From a young age, Caleb Lohner began attending BYU basketball games at the Marriott Center with thousands of rabid fans cheering and screaming.
But due to the ongoing pandemic, during his freshman season the 6-foot-8 forward has been playing home games in front of small groups of family and close friends. It’s been that way for almost all the road games as the traditional “home court advantage” around the country has been neutralized.
So what was Lohner’s reaction when the school announced Monday that “a limited number of spectators” would be allowed to attend this weekend’s games Thursday against San Francisco and Saturday against Saint Mary’s?
“I was stoked, man. I grew up going to BYU games. So this year, playing for BYU, there’s no one in the stands. It’s quiet,” he said. “It’s not the same energy in the gym. I know it’s only 2,000 people but from what we’ve played with all year, it’s going to feel like the gym’s full. It’s going to be really exciting. I’m super pumped. Everyone’s really excited.”
Coach Mark Pope revealed that 1,750 fans will be permitted to attend these two games — including Senior Night on Saturday — marking the Cougars’ final two home contests, and the final two regular-season games.
Senior grad transfer Matt Haarms came to BYU last spring hoping to play in front of huge crowds at the Marriott Center. That hasn’t happened, of course. Haarms said he and his teammates are looking forward to receiving a boost of energy from those fans that will be attending this weekend.
“It’s super exciting. Hearing that was so awesome, especially on Senior Night we’ll actually have people in the gym,” Haarms said. “We’ve been able to have close family (at the games). That’s kind of it but that’s already been awesome.”
For Haarms, his “favorite game” he’s played in this season happened in early December against Utah State in Logan, a contest the Cougars won, 67-64.
“They said there were 2,000 people (in attendance) but it felt like (4,000),” Haarms said. “It felt like there were 2,000 people that all hated our guts. It was the most fun game we had all year just because we had so much energy in the gym. I can’t wait to see what the people are going to bring to the Marriott Center for these two games. It’s going to be so exciting.”
Pope credited the school’s administration, the medical staff and medical consultants “with getting to a place where they felt like we could really do this safety and appropriately. Appropriately is really heavy ... because that’s also dealing with perceptions and concepts like that. It’s going to a limited number of fans. It’s a 20,000-seat arena and there’s going to be less than 2,000 in. That’s essentially one person for every 10 seats. But we’re really excited about it.”
The coach added that it’s a good sign that fans will be allowed to attend games.
“With the progress we’ve made in the state of Utah in terms of (COVID-19) cases decreasing, I think it’s a positive thing that we’re actively and aggressively trying to find the safest ways to take limited steps back,” Pope said. “We’re not just sitting on our hands and doing nothing. It’s been a whole team of people that have been involved in making this a possibility.”
Fans who buy tickets for these games will be physically distanced by household around the lower bowl of the arena.
A limited amount of student tickets will be made available at byutickets.com, starting on Wednesday at 10 a.m. for Thursday’s game, and on Friday at 10 a.m. for Saturday’s game. According to the school, additional tickets will be made available to 2019 basketball season ticket holders based on their Cougar Club priority level.
“We are losing our minds at the prospect of getting to play in front of fans in the stands this week,” Pope said Monday in the school’s new release about allowing fans into the Marriott Center. “It’s not going to be everybody, but it’s going to be some people, and that is a massive step in a positive direction. We’re so grateful to our administration, medical staff and all others involved for finding a way to do this safely. We can’t wait to share a little bit of Marriott Center magic with the fans this week.”
While the Cougars are thrilled to be able to play in front of a limited number of fans, Pope knows that his team is facing a tough challenge as San Francisco and Saint Mary’s come to town.
“They’re really good teams. Neither team has performed exactly to the level that they had hoped. But they are incredibly talented teams, incredibly physical teams, incredibly dangerous teams,” he said. “Thursday, we’re going to have to play the best basketball game we’ve played all season long to have a chance to compete. … We’re looking forward to see if we can raise our level of play higher than it’s ever been.”