At the end of a physical basketball game Saturday, players from Brigham Young and UNLV stopped butting heads and shook hands. Moments later, the physical contact resumed as fans began brawling.
"I didn’t see any confrontations," Rebels coach Lon Kruger said.
But Kruger has heard all about what happened after UNLV’s 76-61 victory over the Cougars in the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship, and some details are ugly.
Hundreds of Rebels fans attempted to rush the Thomas & Mack Center court after the final buzzer. They met with resistance from arena security as rival fans traded punches and mayhem ensued.
BYU fans are blaming UNLV fans, and vice versa. Some fingers also are being pointed at conference officials who instructed Thomas & Mack director Daren Libonati to tighten security and keep fans in the stands.
The fans eventually struggled past security guards and celebrated on the court with Rebels players.
"It was my call to say, ‘Let them go. This is crazy,’ " Libonati said. "We did make an attempt to hold them back. We felt like we fulfilled what was asked of us."
But fearing that people would be trampled — and while watching his ushers get overwhelmed by the mob — Libonati said he felt it was best to allow fans on the floor.
"They don’t understand why you are stopping them from getting on the floor, so you are creating a confrontation," Libonati said. "It put everyone in harm’s way."
Kruger said he was mystified by the Mountain West’s decision to ban fans from the floor.
"Obviously, the ushers were instructed to keep people off the floor. That doesn’t make any sense at all," Kruger said. "It’s one of the craziest decisions I’ve ever heard, given how other conferences allow their fans to celebrate. It’s just a normal thing to do.
"I don’t know why we thought we could do something different. I think it was the reason there were injuries and the reason there were problems. There’s a better way to do it. Fans will follow an organized opportunity to be out there.
"If BYU would have won, I would have wanted for their fans to be able to get on the court and celebrate."
UNLV athletic director Mike Hamrick said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe was upset last March when Rebels fans rushed the Thomas & Mack court after beating the Cougars in the tournament final.
"Tom said he felt that fans coming on the floor, and the way he felt his players were treated last year, was unsportsmanlike," Hamrick said. "He told me that, and he told the conference. I think the conference tried to deal with that."
MWC commissioner Craig Thompson, who was on the court after the game, did not comment. The league office issued a statement saying its "membership supported efforts to limit fans from rushing the court. … The MWC will continue to evaluate the overall game management plan for the basketball tournament."
After the Cougars defeated UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl in December, Libonati said "3,000 BYU fans stormed the football field" at Sam Boyd Stadium. He said fans broke golf carts, busted trailers and stole yard markers.
"It’s all part of the excitement," Libonati said. "We didn’t say, ‘Shame on you, BYU fans.’ "
According to a Salt Lake Tribune story, at least one BYU fan’s face was bloodied after Saturday’s game, and the wife of Cougars junior forward Lee Cummard was seen grabbing the shirts of two UNLV fans trying to run onto the floor.
The story reported several witnesses said they saw Sarah Cummard throw punches.
Next year, when the rivalry promises to get more heated, Rebels senior point guard Curtis Terry won’t be around to see it. But he did see Sarah Cummard after Saturday’s game.
"Cummard’s wife pointed me out and said a couple choice words to me that aren’t necessary," Terry said. "Things happen, and Lee is a good guy. People were just heated in the emotion of winning and losing."