Curse words rained over them in the final seconds of one game. A Peppa Pig cutout was waved behind the basket while they shot free throws in another. When they were introduced by the public-address announcer, students turned their backs and shouted “Who cares?”
The UCLA Bruins loved every moment of it. It reminded them of what home was supposed to feel like.
After a road reprieve in which the Bruins delighted in every derisive decibel, winning both games in the final seconds to silence the fans, they are about to put the home in home-court advantage once again.
For the first time in nearly two months, they will get to experience it for themselves Tuesday night at Pauley Pavilion. All fans will be allowed to attend the ninth-ranked Bruins’ showdown against third-ranked Arizona after being shut out since Dec. 1 by a lengthy basketball pause and the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
He tweeted simply “#packtheden,” referring to the UCLA student group.
The Bruins had dropped subtle and not-so-subtle hints about their unhappiness with the family-only attendance policy their school had adopted in recent weeks for home games against Long Beach State, Oregon and Oregon State since coming off the lengthy pause of basketball activities.
After UCLA announced that it was restricting fans for its two most recent home games, guards Will McClendon and Jaylen Clark voiced their displeasure on Instagram.
Posted McClendon: “boo tomato tomato tomato.”
Posted Clark: “Boo tomato tomato.”
Coach Mick Cronin said going into the trip to face Utah and Colorado that it would help his team to run out of a tunnel and play in front of fans, no matter how hostile, because it had been “hugely demoralizing” to play inside empty arenas while other teams were welcoming huge crowds and the Rams had played in front of more than 70,000 fans at SoFi Stadium.
In his return after sitting out one game because of a swollen ankle, Jaquez praised Utah fans after the Bruins held on for a 63-58 victory Thursday, saying, “It felt really good to get out there and play with the guys and in front of this great crowd.”
UCLA had played in front of home crowds of 236 against Long Beach State, 119 against Oregon and 141 against Oregon State, their smallest since all fans were barred at Pauley Pavilion during the 2020-21 season. The Bruins won two of those games, losing to Oregon in overtime amid a largely listless showing.
Bruins guard Jules Bernard said his family attended the recent home games, a nice consolation but nothing like the support that usually bolstered the team.
“Definitely,” Bernard said Saturday after the Bruins held off Colorado for a 71-65 victory, “it’s a pleasure to get back to what it used to be.”
UCLA wasn’t the only California school that recently limited attendance; USC and Stanford also allowed only family members to attend games before recently reversing those policies. Stanford has welcomed all fans back beginning Thursday, and USC will permit up to 50% capacity until further notice, which shouldn’t cause any issues for a team averaging 2,586 fans for home games.
It had pained the Bruins to go on the road and face California, one of the most liberal universities in the country, and see a throng of fans as part of a discrepancy in policies.
“It’s really not the same without fans there,” Jaquez said, “and it was disheartening just knowing there’s been fans at Lakers games, there’s been fans all over California — you go up to Cal and there’s fans and to not have that was unfortunate, but we’re super happy and super ready for the fans to be there Tuesday.”
It's possible UCLA could host its first sellout Tuesday since 13,659 packed Pauley Pavilion for the Bruins’ victory over Villanova in November. Assuming it stays put in the polls or rises, third-ranked Arizona will be the highest-ranked opponent UCLA has faced on its home court since beating top-ranked Kentucky on Dec. 3, 2015.
UCLA is enhancing its fan safety measures, opening arena doors 90 minutes before tipoff instead of the usual 60 minutes, with increased staffing to check for vaccine cards or negative test results; providing medical-grade masks for fans on entry upon request; and deploying roughly 100 hand-held signs among stadium workers to enforce the mask mandate inside the arena.
It will be a big game with a big crowd, the buzz palpable before the game’s first points.
“Super excited,” UCLA guard Tyger Campbell said. “Excited to have the Den back, excited to have all the fans back. I know they’re excited, so we’re just excited to play in front of them. We’ll be ready.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.