to attendance due to McCarthey’s modest 6,000-seat capacity, the venue has provided a robust homecourt advantage to both teams since it opened in 2004, replacing the old Martin Center.

The men’s team has recorded 239 consecutive sellouts at the new arena since 2004, and will soon extend a streak of 272 straight sellouts at both venues. According to NCAA.com, the Bulldogs have the nation’s longest home winning streak at 51 games dating back to a Jan. 18, 2018, loss to Saint Mary’s. The second-longest streak, belonging to Liberty, is 36 games.

“It’s huge. We’ve been just about everywhere, it’s as good of a home environment as there is in the country,” longtime men’s assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Sold out every night, passionate fans, especially the Kennel Club, it gets guys excited and gets them going. It also plays a role on opponents to walk into this building and they’re not used to playing in that atmosphere.”

Sellout crowds in the men’s game aren’t common, but they’re even more infrequent on the women’s side – part of what makes the McCarthey experience such a unique and daunting one for visiting teams.

The most recent women’s sellout – and the 37th in program history – came on Feb. 15, 2020, against Santa Clara. During the 2019-20 season, Gonzaga was one of just 15 teams in the country, and the only non-power conference team, to average more than 5,000 fans per game. Gonzaga’s average attendance of 5,692 would’ve ranked the Bulldogs at least top four in each of the six major conferences and the Bulldogs outdrew 62 teams in those leagues.

“We have this beautiful arena then once the doors open up, the kids rush in, that first group lined up come in,” Bowman said. “Then you can kind of see opponents who maybe haven’t played in those situations before, which on the women’s side is unfortunately common, they see that and it’s like, ‘Oh god, people are into this.’ That’s a different feeling and they just pack the place.

“It was definitely, you’ve got to go up and play Gonzaga, play at this really cool place with these amazing fans and it’s cold. It’s not Malibu, so we kind of felt like that helped.”

Together the men’s and women’s teams have amassed a home record of 450-42 since McCarthey opened in 2004. The men have pieced together six undefeated home seasons while the women have four.

Senior point guard Andrew Nembhard was recruited by Gonzaga out of high school, but passed on his planned visit to Spokane after committing to Florida, then transferred to the Bulldogs last season only to learn fans wouldn’t be allowed at home games. Nembhard won’t play a game of real consequence at McCarthey until the season opener against Dixie State, but the senior got his first sample during the recent Kraziness in the Kennel event.

“First time I had jitters before a game in a little while just because the fans made the atmosphere so unique,” he said. “That was exciting, just to see this atmosphere and it definitely lived up to the expectations.”

Many have expressed sorrow for players who missed out on the Kennel experience last year, though veteran players like Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi had already played dozens of games at McCarthey and returning sophomores, like Yvonne Ejim of the women’s team and Julian Strawther of the men’s team, will get their first opportunities this season.

Only one notable Zag missed out on the experience entirely.

“That’s the one thing I feel bad for last year’s group that Jalen (Suggs) never got to experience it and Corey and Joel to not get their senior year or last year that they deserved,” Michaelson said. “Drew and Anton are the only two guys that have played in a ‘live’ Kennel, and they’ll tell you it was so much better their freshmen year. It’s a unique deal that only two guys have played in it.”

One of the cardboard cutouts that sat stationary in the Kennel for the better part of five months last year belonged to Anne Montgomery, a retired family medicine program director who’s working toward a master’s degree in theology and leadership at Gonzaga. Montgomery, a season ticketholder for the women’s team, spent the past eight years living in Southern California and made a point to see the Bulldogs when they played at the University of San Diego and Loyola Marymount. She’s back in Spokane now with season tickets for the women and hopes to commandeer any men’s tickets that become available.

“At Kraziness, I was really impressed with the Kennel Club, the student section,” she said. “It’s going to totally get ramped up at the games. It’s going to be wild.”

Montgomery, a self-described “old online grad student” was in the student line waiting to acquire a ticket for Kraziness in the Kennel when she was approached by arena workers on multiple occasions.

“So I’m in the student line waiting to get into McCarthey and at least three people, very helpfully came up to me and told me I was in the student line and the public line was over there,” she said. “I’m like, I know.”

Montgomery wound up finding her family members and sitting elsewhere, but she’s still pondering what it could be like to sit in the thick of the Kennel at some point later this season.

“I’m not sure I’m up for standing up and jumping up and down the whole game,” she laughed.

If Bowman could pass on any advice to current GU players, she’d tell them to embrace the atmosphere the Kennel has to offer. It doesn’t last forever.

“It’s tough to go through games or even if you go out to play professionally after, especially overseas, you’re not used to empty gyms,” she said. “I remember at Gonzaga even, having to create that energy (at road games) and it’s so hard. I remember being on the road and we were at a tournament at ASU I think and just having to get the bench to yell and do all this. It definitely takes a bit more to have that kind of help from the crowd who’s getting you energized and getting you going.”

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