As most of the regular readers know, I grew up and live in Houston. That meant last year, I was lucky enough to score tickets to the Final Four, played in Reliant Stadium. Little did I know that my Kentucky Wildcats would be one of the participants. Kentucky was a young team, and Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and company had a good but not great year. Further, the Wildcats were ranked as just a #4 seed in the "bracket of death" with North Carolina and Ohio St. But make it they did, and excited I was. Here's what it felt like attending my first Final Four.
There's a palpitation in your heart and butterflies in your stomach all week. Ever since your team won its Elite 8 game last week, a nervous buzz set itself in your brain, and the anticipation grows only stronger. You know of which I speak. You feel it now.
Luckily for me, the work week was busy and my hands were hardly idle. Still, I devoured all the analysis I could--getting my fix of A Sea of Blue or ESPN or anything else. Unless you're a die-hard NBA fan, the Final Four is the only game in town that week. And the national media knows it.
The Final Four ticket packet comes with tickets to Bracket Town, and there are free open practices the Friday prior to the semi-final games as well. Work keeps me too busy, and besides, when your team is in it, you're focused on but one thing--the outcome. In a prior life, I had done Event Management for Major League Baseball's All-Star FanFest anyway. I know how that sausage is made, and it's flat out tiring.
Saturday arrives. There's some dilly-dallying throughout the day, but it's all just counting down the hours. Since the game is being played in your home city, there were not any tourist-y things to do to take my mind off what is about to happen.
The walk from to the stadium, witnessing it in all its glory, is the best. Goosebumps. There are fans of all colors, anxiously clutching their tickets and making sure they don't get blown away (I've actually seen this happen once. Luckily, a helpful fan caught it blowing in the wind). A year prior, I had witnessed a horde of green-decked Baylor fans, incredulous that their Bears had made the Elite 8. This year, it was a sea of blue, Kentucky fans from all over with a smattering of UConn and Butler blue.
We make it to our seats. On the lower levels, four quadrants of colors form in the stands. Each team is represented, and would you believe it if I told you Connecticut fans hardly bothered to make the trip?
Being an NCAA event, there's no alcohol inside the stadium. That only adds to the nervousness. In a typical year, both games are spirited contests, but this year's VCU-Butler tilt feels almost like an exhibition. My friend and I agree that Butler is the team to root for; the Bulldogs would provide a more stout opponent for the Kentucky-UConn winner. Still, it feels almost pre-destined that the late game victor will cut down the nets.
The pause between games is the worst. We mill around on the concourse, pick up some Aramark dreck for sustenance. Any traces of alcohol have fully worn off. Four years ago, I watched my other favorite team, the Texas Longhorns, dispatch Stanford and the Lopez twins in the Sweet 16 undercard. It makes watching the second game much more enjoyable, a relief from the stress. No such luck this year.
Kentucky tips. There's a renewed laser focus, and I'm dialed in like any other game. Only it's not any other game. It's to get to the NCAA Championship. The atmosphere in a football stadium is inherently different from a basketball arena. It's cavernous. Even the closest fans to the court are far away. And for those like me in the nosebleeds, the distance from eyes to player is a chasm. Even the rowdiest basketball crowd can't make much of a dent. I saw it with Texas four years ago, with Baylor two years ago, and with Kentucky now. Noise just dies.
But everyone can feel the apprehension floating in the air. It's so thick I can cut it with a knife. From the outset, it's painstakingly apparent that neither Kentucky nor Connecticut brought their "A" games. It's a scrum, ugly for the Huskies but uglier for Kentucky. With the Wildcats down 10 at the half, I put on a brave face but am internally despondent. Turnovers. Missed jumpers. Bad interior defense. How could we play so badly?
The second half rally comes. Immediately, the Wildcats storm out of the gate to take the lead. Here we go, my heart is telling me. Hold on, my brain says. I remember the confidence I felt at the U-12 TV timeout. Almost inexplicably, there's not another whistle until 2 minutes left. Both teams had to manually call timeouts to stop the gasping. The Wildcats, having to come back from behind, are more gassed.
We're down 6. Hope is slipping. But wait! A DeAndre Liggins 3 goes in. Brandon Knight pickpockets Shabazz Napier. We have a chance. Kentucky runs a bad set. But Liggins has a makeable shot. From my seat, the angle is perfect. The trajectory looks good. It's going in. IT'S GOING IN!
No. It falls short. I still haven't ever seen a replay of that shot.
It feels like a sucker punch to the gut. My friends and I shuffle down the ramps. Once outside the gates, I finally can tell myself, it was a good season.
The National Championship game, to me, is more denouement than climax. I felt obligated to go. I had the tickets, after all. And it's a National Championship game. It feels that way to everyone attending, too. All the Houstonians that bought tickets expecting something magical. All the scalpers who saw the market value of their tickets plummet after Kentucky was sent home. All the other NCAA fans there, who hope that Butler can pull off another magic act like it did against Duke and keep the game close. No one thinks that will happen.
The game turned out to be one of the worst I've ever seen, but don't tell that to the Huskies fans in attendance. On the way out, I could see the jubilation on their faces.
The joy of victory; the agony of defeat. For Glenn and those Wildcats fans ready to soak it all in at the Superdome, it's going one of those two ways. Either way, it's an experience you'll never forget.