Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, shakes the hand with a fan during a send off rally in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, March 23, 2011. The Rams headed to San Antonio, Texas, for a Southwest regional semifinal game against Florida State in the NCAA college basketball tournament.
A day of excitement, celebration and delirium wasn’t quite enough for VCU basketball fans, who turned out late Sunday night to welcome home their triumphant Rams.
Less than 12 hours after Virginia Commonwealth pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history, fans braved the cold to greet Shaka Smart and his Final Four-bound team.
The Rams’ arrived at the Siegel Center, their home arena, well after 1 a.m., greeted by about 5,000 fans inside who were chanting and singing to pass the time until the team arrived.
Smart was the first team member they saw, and as he walked into view with both arms thrust high in the air, the screaming and cheering reached deafening levels, and a chant of ‘Shaka! Shaka! Shaka!’ soon erupted. The crowd also chanted ‘We want Butler,’ VCU’s next opponent on Saturday night.
When they started the season, Smart told the crowd, many of whom hadn’t stopped partying, the Rams’ goal was to reach the round of 16, something no VCU team had accomplished.
“When we got to San Antonio, we said, ‘Why not go to the Final Four?'” Smart told the crowd. “”And now that we’re going to the Final Four, we say, ‘Why not win the whole thing?'”
The crowd went wild, cheering and chanting as Smart introduced Jamie Skeen, who was clutching a basketball as the most outstanding player of the Southwest Regional, and point guard Joey Rodriguez, who held the trophy for winning the regional championship above his head.
Smart also introduced Bradford Burgess, whose layin with 7 seconds left beat Florida State in overtime in the regional semifinals, and Brandon Rozzell, whose 3-point shooting has been key all tournament long.
“All the people that didn’t believe in us on Selection Sunday, what are they saying now?” Smart asked the crowd, continuing the Rams’ rallying cry since they were selected to play in the tournament, then dismissed as undeserving by television commentators.
Smart ran off the list of teams the Rams have sent home, all from power conferences. Southern Cal of the Pac 10. Georgetown of the Big East. