Kate Lewanowicz and Nan Turner
Despite being more than 1,500 miles away, hundreds of VCU students flocked to the Siegel Center on Sunday afternoon to cheer on the Rams in the game that “punched their ticket,” in the words of coach Shaka Smart, to the NCAA Final Four.
VCU hosted a viewing party at its home arena for students to watch VCU take on number one-seeded Kansas in the Elite Eight game of the NCAA tournament. The Rams were competing for a coveted spot in the Final Four, and they succeeded in doing just that.
Fans lined Harrison Street for a chance to witness history on a giant projector screen on the VCU court. The first 1,200 people received vouchers for free food and drink and 2,000 were allowed entrance. Cars and fire trucks drove by blaring horns and yelling at the waiting students, spurring on cheers.
By 1:30 p.m., well before tip-off, a line of students waiting to enter the Siegel Center stretched down Broad St., around Harrison St., wrapping around the back of the building.
Though energy was high, some students thought VCU got off to a nervous start.
“Once they get the nerves out, I think they’ll be ready,” said Kaitlin Mills, a senior marketing student.
But optimism ruled the day, and most students seemed to hold out strong hope that VCU would win.
Amna Baig, a sophomore creative advertising student, said that VCU deserves to win. “They’re going to win, they’re going to make it,” she said.
By halftime, VCU seemed to have overcome any nerves. “I’m really excited and shocked that they’re pretty far ahead,” said Farrah Beg, a third year dental student, of VCU’s 41-27 lead at halftime.
“Its a huge rush,” Beg said. “It’s a testament to our spirit and the team believing in themselves.”
Emily Speakman, a study abroad student from the UK, has even found herself being swept up in the fervor.
“I just love the atmosphere that’s just completely taken over campus,” she said. “Everyone has come together and everyone is so involved. That’s just the best thing about it, that its just everyone — whoever you are — has got excited by this.”
“It makes everybody feel good that they’re a Ram,” said sophomore Rebecca Adesanya. “Even if they’re not, they feel like one. Everyone is bleeding black and yellow.”
Junior Alexis Cousin said that she thinks the low expectations for the team to be successful at the beginning of the tournament have only made the wins sweeter.
“It’s definitely the fact that everybody doubted us in the beginning and now we’re like doing so well and everybody’s rooting for us,” Cousin said. “We have the whole city behind us and I think we have the nation’s hearts right now. It’s really good.”
Once inside Siegel, students cheered for roving video cameras and dived for t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Who Says We Don’t Belong?’ on the back. At half time the Rams were up 41-27 and elated viewers poured into the hallways to redeem their vouchers.
Senior Rizwan Jivani said he was appreciative to the school for holding the viewing party.
“I’m glad they did it because it brings all of the students together and it’s the VCU school spirit,” Jivani said. “It builds it up, it’s really good.”
Jivani said he thought the university should have the day off Monday as a “National VCU Day.”
Fellow senior Plamen Nikolove said the tournament has really helped spread VCU knowledge to far reaches, extending even to the gaming world.
“Even people you play video games with online, I’ll be like I’m going to watch my school play and they’ll say ‘You’re not VCU are you?’” Nikolove said. “It’s gone national.”
Following halftime the atmosphere at Siegel became slightly tense as Kansas made a short comeback, coming within only a few points of VCU. However, at the end of the game fans were storming the court, on their feet, and chanting ‘Final Four’ and ‘We want Butler.’
Momentum built inside the Siegel Center as the game progressed. Cheers and standing (and jumping) ovations erupted each time VCU scored.
After the final buzzer, with VCU’s victory over Kansas cemented, students poured into the streets in droves amid shouting, singing, dancing and cheering, running down Broad St. in a celebratory parade.
“I couldn’t fathom it,” said Simone Phillips, a sophomore sociology student. “I was so nervous at first.”
Mark Turner, a junior mass communications student, is excited for the way that VCU has proved all its “doubters” wrong.
“I am amazed at how our guys pulled this off,” he said. “Going from (not being) sure to make it to this tournament, all the way to the final four, beating the biggest major teams we’ve ever beaten, all in a row. All the doubters on ESPM, all the media hated us and we proved them all wrong.”
Already looking forward to the VCU-Butler match-up on Saturday, Turner thinks VCU stands a good chance of defeating the Bulldogs.
“I think we’ve got a good shot,” he said. “We’re both passionate teams (and have) the city behind us in each team. It’s going to be a hard fought battle but I think if we keep fighting like we did today and the past tournament I think we could actually make it to the final.”
The Siegel Center also hosted the Welcome Home the Rams Rally as the team returned to Richmond from San Antonio Sunday night.