At 4:00 in the morning I asked Jamie to email me a list of what he'd like me to write about from yesterday. I could write a 10,000-word opus covering every topic, from the delicious Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese at the Food Network Pavilion at the Bridgestone Center (which is delightful) to the $24 we almost paid to park six blocks from the arena (a minor miracle spared us all parking fees last night). So I'm going with the topics he sent me, and adding some along the way as well.
What it's like to be at a subregional:
This is my fifth or sixth subregional, but if you've never been it's almost exactly as you would picture it from TV. The NCAA covers up any advertising in the building, there's no music except what the bands play, and any controversial replays aren't shown on the big screen. Also there's no alcohol sales at the main concession stands, but booze can be served in the suites and luxury boxes. And that's where USF legend and former football walk-on Terry Lucas came through in spades.
Since Terry got his USF flag confiscated as soon as he walked in the arena, he started talking to the staff and found out the Patron Club on the second floor was open to the public... and serving a full bar. Obviously the NCAA doesn't want the proletariat heathens enjoying a few pops during their signature event, but they have no problem giving it to the people in the expensive seats.
So once we found this magical place known as the Patron Club with its $10 Crown and Diet Cokes, we stayed there to see Duke get run by Lehigh. The best part of being in the building is you're in a place filled with college basketball fans. And you're not going to believe this, but everyone was rooting for Lehigh. It was the same thing at the USF pre-game party, where I stood next to President Genshaft and lots of other Bulls at Cadillac Ranch as we cheered on Norfolk State over Mizzou. The collective rooting for the underdog is what makes the tournament amazing, and there's no better place to be than in the building when something like that is happening.
What it was like watching the early games:
I'm a hoops junkie so I try to go to all the games at conference tournaments and NCAA sites. But I've never seen anything like what St. Bonaventure did yesterday. When we were walking towards the building and negotiating with the particularly evil cartel of scalpers here in Music City, we saw a ton of brown shirts that were loud and proud already. During the break between games we noticed even more milling around, and they started the "S-B-U!" chant in the lobby. Their excitement was infectious, and they were just thrilled to be there.
And then they got to their seats. All of them. And by all of them I mean literally the entire student body of St. Bonaventure. How a school of only 2000 students gets that many to travel that far on four days' notice I have no idea. But they were without a doubt the loudest, most intense, and nicest group I've ever seen supporting their team. No trashing Florida State, no Cameron Craziness, just over-the-top love for their Bonnies.
The only trouble I saw was when some of them were standing and cheering on their team but not sitting in the St. Bonaventure section. Some guys sitting behind them that called the ushers. Hey jerks: it's the NCAA Tournament, let the kids go crazy. The other SBU alums and fans scattered throughout the building were just as passionate and kind as well. I have FSU making the Final Four in my bracket, but I was rooting for the Bonnies from the tip. It made the heartbreaking way they lost even more painful. At the bars after the games every one of them we ran into was as nice as could be as well. The Bonnies picked up a lot of new fans yesterday, myself included.
How our fans felt before the game:
Strangely confident. At least I did. I saw enough of Temple to know they had three guards we needed to worry about, but I thought our normal stifling defense wouldn't have much trouble containing them. On that I was right, but on offense I thought we could really beat them down on the block. Oops. Gus and Ron combined for two points on 0-for-8 shooting in 55 minutes. Gus only got his points at the free throw line after someone pulled out his jersey and got hit with a flagrant foul. Obviously I'm a basketball genius.
Something that needs to be mentioned: you can tell the USF fans that have jumped on the bandwagon from those that have watched the team all year. The newbies are yelling "GO!!" when there's a possibility of a USF transition basket, while the diehards know we're going to hold the ball and only get a look in the last 10 seconds of the shot clock. The newbies were panicked when we were down 15-5. I wasn't at all. If you've been a Bulls fan all season, you are more than used to this by now. More than once during the last two games, I've said to someone "don't you know who we are?"
