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Maturi Pavilion is where the Gophers can count on big crowds for support

December 7, 2018

Everyone at Maturi Pavilion knows her as The Blanket Lady. A longtime fixture at Williams Arena, Elvera “Peps” Neuman brought her crowd-rousing cheer to the volleyball court a few years ago, getting people on their feet by running down the sidelines and waving a Gophers blanket.

It’s a big hit — when she can get in.

“The last three or four weeks, I tried to get tickets,” Neuman said last Saturday, from her courtside seat at the packed Pavilion. “They were all sold out. But that’s what makes it special.”

The Gophers will return to Maturi Pavilion on Friday, facing No. 15 seed Oregon in the NCAA regional semifinals. As the No. 2 seed, they earned the right to play at their campus home as long as they continue to advance in postseason play, moving only if they make next week’s Final Four at Target Center. That keeps them on a court where they have compiled a 61-2 record over the past four seasons, including a pair of tournament-opening sweeps last weekend.

The Minneapolis regional is the only one to include four seeded teams, making the Gophers’ path especially treacherous — and the home-court advantage especially valuable. No. 7 seed Nebraska faces No. 10 seed Kentucky in the other semifinal, with the winners meeting Saturday for a berth in the Final Four.

Another elbow-to-elbow crowd is expected Friday at the 90-year-old Pav, where this season’s average announced attendance of 5,326 is fourth highest in the nation. At full volume, it’s a place that causes ears to ring and bones to shake, fueling the Gophers with a joyful noise.

“We just have a great crowd,” coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “The energy in the building is pretty awesome, really. There’s a lot of juice there. It’s a great gym.”

McCutcheon said playing at home offers genuine benefits in the postseason, with no travel hassles or missed classes to worry about. There’s also the psychic lift of playing at the Pav, a repurposed hockey rink where the Gophers are 16-0 this season.

The original building, called the University of Minnesota Field House, was divided into Williams Arena (basketball) and Mariucci Arena (hockey) in 1950. When the new Mariucci Arena opened in 1993, the old rink was remodeled into the Sports Pavilion. It was re-christened Maturi Pavilion in 2017 to honor former U athletic director Joel Maturi, a champion of the school’s Olympic sports programs.

McCutcheon considers it a major advantage to train and compete in the same gym. He doesn’t view the Pav as a particularly unique building; several other Big Ten gyms, he said, have similar tight quarters and modest capacities. But a season-ticket base that has more than tripled since 2015, and demand high enough to attract ticket scalpers, has created an atmosphere that gives the Gophers an edge.

“The Pav is an advantage because our fans are so invested in our game,” sophomore right-side hitter Stephanie Samedy said. “If we’re down or if we’re up, they’re always there to boost us. I think for other teams coming into that, it would be really hard to deal with, just the noise.”

The Pavilion can hold 5,500 fans, and this season’s announced crowds have filled it to 96.8 percent of capacity. That’s the third-highest rate in the Big Ten, which is on pace to lead all Division I conferences in attendance for the 12th consecutive season. The Gophers have ranked fourth in the nation in average attendance every year since 2015.

National leader Nebraska (8,205) and second-place Wisconsin (6,827) have larger arenas. The Gophers have a building with no air conditioning — a Sept. 15 match against Kansas State was canceled because it was too hot — and seats so close to the end lines that some players are only inches away when they serve.

When the Pavilion is roaring, though, even some opponents appreciate its charms.

“It’s the atmosphere every coach, and I think every athlete, dreams of playing in,” said Bryant coach Theresa Garlacy, whose team was swept by the Gophers in the first round. “Having the crowd right on top of us in the first set was a little intimidating, but then we started to have fun with it.”

The fans understand the power of that proximity. Though catcalls are discouraged — a sonic boom is their weapon of choice — the close quarters give them a sense of connection to the Gophers, and to the outcome.

“At any given point, I’m probably five meters away from half the team,” said Carson DeSotel, a freshman from Rogers with a bleacher seat on the end line. “It feels more personal for me, and it feels like I could actually have an effect on the game by cheering.”

The Gophers probably could draw larger crowds at Williams Arena, where they have occasionally played in the past. It has been the site of two of the highest-attended matches in NCAA history, drawing more than 10,000 for regular-season matches in 2005 and 2008.

Athletic department spokesman Paul Rovnak said there have been no discussions of moving any matches, which suits McCutcheon.

“We’ve got it good where we are,” the coach said. “To take an advantage away from our team on the off chance that maybe we could get a better crowd, it seems like we’re not honoring our commitment to the program.”

Neuman seconded that, before cranking the volume with another blanket run.

“I’m so happy they didn’t move these [tournament] matches to Target Center, or even Williams,” she said. “Playing here in the Pavilion, it makes a world of difference.’’

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