Wednesday, March 23, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Mile High Madness in March

Special to The Leader

“How y’all doin’?” a woman asked in a thick Southern drawl, climbing down the stairs decked out in Trojan finery Thursday afternoon. It’s not something you hear too often in the Mile High City.

Selection Sunday had sent the Trojans to Denver last week and raised my hopes up that I would be able to not only see my alma mater in action but my first NCAA March Madness game as well. Fortunately, I was able to obtain tickets from University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s allotment of seats from the NCAA. As a big sports fan, it was something I hoped to check off my sports’ bucket list. My contact seemed as excited as I, happy that a Little Rock alumnus would be enjoying the game live.

Slowly the section for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s fans began to fill Thursday as the time ticked away for Game One of the first session for the NCAA Tournament in Denver. Little Rock’s team, seeded No. 12, was set to play in Game Two against the Purdue Boilermakers, seeded No. 5.

At the NCAA merchandise table, I was excited to find a Trojan March Madness shirt, as was a fellow fan. The older fan was excited to find out we were in the same section as him. “I’m so glad we’re able to sit all together. It makes it all that much better.”

The Little Rock fan section was across the court from our team’s bench but close to the spirit. Members of the UALR band came in with their instruments and phones out taking pictures of a once-in-a-lifetime-experience playing in front of thousands in a nationally-televised game.

The family of senior Roger Woods proudly wore shirts with his name and number on them and posed for photos with the giant head shot the band produced. UALR fans finding their seats greeted each other with excitement and familiarity. A few rows down, UALR alum and retired NBA star Derek Fisher was in attendance as well.

While it looked as though there were more Purdue fans than Little Rock fans, it did not sound like it. Chants of “Lit-tle Rock” filled Pepsi Center throughout the game. Iowa State fans in the next section, who stayed for the second game, became fans of Little Rock, the underdog. Several could be heard chanting “Lit-tle Rock” and “De-fense” as the game went on.

“I only came since there was an extra ticket but I’m a Trojan fan now,” one fan said sitting in the row behind me. He shared his friend was from Little Rock and he tagged along for the experience.

UALR’s current Associate Vice Chancellor for Alumni and Development, and as of April 1, UALR’s Vice Chancellor for Advancement, Christian O’Neal, could be seen going up and down the rows speaking with the Little Rock faithful, thanking them for their support. He was the first to pass around the high fives as the Trojans came back from a 13-point deficit.

You could feel it in the air when both the fans and the players realized the game was not out of reach.

As the momentum swung in the Trojans’ favor, the fans got on their feet. The roar of the crowd was deafening as the last minute deep 3-point shot swished through the net. Exclamations of “Oh my God!” and “Can you believe that?!” were in the air. The 12th-seeded Little Rock Trojans sunk their teeth into the fifth-seeded Purdue Boilermakers and were not letting go.

Through two overtimes, the Trojan fans remained on their feet, cheering the team into the second round to face fourth seeded Iowa State. It was hugs and high-fives all around, keeping the united feel we shared throughout the game.

On the way out, two Purdue fans were discussing the game saying the Trojans could be a Cinderella of the tournament. (Alas, it turned out not to be.) Another Purdue fan was heard offering to sell his Saturday, round two tickets. Luckily, I was able to get tickets through UALR’s allotment from the NCAA again. I would now be able to see the next round of games.

By the time I passed the table an hour before Saturday’s game, the Trojan March Madness T-shirts were all sold out -- the first of the teams to do so.

Saturday’s game started a little quieter as the Iowa State fans who cheered on our team Thursday were now cheering for their own team as fourth-seeded Iowa State became our opponent. Still hoarse fans, such as myself, cheered on our team a little quieter and hoped we could will them to play at the their best.

As the game wore on, the fans who stood loud and proud two days before, were almost silent as we slumped in our seats.

The final buzzer sounded and a few Trojan players walked dejectedly back to their bench. The teams shook hands and the Trojan faithful, once jubilantly sharing high-fives, were patting each other on the backs and saying it was a good run.

Before returning to the locker room, senior guard Josh Hagins waved toward the Little Rock fans in acknowledgment.

The experience of being more than 900 miles from home, yet feeling at home while watching the Trojans play will be unforgettable.

Fans wearing Little Rock gear greeted each other as old friends in the concourse and shared reactions in the stands. Other teams’ fans cheered on their pick, some hoping for another underdog win. Though I don’t know when I will ever have such a chance again, as the old saying goes, there’s always next year for the Little Rock Trojans.