A tale of two student sections: While Antelopes ran rampant through the Lilac City, they weren't fast enough to escape the Crimson Tide

Mar. 24—That steady thumping coming from the Spokane Arena on Sunday was due in large part to the herd of Antelopes taking residence in the northeast corner of the building.

The hundreds of students sent by Grand Canyon University for the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament made their presence known during their time in the Lilac City.

Purple face paint, shirts and comically large ball caps could be spotted throughout downtown, as they trickled out of hotels, into coffee shops, through Riverfront Park to the Arena.

It was a majority purple crowd that helped the 12th -seed Lopes upset the No. 5 St. Mary's Gaels in the first round on Friday. GCU students packed the stands again on Sunday, hoping for another upset, this time over No. 4 Alabama.

On one end of the Arena stood GCU's formidable student section, nicknamed the Havocs, jumping, chanting and waving more than a few signs. One read, "Send noise complaints to wedon'," another said, "Amen to March Madness," a nod to the private university's Christian ethos.

"We bring the energy," said GCU sophomore Sam Street. "We're the biggest party in college basketball."

On the other end stood 22-year-old Jacob Pickle, the lone Alabama student section member sent by the school to support the Crimson Tide.

Pickle's served as the president of the Crimson Chaos, the Alabama student section, since last May. He's attended just about every sporting event he could, including 31 out of the Tide's 34 basketball games this season.

He said he cares a lot about getting students engaged with athletics, just before giving a nod of approval to the Havocs, who've achieved just that while on the road in a different state.

Still, he wasn't worried about being outnumbered, or the effect the GCU crowd would have on the game. He said the Tide's opponents in the Southeastern Conference, where football is king, has fostered much more hostile environments than the one he expected Sunday.

"It definitely is intimidating," Pickle said. "I mean, we've just got the players' guests, the families and me, on this side of things."

"I know they're not intimated though," he added, gesturing to the Alabama players warming up ahead of the game. "That's the most important part."

Pickle takes his responsibilities seriously, due in part to his love for sports, but also due to the significant weight that comes with the role.

In April 2021, the former Crimson Chaos President Luke Ratliff died of health complications after contracting COVID-19, as reported by the L.A. Times.

He was 23.

"He really created this position and brought the program, the student section, back," Pickle said. "I didn't know him super well, but he's just somebody I would always look up to."

Ratliff, known affectionately as Alabama basketball superfan "Fluffopotamus," died just a few days after returning home from the Tide's NCAA tournament appearance in Indianapolis that year.

"It just took everybody by surprise," Pickle said.

Ratliff has been honored in a number of ways in the years since, including a new tradition that gave Pickle the crimson suit jacket he can be seen sporting at almost every game. Ratliff's plaid jacket was his signature, and at the end of each year, a similar jacket is gifted to the new Crimson Chaos president.

Pickle said he does his best to live up to Ratliff's legacy, by working to increase student attendance for the sports that don't draw as big of a crowd as football, and helping break down barriers for those who feel sports may not be for them.

He wanted to make sure everyone was involved, and plugged in, and felt like they belonged there," Pickle said. "Sports is the great equalizer. We just get such a cool opportunity to get people in smaller groups and have them get to know each other better."

Pickle said he's loved seeing how the community on campus has gotten closer over the course of the season, and how passionate about basketball they've gotten. He said he sees a lot of similarities with the Havocs, who barely took a rest from their noisemaking as the game stretched on.

GCU freshman Joelle Roberts said the sense of community and shared religious views at the Phoenix school is a big reason why she decided to leave her Midwest home for sunny Arizona.

She's gone on three school-sponsored trips to support the team this season, a program that's helped the Havocs establish a reputation as one of the rowdiest student sections in college basketball. Roberts said she only had to pay $28 for the Spokane trip, as did every other student who was able to sign up on a first-come, first-served basis.

"It's been great so far for my first time in the Pacific Northwest," Roberts said. "It's super pretty here, I can definitely see it as a destination city in the summer."

As to the secret behind what makes the Havocs so impactful, Roberts attributed that to the sense of pride the students feel for their athletes.

"We're just pure energy, no negativity," Roberts said. "We're not haters, we just cheer on GCU."

The Havocs brought that energy Sunday, but it wasn't enough to help the Lopes secure the win. Alabama won 72-61 and will head to Los Angeles to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels on Thursday.

Pickle said he hopes to be in attendance.

He also plans on taking some pointers from the Havocs to pass on to the next Crimson Chaos president. Game recognize game, as the kids say.

That's the coolest thing I've been able to see this year, is just people coming together and growing as a community," Pickle said. "At basketball games, specifically, but as well as everything else.

"To be able to have that, plus these experiences, and carry on Luke's legacy, it's just made this year even more impactful."