They’re Playing in the Tournament Too, but From the Stands

SEATTLE — Ten feet from the basketball players looking to advance their teams to the women’s Final Four stood another group of nervous students.

They were huddled in the underbelly of Climate Pledge Arena some 30 minutes before tipoff, their arms slung around one another. They were getting ready to play, too.

“What are we going to do?” Dulce Maria Lara Flores, a senior at the University of Iowa, asked the group around her. “We’re going to dominate,” they responded. They bantered back and forth, their pitch growing until the group was jumping up and down.

“One, two, three, trumpet line!”

Across the country, dozens of collegiate pep bands have followed their classmates as they have competed in the men’s and women’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments. While the teams have faced the pressure to survive and advance to the next round, groups of about 30 band members have provided the soundtrack to the games from the stands, just past the sidelines.

With courtside seats and official absence excuse letters for their professors, the band members may just have the best jobs in the tournament.

“It’s an immersive experience for the entire month,” Amy Acklin, the director of the University of Louisville pep band, said in the lobby of the team hotel, just before her band gave a send-off to Hailey Van Lith and the Cardinals ahead of their round-of-8 matchup with Caitlin Clark and Iowa.

Some Louisville band members had already been on the road for close to five weeks. They had attended the men’s and women’s A.C.C. tournaments in North Carolina and the first and second rounds of the women’s N.C.A.A. tournament in Texas, and they were closing out their appearances at the regional rounds in Seattle. During that time, Acklin had often proctored tests for students and sent scans back to professors in Louisville.

Caleb Thornhill, a Louisville junior on the drum set, was worried about falling behind in history class. Garcie Sizemore, a freshman tenor saxophonist, was catching up in her music theory classes. “I took a math test while the basketball team walked by to get breakfast,” said Ohana Hyllberg, a freshman trombone player.

As the band members talked through their schedule — a red-eye flight back to campus, a few tests, some laundry, perhaps — they paused to make sure they didn’t sound like they were complaining.

They got to watch Van Lith shoot 3-pointers courtside, one said. And basketball is both more fun and easier to understand than football, another chimed in. Plus, there is no true competition between bands, so everyone makes friends on the road. Members of the Mississippi band complimented Louisville’s arrangements, some players said proudly. Sometimes band members from different schools trade hats and T-shirts.

No rivalries? Not even ahead of the bigger games? “I mean, we’re all band kids,” said Calli Cairo, a trumpet player at Iowa. A handful of trumpet players nodded emphatically. The bands always win, they like to say. “We’re the best student section there is,” Cairo added.

They surely are the loudest.

When Iowa is on the road away from its home court, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the band brings the home-court advantage with it. Band members dubbed Minneapolis’s Target Center, home of this year’s Big Ten tournament, Carver North. Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, home of the round of 16 and the round of 8, was quickly dubbed Carver West by band members and Iowa forward McKenna Warnock. American Airlines Center in Dallas, home of the Final Four, would obviously be Carver South, the band members said.

It also does not hurt that Iowa has a large fan base that follows the team. Ahead of Sunday’s game, hundreds of Hawkeye fans gathered at a beer hall a few blocks from the stadium. When the band and cheerleaders stopped by for a quick performance, the crowd went wild. A sea of phones rose in unison to capture the scene. Fan favorites currently include “Separate Ways” by Journey and “Holiday” by Green Day.

“Everyone is dialed into the reason we are here, which is the incredible women’s basketball team,” said Drew Bonner, a graduate teaching assistant for the Iowa band. His players know how to lift the players on the court, he said, and the players, coaches and fans are generous in showing their support for the band.

Bonner has perfected the art of leading the band and watching the game at the same time. His head is on a swivel before tipoff. There are N.C.A.A. rules to follow and the flow of the game to take into account. There are moments to raise the energy of the fans in the stands and moments to stay quiet.

As the competing teams and bands traded points and songs on Sunday night in Seattle, members of both bands struggled to stay seated. The excitement and anticipation were too much at times.

In the end, the game became something of a showcase for Clark, who delivered the first 40-point triple-double in any N.C.A.A. tournament game, men’s or women’s.

Both bands played with equal vigor through the final moments of the game. In the end, Iowa overpowered Louisville, 97-83, to advance to the Final Four. The Louisville pep band would be catching a red-eye flight back to Kentucky, and Iowa’s band would travel straight to Dallas.

As security closed the court for the net-cutting ceremonies, the Iowa band members joined the confetti showers and celebratory pictures. Most were struggling to speak, having lost their voices from cheering.

As players signed autographs and snapped photos with fans, Lara Flores climbed a ladder to cut a small piece of the net off the second rim.

She, too, was headed to the Final Four.

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