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BYU, Gonzaga in their own incredible universe

PROVO — Far from the power centers of college basketball, BYU and Gonzaga tipped off on Thursday night, just about the time the East Coast talk show hosts were getting comfortable. On one channel, there were clever monologues and celebrity guests. On another channel were the Cougars and Bulldogs, in a rivalry that arose almost overnight.

It might have qualified as a small conference non-event in some time zones. But when the game draws 20,000 fans, and with postseason berths on the line, these things matter in other places.

For the season, the Cougars are averaging nearly 16,000 fans a game — among the highest in the nation.

Not a big deal?

Try telling the guys on the front row with the blue top hats and painted faces at the Marriott Center.

“Our fans love it,” said athletics director Tom Holmoe.

For all intents and purposes, the game represented BYU’s best shot at securing an at-large bid to NCAA’s postseason gala. With Gonzaga having previously secured at least a tie for the conference crown, the onus was on the Cougars to seize the opportunity. Which they did, 73-65, thanks to some fine shooting by Matt Carlino down the stretch.

So naturally the game drew high interest among BYU fans. Students began camping out to get the best seats at midnight on Sunday. OK 12:01, just to be on the safe side of the Sabbath.

There were no restrictions whatsoever on coveting their neighbor’s tickets.

Total number of tents on the BYU property by sometime Monday: 60.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Jimmermania was still in full force. In a way, it is. Jimmer Fredette launched a whole big-scale thing in recent years, but Tyler Haws — the nation’s No. 4 scorer — has kept it going.

Jimmermania may have moved on, but is anyone up for some Hawsomeness?

“If you have a good product,” said Holmoe, “people will come.”

This flies in the face of what is going on at numerous schools. There are a few traditional basketball places, but in many the game often orbits like an asteroid until tournament time. Administrators have been wringing their hands for several years over steep drops in attendance.

A Harris Poll conducted last month said only 3 percent of sports fans consider college basketball their favorite sport. That’s compared to 35 percent of fans that favor pro football. Baseball drew 14 percent, while college football drew 11 percent, auto racing 7 and the NBA 6 percent of the vote.

Three percent of fans are nuts about college basketball?

Every one of them must have been in the Marriott Center on Thursday.

This, of course, isn’t new territory for BYU. After the arena was built, it was in the nation’s top 10 in attendance for 25 years. Since 2008, it has again been top 25 every season. This year’s 15,473 average is only 500 below last year, when the Cougars were No. 13 in attendance.

BYU came into Thursday’s game having lost five straight to Gonzaga, including a 15-point loss in January.

All the better for BYU’s student section, Roar of Cougars, to arrive ready to rumble. The ROC’s game plan: annoy Gonzaga into losing.

BYU’s game plan: limit Gonzaga’s perimeter baskets. With the Bulldogs ranked No. 10 nationally in 3-point percentage (40.4), the Cougars knew they needed to maintain a defensive presence at the arc. Some of their main problems this season have come from sharpshooting perimeter teams. For instance, LMU made 47 percent of its 3s, Pepperdine 54 percent, San Francisco 50 percent, Gonzaga 46 percent and Portland 61 percent from distance.

If they wanted to stop the Zags on Thursday, the Cougars needed to go out and get them.

As it turned out, Gonzaga made just one of its first nine shots from beyond the arc.

BYU had less luck keeping the Zags away from the rim.

In any case, from the early-morning stakeouts, to pregame chanting, to the in-game jubilation, the game had just the feel a college basketball game should. The crowd was on its feet most of the second half.

As one homemade sign said, “Gonzaga@BYU > Duke@UNC.”

Just a small percentage of sports fans nationally may be obsessed with college hoops — especially in the West Coast Conference — but in Provo on Thursday it didn’t matter. When you’re in such a moment, there’s little time to worry if anyone else cares.

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