UCLA’s gymnastics and women’s basketball teams will have to adjust to home games without fans

UCLA coach Cori Close talks to her team during a timeout in a game against USC on Jan. 17 at the Galen Center.
UCLA coach Cori Close talks to the team during a timeout in a game against USC on Jan. 17 at Galen Center.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The UCLA gymnastics team heard the news. No fans would be allowed Saturday at its last regular-season meet. The Bruins, disappointed, met as a team. They discussed and they vented, and then they brainstormed.

“What are we going to do when everything is completely different?” coach Chris Waller said.

As professional and college teams grapple with the coronavirus pandemic that has prompted many leagues, including the NCAA, to bar fans from games, UCLA is planning contingency plans for home events that will go on without crowds and only essential personnel.

After the school’s announcement of precautionary measures Tuesday, the No. 10 women’s basketball team is set to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament next weekend and the gymnastics team is without an opponent for its final regular-season meet.

The No. 3-ranked gymnastics team was scheduled to take on Bridgeport, but the Division II school from Connecticut will not travel amid the public health crisis. Without an opponent and without their fervent fans, the Bruins are still adamant about giving their nine seniors a final opportunity to compete.

UC Irvine is the top seed heading into the Big West tournament and will meet Long Beach State in the quarterfinals, but the environment will have a different feel.

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“We can, as a team, as a group, approach this in a way that is going to be uplifting and positive and an example for other people,” Waller said.

Although they won’t be able to fill the seats with fans, the Bruins are hoping to fill the seats with fan-made posters, Waller said. Fans can make posters and drop them off on campus and the team will display them in the arena. The team has yet to finalize a location for posters.

The women’s basketball team has hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in three of the last four years. Teams receive the honor by being one of the top 16 teams in the field, which will be announced Monday.

Coach Cori Close learned of UCLA’s precautions Tuesday during a recruiting trip and the team resumed practice Wednesday. Players were disappointed, but Close tried to put a positive spin on the situation. She told the players they should treat it the same as the closed scrimmages they won in the preseason against Gonzaga and Louisville.

“People a lot smarter than me are making this decision and I appreciate they’re making the safety of the people the paramount concern,” Close said Wednesday,“and I’m just not going to give my energy away to something I have no control over.”

Said UCLA senior Japreece Dean on Twitter: “Unfortunate that I will be playing my last two home games with no fans. Ridiculous.”

The NCAA has decided to hold the men’s and women’s basketball championships without fans because of concerns over the coronavirus.

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UCLA defined “essential personnel” allowed at events as student-athletes, coaches, team trainers and medical personnel, game officials, operational and administrative staff and credentialed media members. USC issued similar precautions Tuesday, but allowed family members to attend games. The NCAA will conduct the NCAA basketball tournaments with only “essential staff and limited family attendance.”

Close said one of her immediate questions to UCLA administration after the precautions were announced was whether family would be allowed to attend. It is the thing she most wishes could be different about the circumstances.

The gymnastics team will not honor its nine seniors in front of their families in the traditional senior-day ceremony, but Waller hopes the parents will get together in an off-campus watch party. The team is hoping to find a way to stream video of the watch party into the arena and pipe in the noise during the meet. After the competition, which will still take place even if an opponent isn’t scheduled, the gymnastics team will meet with the parents and honor the seniors together in a private gathering.

“I’m glad UCLA is taking precautionary measures to care for its students and faculty,” senior gymnast Felicia Hano tweeted Tuesday, “but dang … not being able to have one last time with the fans and the Pauley atmosphere breaks my heart. Not only for myself but for the fans. Wanted to put on one more show for you all.”

UCLA’s decorated senior class includes stars Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, who are the first Olympic gold medalists to compete in collegiate gymnastics. Their participation at UCLA helped attract attention to the sport and the Bruins as UCLA averaged 6,425 fans at home meets this year.

The Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament began Wednesday in Las Vegas amid coronavirus concerns. UCLA and other schools opted not to send bands.

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“As a whole, this group of seniors is authentic, kind, brilliant leaders, all of whom individually and collectively, are just great role models for people of every age,” Waller said. “I just can’t think of a better group of women to [make kids] go ‘OK, I want to be something like that,’ or ‘If they can do this, then I can do something amazing too.’”

One win away from tying the second-most wins in a season in school history, the women’s basketball team averaged 2,940 fans at home games this year, more than doubling the mark from 2011-12, Close’s first year when the Bruins drew just 1,110 fans.

Without their fans in Pauley Pavilion, Close talked to her team about the importance of generating their own energy for their NCAA tournament games.

“The teams and the universities that are able to be nimble in this unchartered territory are the ones that are going to find a way to perform the best,” Close said, “so I want to stay a nimble leader and try to model for them a response that lead to the outcome that we want.”