The beauty of this USF team is they know EXACTLY who they are, and they play to their strengths whether up 20 or down 20. I love this team. Did I mention I love this team? I so totally love this team.
Tell the story of the guy in the bathroom at halftime:
At halftime I'm in the bathroom and someone notices my green shirt. He tells me, "Sorry you guys aren't playing great today. Good luck in the second half." He didn't mean anything derogatory by it at all, but this is how I responded. "Nah, we're fine. This is who we are. Yes, we're setting basketball back 75 years, but we actually played pretty well. Don't worry about the points, we'll make some shots in the second half. If we keep playing defense and rebounding like this, we're going to win this game." He seemed unconvinced, but yeah, that's what I said.
We scored 15 points in the first half and shot 3-for-27 from the floor. And I was totally convinced we were going to win the game. If that doesn't encapsulate how bizarre this USF Basketball season has become, I don't know what else can.
How skewed is my "normal?" When Toarlyn Fitzpatrick made a free throw to make it a 19-10 Temple lead with 3:52 remaining in the first half, the crowd let out a bit of a sarcastic cheer that USF finally got to double digits. When it happened, I actually said, "Why are people cheering?" Oh yeah, because 10 points in 16+ minutes of Division I basketball isn't customary. Well it is to me, dammit. And I'm not ashamed of it at all.
The 21-point eruption when everyone was going berserk:
This sounds weird, but I kind of saw it coming.
We had been on the edge of breaking out for so long, it was just a matter of time before some shots started to fall. When AC started hitting those runners in the lane, you knew a run was coming. But when Shaun Noriega comes off the bench and drains that deep three, you could feel the buzz in the stands. It's so bizarre, but Noriega serves as the bellwether for this team when he does play. This shows you how much his teammates like him, so maybe that's got something to do with it. Against Temple, we ran the same underneath out-of-bounds play we did in Dayton to get him a corner three, and even before we inbounded with him on the floor I knew it was a screen-the-screener double curl to the corner. He changes everything when he's out there... for better and for worse. But since February, it's all been for the better.
When Toarlyn drilled the three on the drop pass from Collins, that was the dagger. There were still 13 minutes to go, but it made it a 21-6 run to start the second half. It gave the Bulls an 11-point lead, which against any non-top 10 opponent is almost insurmountable. It wasn't going to be the #BEATEMDOWN that Cal became, but it would be enough.
What was the postgame like:
I think I yelled about five times, "WE ARE WEARING WHITE JERSEYS TO GO TO THE SWEET 16!!" And what made it more bizarre is I totally expected this to happen. Yes, I celebrated and went crazy and hugged everyone and had a few celebratory beverages post-game at the Honky Tonk as well. But at no point, even down 10 in the first half, would I have ever taken an even money bet on Temple. I had total and complete faith in this team. When you read this piece from Gary from just 13 months ago, it shows you how insane this all sounds to a USF basketball fan. The demons have been totally and completely exorcised. I fully expected us, as the play-in game winner and the 12 seed, to win this game. I would have been surprised if we didn't. I think we're going to beat Ohio on Sunday too. I've loved this team most of my life, and have had them break my heart more times than I can count. But I knew we were going to win this game.
I keep waiting for this dream to end. I'm waiting for the NCAA to declare a starter ineligible, or find out our band is running a huge money laundering/drug ring, or that Stan Heath made a blood pact with Beelzebub. It just feels like the other shoe is supposed to drop at some point. Something has to happen to bring the curse back. After all, we are USF, right?
But when this team is on the court, I have total faith. They play together, unselfishly, and for each other. It may be ugly to you, but it is beyond sexy to me. I love this team.
All the suffering, all the hell, all the crap of being a USF fan for this long... it was all worth it. Every single damn second of it. It's all house money now. They can't take away these last three days, and all the joy they've given all of us that have bled out for this team more times than they can count.
Let's get one more tomorrow and pack our bags for St. Louis. Because I don't want to wake up.