In era of silent nights, U basketball players create their own atmosphere

After Marcus Carr’s step-back three-pointer sealed Monday’s 67-64 victory for the Gophers against Loyola Marymount, he turned toward his bench to see teammates leaping in celebration.

Behind them, though, were nothing but empty seats at Williams Arena.

When Carr gazed in the opposite direction, the junior guard saw more of the same. Emptiness. The game announcer and players shouted with emotion during the play. Then the Barn went silent.

Gophers coach Richard Pitino said he thought, “What do I do?” in reaction to Carr’s dynamic shot.

“I hate it for Marcus Carr,” Pitino said. “[He] makes a great play and he can’t feel that enthusiasm. That’s why you play sports … I hate it. I hate it for our guys.”

The state’s COVID-19 restrictions have kept the Gophers (3-0) from having fans at games this season, erasing the atmosphere at the Barn. It’s been up to the players to generate their own excitement and energy to try to preserve a home-court advantage.

After playing LMU twice in three days, at least they’ll face a different opponent Friday with North Dakota.

“It’s an adjustment for sure,” Pitino said. “As much respect as we have for [LMU], it’s going to feel different from Iowa at home on Christmas Day. It can’t matter. The fans can’t matter. The empty seats can’t matter.”

Junior forward Jarvis Omersa jumped higher than anyone off the bench after Carr’s game-winning three-pointer with 2.9 seconds left.

Omersa has been known for hyping the crowd with all sorts of bench celebrations. And when he’s in the game, his dunks provide a spark as well.

That hasn’t changed much. And the Gophers have leaned on his constant motor to uplift them even more this season.

“It’s very important, the energy always needs to be there,” Omersa said. “We’ve been preaching a lot in practice that we need to keep the vibes up, because it’s going to be us and [the opponent] out there and nobody else.”

Former Gophers center Daniel Oturu, who was drafted into the NBA last month, talked to Omersa this week about the difference of playing in front of no fans this season. Oturu, starting training camp with the Los Angeles Clippers, couldn’t imagine dunking and flexing to the crowd like he did last year and having nobody there to respond.

“But he was like, ‘That doesn’t affect your playing style,’ ” Omersa said of his recent phone conversation with Oturu. “He said that doesn’t affect what you do and bring to the team still.”

Entering his third year with the Gophers, Omersa is more comfortable with his role. That helps when everything else around the program and the country is so different and uncertain.

Pitino has relied on his veterans to lead the way early in this unprecedented season. Besides Carr’s late-game heroics and elite offensive production (29.7 points through three games), fellow captains Gabe Kalscheur and Eric Curry have set the best example with their consistent effort in practices and games.

The U has six newcomers who still haven’t experienced what it’s like to hear Gophers faithful cheer them on or sing “The Rouser” with them after a victory. The first-time players are trying to get comfortable with a new team and a new way of playing in an empty arena.

“We didn’t expect to have fans,” Curry said. “So [Pitino] is always preaching bring your own energy, talk and be loud. There is not going to be anybody in the crowd, so we have to bring it for ourselves.”

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