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Church Ball, Indeed: Officials and Fans Clash During Loss to St. Mary's

There are boos, and there are Boos. This was the latter. During Saturday's loss to St. Mary's, BYU fans demonstrated that Mormons can indeed get angry - and that you don't want to see them angry - by giving both opponents and referees a jeering that abandoned sportsmanlike respect and culminated in their hurling debris onto the court. Did the person who offered the pre-game prayer forget to ask for help maintaining good sportsmanship?

BYU fans had this game circled on their calendars ever since BYU's December loss at St. Mary's - a game that many BYU fans felt was too heavily influenced by penalties on what they considered reasonable levels of physical play. Fans couldn't wait to get St. Mary's in their own gym and tell referees how they felt about their officiating, but officials sent a message of their own by calling a technical foul on the home crowd after fans ignored a warning to cease throwing debris.

It was like a bad Internet forum discussion: mutual respect was replaced with animosity and a power struggle that neither side could win. The crowd grew ever more unruly in their frustration with officiating, and officials attempted to exert control by making increasingly unreasonable calls.

The tension on display Saturday has several causes.

Zach Bloxham has examined some of the differences in style of play between BYU's old conference, the Mountain West, and its current one, the West Coast Conference. Those differences constitute one factor in the rift between fans and conference officials. BYU is used to playing the UNLVs, SDSUs, and New Mexicos of the world and dispensing physical play of their own. On top of that, BYU isn't used to losing many conference games. To fall twice now to a conference foe that plays a finesse game just isn't something to which BYU fans are accustomed. That frustration is understandable - even good.

Plans to make their voices heard, however, amount to fans' desire to change the culture of the current conference rather than find ways to win given its style of play. While it is reasonable to expect mutual adjustment over time, and while fans are well within their right to voice displeasure at what they consider poor officiating, there is a degree of arrogance in a new member of a conference demanding that everyone else accommodate them. The class that led BYU fans to congratulate visiting Baylor for their recent Heisman trophy - an act that elicited praise from Baylor players and fans alike - was absent Saturday. After the BYU/Baylor game, some Baylor fans declared that the respect they witnessed made them want to be BYU fans. It's safe to say the Marriott Center crowd damaged any opportunity BYU had to earn similar respect from the Gaels.

Consider some of the fan energy a sign that BYU has a healthy program. BYU fans want to win and expect to win, and that is extremely positive. On Saturday, the Marriott Center crowd helped the team as much as it hurt. It kept the team energized and hungry and helped them to a partial comeback. Unfortunately, fans were undisciplined and overreaching in their desire to win, and they harmed both the team's chance for victory and the chance to establish a respectful relationship between BYU and its new conference mate.

That may be the biggest loss of all.