A year ago in Las Vegas for the West Coast Conference Tournament, and for conference tournaments around the country, arenas were vast wastelands. 

The pandemic’s impact continued a year after the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled. But, mostly, people were thrilled that games were played 12 months after they were taken away.

Last March, there were no bands, no cheerleaders, no mascots at Orleans Arena. Broadcasters lucky enough to be on-site had to use their “golf” voices during free throws because it was so quiet inside of the arena. Other media members sat in the upper reaches of the building. And the seats were empty. 

But this time, fans are allowed again. 

“It’s so much better. Fans are such a massive part — it might not be everything but it’s close to everything in college basketball. It makes it right. It makes it great,” said BYU coach Mark Pope. “I’m super grateful that we were able to experience all the things in COVID last year. Hopefully that was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. We didn’t miss it. We actually got to do it. But it makes it special to have fans in the stands and the energy and the passion that comes with them. It makes basketball.”

BYU and Gonzaga prepare to play in the WCC Tournament Game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.
BYU and Gonzaga prepare to play in the WCC Tournament Game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU junior Spencer Johnson is thrilled about fans being back. He also remembers how strange it was to play WCC Tournament games, with so much at stake, without the typical, rowdy crowds and pageantry. 

“I’m so excited. It was weird last year, not playing with anybody in the arena. You could hear everything that everyone was saying. It was super weird,” he said. “You had to create your own energy. It’s weird and taxing at the end of the year.

“I’m super excited this year to have fans back,” he continued. “They make a huge difference. The ROC, Cougar Nation, our fans, travel really well and we have fans everywhere. Excited to have them down there and they get to cheer us on in Vegas.”

No. 5 seed BYU will face either No. 8 Loyola Marymount and No. 9 Pacific Friday (7 p.m., MST, BYUtv) in the second round at Orleans Arena. 

BYU would have to win Friday and again Saturday against No. 4 San Francisco to get a shot at No. 1 Gonzaga. 

Last year, the Cougars edged Pepperdine in overtime in the semifinals, then took a first-half lead against top-ranked Gonzaga before falling 88-78

“Gonzaga was really good last year, too, huh? I hope we get to play them again. Our team is different this year than it was last year. We have a lot of guys that are ready to take on that challenge and compete with them,” Johnson said. “The two times we played them this year haven’t been great games. They’ve blown us out. If we get them again, we’re going to be ready.

“The experience from last year would be, we had a 12-point lead at halftime. What the returning guys take from that is, man, I hope we get to play them again. It’s going to be a 40-minute game that we’re going to go after them.”

Johnson recorded a game-sealing steal with 16 seconds left in overtime to seal the win over Pepperdine in the semifinals.

At that pivotal moment, Johnson jumped a passing lane, tipped the ball away from Kessler Edwards and saved the ball behind his back to Connor Harding, who flipped it to Alex Barcello. Barcello was fouled and buried both free throws with 7.7 seconds on the clock. 

“That was a really fun game. They were shooting the lights out. We kept clawing and hanging in there,” Johnson recalled. “I remember they set that down screen on Colbey Ross and Kessler Edwards. We called for a switch and they threw it in. I knew if I could slide around him and get the ball, then the game would be over. I went for it and got it. It’s a really good memory.”

BYU is hoping to create more good memories in the coming days in Las Vegas. 

“This is March and it’s a special time of year. The fun for these guys is the process. We’re not trying to go grab a show. These guys are the show,” Pope said. “They’re going to get to do that stuff for the whole rest of their lives. For some of them, it’s the last time they get to do this. ... It’s do-or-die. You win or go home. It’s really fun. It’s where you make your mark, it’s where you’re remembered forever.”

And it’s even more fun when fans are in attendance.