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Pac-12 basketball tournament starts, but there’s something missing

Utah’s Alfonso Plummer
Utah’s Alfonso Plummer reacts after making a three-pointer against Oregon State during a lightly attended Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball tournament game on Wednesday in Las Vegas. Utah’s band not make the trip to the tournament and Oregon State’s and filled in for them, playing the Utes’ fight song.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

About five minutes before tipoff, as they leisurely jogged toward the basket while completing their layup line, Utah players heard the school’s fight song blaring from a band situated behind the baseline just a few feet away.

The Oregon State band.

Utah’s band did not make the trip to T-Mobile Arena for the Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball tournament because of escalating concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, leaving their Beavers counterparts to hit all the right notes on their behalf before the game between the teams Wednesday afternoon.

It was a conference tournament unlike any other in the Pac-12’s history, the show going on in an arena that felt even emptier than usual. The UCLA band and cheerleaders did not accompany the Bruins here ahead of their quarterfinal game Thursday, according to a school representative, joining a handful of other spirit squads and bands who stayed on campus because of the perceived health risk. The Pac-12 announced it will give refunds to fans who’ve purchased tickets and have opted not to attend.

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Those who came seemed determined to make the best of bizarre circumstances.

The Oregon State band learned its new tune on the fly, rehearsing the Utah fight song in the locker room after receiving PDFs of the sheet music from the Utah band director.

“If we can get a video of us playing the Utah fight song,” said Michelle Kyle, a bass player in the Oregon State band, “it will be an exciting moment.”

The crowd for the game between eighth-seeded Oregon State and ninth-seeded Utah was sparse, not unusual for a day game between middling teams in the early rounds.

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Pat Murphy was seated next to her husband, Rick Williams, about 10 rows up from the court, Murphy wearing a red polo shirt with a familiar “A” patch accented by matching earrings and a sparkly necklace.

The UCLA women’s basketball team could open the NCAA tournament in an empty venue after the school said fans may not attend home athletics events for a month.

The Arizona fans had made the 6½-hour drive here from Tucson like usual after worrying earlier in the week that the tournament might be canceled or held without fans like a few others around the country.

“We were nervous about it,” Murphy said. “But we got an email a couple of days ago that, despite rumors, it’s happening. … We know people who aren’t coming because they’re fearful. But not us; we love basketball.”

UCLA alumnus Todd Christiansen was similarly unconcerned, having made the drive from San Diego to meet three friends after his Southwest Airlines flight was canceled.

“I was thinking about driving anyway,” Christiansen said, “because I thought it would be a prudent thing to do, less community [contact], air, that kind of thing than on a plane.”

A substitute teacher, Christiansen said he felt he was more at risk in his work environment than he would be attending an event where fans would be spread throughout the arena, at least until the later rounds. But Christiansen was being vigilant nevertheless.

“You’ve got to use some common sense and maybe change the way you behave a little bit in Vegas,” Christiansen said. “You’ve got to be careful. I mean, you’re not going to want to sit at a crowded blackjack table or a crowded poker table, especially, you don’t really know who’s sitting next to you, so you’ve got to be sensible, but I don’t think we should just completely quit living.”

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As he stood outside a row of restaurants that line the exterior of the nearby New York-New York hotel more than an hour before the first game, a scalper lingered with a wad of tickets in his hand.

The scalper, who would give his name only as “John,” said he did not believe virus worries would greatly affect demand for the tournament. The NCAA tournament, however, might be another matter because of the mushrooming concerns.

“Nobody knows, you know what I mean?” said the scalper, who also typically travels to sell tickets at NCAA tournament games all the way through the Final Four. “But it’s funny, it’s a ripple effect all the way down the line.”

Outside the arena, Oregon State trombone player Jamison McGillivray said he was happy to be here, the Beavers’ 30-member band having braved the health risk.

“I’m not really worried about it too much,” McGillivray said, “because we are in the younger demographic that hasn’t been dying as much from it.”

While McGillivray said he was constantly sanitizing his hands, Kyle, the bass guitarist, had devised a novel method for making sure she was staying thoroughly cleansed.

“If you sing the fight song while you’re washing your hands,” Kyle said, “you’re washing your hands long enough.”

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Murphy, the Arizona fan, sat in an area of the arena devoid of fans before tipoff but said she would not be leery of anyone taking the seat next to her so long as that person did not sneeze or cough on her. She had arrived hours before her beloved Wildcats would play Washington in the tournament’s second game and intended to stay even if Arizona lost.

“We come to every game regardless of what Arizona does,” Murphy said.

Would she stay until the end of the tournament?

“You bet.”


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