Taking the party to the cheap seats

Michael Bryson (Photo by Eric Isaacs)
Michael Bryson (Photo by Eric Isaacs)

December 12, 2013 7:02 AM

The scene is replayed in college basketball arenas all over the country: Fans rushing the court to celebrate with their team after a big win.

But leave it to UCSB to do it differently last Friday.

The Gauchos rushed their fans, climbing into the Thunderdome's student section after the final buzzer to revel in their first win ever over Cal.

"I think we've got a new Gaucho tradition," UCSB athletic director Mark Massari said.

Had the players done that a week earlier after the South Dakota State win, it would've taken them mere seconds to thank each and every one of their student fans. The Gauchos had them out-numbered about two-to-one.

But an estimated 1,800 students flocked to the Thunderdome on Friday, swelling the total attendance to 4,017.

"Man, that was great! We've never done that before!" sophomore forward Taran Brown said. "It was good to have that support and to go up into the stands and cheer with them."

He blocked four of Cal's shots, admitting later that the fan support had put an extra bounce to his step.

"Having everyone here definitely helps you get up," Brown said.

Junior center Alan Williams, who had missed two earlier games with back spasms, kept his fingers crossed as he climbed into the crowd and got that back slapped by dozens of students following his 24-point and 12-rebound performance.

"We've got to be safe out there," he began, "but it is great energy and a lot of fun to be out there, sharing it with your peers."

The last time that happened for him at UCSB was never.

"We really hadn't had any wins of that magnitude here before," Alan Williams said.

They came close his freshman year, losing in overtime to San Diego State before a crowd of 5,011 and then in double-overtime to UNLV before 5,516 just four nights later.

"Those were great crowds, but we just weren't able to finish them off with wins," Gaucho coach Bob Williams said. "And for the last year and this year, the crowds have been very sparse."

The biggest crowd of Alan Williams' freshman season was actually the announced sellout of 6,000 (an extra 300 or so squeezed in after they'd stopped counting) for UCSB's Big West Conference showdown with Long Beach State on Jan. 21, 2011.

But the Gauchos laid a rotten egg that night, losing 71-48, and the students rushed the exits before it was even over. They hadn't really returned until Friday.

"Hopefully this brings our students back and they get excited about this group," coach Williams said. "And hopefully they realize the amount of fun they can have with how much they affect us, and how much they can have an effect on the game.

"The fans really did help us, and I'm happy that my players liked the idea of running up into the crowd and getting the students more excited. And I was happy to get off the court and get to the back room."

The Gauchos actually began to rush the students several days before the game, approaching them on campus and in Isla Vista to talk up the game and hand out tickets.

"Taran and Big Al were out there, and they've got smiles that can light up a room," Massari said. "Z (Zalmico Harmon) was great, too, and so was Mitch Brewe. He's one of the best leaders in our student governance."

He said the current president of the Gaucho Locos, an independent student rooter group, has also been stirring interest.

"They have a good one now and that hasn't always been the case," Massari said. "I remember when I'd only been here for a couple of weeks, and we were about to play Cal Poly in soccer. I asked to talk with him about promoting the game with the students, and he showed up a half-hour late with his longboard, just totally disengaged.

"He told me, 'We usually just put something up on Facebook and that's it.' And then he told me, 'I can't be at the game, either ... I've got something going on.'"

The students were still Loco about soccer even with that dud of a dude leading the way. UCSB has led the NCAA in soccer attendance for the last seven years running.

Massari is baffled by how there's been little "crossover" to basketball, especially since the Gauchos have been Big West Conference title contenders in the sport for most of the last decade.

"I guess you just have to build the mousetrap a little differently and a little better," Massari said. "We're trying a different way with our Loco Rewards program."

Students who sign up and attend games are eligible for such prizes as iPads.

"We've had about 3,000 students sign up for it so far," he said.

Friday's giveaway was 1,000 gold No. 33 jerseys, which was the number of 2012 graduate and current NBA player Orlando Johnson.

"We wanted a wall of gold out there," Massari said. "It was the first time we'd played a Pac-12 school here in a while, so we marketed it hard."

And there's the rub: Pac-12 schools come by about as often as Halley's Comet. The last one before Cal was USC, which got ambushed 69-53 at the Thunderdome in December of 2002.

Bob Williams isn't sure when another Pac-12 visitor might pay a visit to UCSB, although, "I'd be willing to bet that I won't be coaching here when they do."

So it's really up to the Gauchos to become the attraction.

Big Al Williams, one of the nation's leading scorers and rebounders, is a good place to start.

And the Cal game was the perfect time to start.

"We really wanted to let everybody know that we feel like this is our year, and that we have a really talented team," he said.

And if that won't give everyone a rush, then nothing will.