LAS VEGAS – This is home for Gonzaga sophomore Julian Strawther and something of a second home for thousands of Zags fans annually in early March.
After a one-year hiatus – fans weren’t permitted at last year’s WCC men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 protocols – Gonzaga followers are back in full force, filling hotel rooms and restaurants. They typically occupy about 5,000 seats for GU’s games at Orleans Arena.
“It’ll be awesome,” said junior forward Drew Timme, who experienced a nearly packed Orleans Arena in 2020 with 7,210 watching Gonzaga’s 84-66 title-game win over Saint Mary’s and a largely empty building in last year’s 88-78 championship victory over BYU. The official box score didn’t include an attendance figure.
“It’s also just comforting how well Zag nation travels,” Timme added. “It doesn’t really feel like an away game. It kind of feels like we’re in half a Kennel sometimes. It’s a lot of fun for sure.”
Especially for Strawther, who is making his second trip home this season to play in front of friends and family. The 6-foot-7 wing was a first-team All-State selection as a sophomore, junior and senior while becoming the all-time leading scorer at Liberty High in Henderson, roughly 10 miles from Orleans Arena.
“I played with some fans (at the Orleans) when I was in high school, but it’s nowhere near the type of attendance you get during the WCC Tournament,” Strawther said. “There’s a whole different atmosphere when you play in front of big amounts of people and in big games.”
Strawther enjoyed his first return to Las Vegas in November, minus absorbing an 84-81 loss to Duke at T-Mobile Arena. Gonzaga went 2-1 with routs over Central Michigan 107-54 and then No. 2 UCLA 83-63.
“I don’t want to lose no games back in Vegas,” Strawther said. “I told the guys that. The guys were on my side and they were like, ‘Make sure we defend Ju’s home turf.’ Obviously it still hurts we didn’t get that done the first time, but we have a chance to go cut down some nets in my hometown, which would be an amazing opportunity.”
Strawther made three 3-pointers, 8 of 16 shots and scored a season-high 20 points against the Blue Devils. He didn’t commit a turnover in 35 minutes. He matched his season high with 20 points in a January win over BYU.
“The kid Strawther, big time,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s a key guy for them. We thought he was good, he was better.”
Strawther had 27 points and 14 boards against Central Michigan and UCLA. He recalls having solid outings when he played at Orleans Arena during his prep career.
“Maybe it’s just a comfort level, being back in the Vegas atmosphere, something like that,” he said. “I played there a lot when I was in high school. Hopefully I can keep the streak of good games going that I had in high school.”
The Zags are 28-3 since the tournament moved to Orleans Arena in 2009. The three losses were in the title game to Saint Mary’s in 2010, 2012 and 2019.
Parents and relatives of several Zags posted pictures on social media of their travels to Las Vegas.
“Super excited,” said senior guard Andrew Nembhard, whose father, Claude, will be in attendance for the tournament. “Gonzaga fans are second to none. I love playing in front of them and I think it’s going to be rocking in Vegas.”
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