Louder for the people in the front: Zag fans have their own challenges during away games

click to enlarge The Kennel - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
The Kennel
Two hours before game time, the picturesque Saint Mary’s campus in Moraga, California, was the scene of a literal college party.

Pong balls and cornhole bags flew through the air, which was scented with a hint of beer and grilled meat. Alumni gathered in the beer garden while students draped in white “Gael Force” shirts populated the grassy areas around a campus empty just the day before January term break.

For every team in the West Coast Conference, the day Gonzaga visits is the biggest day on the schedule. Fan support is enormous and, unfortunately for them, the results are typically quite lopsided. Saint Mary’s understands this as well as anybody.

The Gaels play in a 3,500 seat gym — the Kennel holds 6,000, for comparison — which feels even smaller in person than it does on television. The ceiling is low and the walls behind the baskets are close. They hold in both heat and noise from the crowd. As the fans began streaming in, some Gonzaga fans made their way in as well. Well outnumbered, the Zag contingent tried its best to match the energy at Saint Mary’s.

“We’ve developed quite a following and Zag fans show up everywhere we go,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said after the game. “It’s great, but I honestly didn’t hear them tonight. That was a heck of a Saint Mary’s crowd that was ready to erupt. I thought we did a good job of quieting them.”

Gonzaga quieted the Saint Mary’s crowd by hitting 14 of its first 15 shots from the field. Even the one miss in that span resulted in points, as Drew Timme grabbed Corey Kispert’s missed jumper and put it back for a layup.

By halftime, the Zags led 53-28 and had made just shy of three-quarters of their shots. That beatdown took a bit of a toll on the Gaels’ fans. The entire side of the building opposite the benches, which contains the student section as well as general admission seating, remained on its feet for the whole second half, though they weren’t quite as loud as they were at the start. That opened the door for the Zag fans who made their way to Moraga to make themselves heard.

“It’s great to have them here,” senior forward Killian Tillie says. “They’re always in the back seats, but they make a lot of sound and get loud.”

The back seats isn’t an exaggeration. There were Gonzaga fans standing on the walkway behind the back seats, screaming over the standing-room-only crowd.

In the end, Gonzaga won 90-60 and the Zags gathered at center court to clap for the fans who cheered them on in the hostile road environment of their archrival’s home arena.

Thirty-point margins of victory are barely newsworthy anymore when it comes to the Zags. It’s no surprise when Gonzaga beats up on teams from the West Coast Conference, but Saint Mary’s is a little different. Bracket Matrix, a website that aggregates bracketology from 92 different outlets, listed the Gaels as a projected nine-seed in the NCAA Tournament. And that’s as of their update which came after Saturday’s game. Saint Mary’s appears in 90 of the 92 brackets.

“This is an NCAA Tournament team,” coach Few says of Saint Mary’s. “If anybody knows it's us, because we play them and we play in it all the time.”

Gonzaga’s an NCAA Tournament team, too. Beating the crap out of another one in a rowdy road environment pushes the Zags even closer to picking up a top-seed in that tournament. Even before the game, the tournament selection committee listed the Zags as a one-seed in their mid-season bracket reveal on Saturday.

Whether that happens in the end or not, Gonzaga proved in Moraga how dangerous it can be come March.

The players have the ability to obliterate tournament-worthy opponents, and the fans are capable of going toe-to-toe — or, rather, throat-to-throat — with opposing supporters. It’s more than likely that Zag fans will be the ones outnumbering the opposition by that time though. It won’t just be a small, passionate group infiltrating enemy territory like it was Saturday at Saint Mary’s.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story noted the Zags won 90-30. That information has been corrected to 90-60.

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