SALT LAKE CITY — It got really, really loud inside Vivint Smart Home Arena on Thursday.
Northwestern fans flocked to Utah this week to support the Wildcats in their first-ever NCAA tournament, and they made their presence felt in Thursday's win over Vanderbilt, effectively giving the Cats a home-court atmosphere as head football coach Pat Fitzgerald frequently played cheerleader, standing on his seat and getting the crowd riled up.
"The crowd last night helped us tremendously, especially when (Vanderbilt) made that run in the second half. I thought we were a little bit tired at that point. So to have their energy kind of feed us and give us energy was really beneficial," Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh said Friday. "And then obviously tomorrow we'd like to see that same backing and maybe a little bit more purple, maybe have a little bit of other fans jump on the underdog. It's something that we want, and I think it could help us."
"I could also say for me especially, but I think for all of us, I felt like it hit us the most when we were in the NCAA tournament when we came on the court for the first time yesterday and we saw how much love our fans had and all the support," Northwestern forward Sanjay Lumpkin said. "It was unbelievable to look up in the stands and hear the chants about us. It was awesome to be obviously in that moment and just be here and knowing that our fans have our back like that, it was awesome."
Should we expect another purple-packed arena for Saturday's second-round game against Gonzaga?
The selection committee typically assigns No. 1 seeds to geographically favorable destinations, meaning top-seeded teams should get pretty good fan presence at its games throughout the tournament. Gonzaga, located in Spokane, Wash., is nowhere near as far away from Salt Lake City as Chicago is.
But while there have been a good number of Bulldogs fans walking around this week, no fan base is more omnipresent than the Cats' purple-clad backers.
So even Gonzaga is expecting a road-style atmosphere on Saturday, despite the fact that it's the No. 1 seed.
"They have a great following," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said of Northwestern. "We've been really good on the road all year, so we told our guys actually coming down here to expect a road-type environment and play like it. So that's kind of the mindset."
Yes, Gonzaga has been really good on the road this year, which might help to counteract the feverish support Northwestern fans are expected to bring. The Bulldogs have been really good everywhere this year, actually, with a 33-1 record entering Saturday's game. But away from home, Gonzaga is a perfect 18-0 on the year.
The average margin of victory away from Spokane this season? 20.2 points a game. That include's Thursday's 20-point win in the NCAA tournament and a 58-point throttling of San Diego earlier this season.
"Yesterday I noticed that Northwestern had a fan base, like they travel with their own arena," Gonzaga guard Silas Melson said. "That's what we want. We like playing with our backs against the wall. We like playing when fans are against us. That brings more fun, brings more competitiveness to us, and brings out our best."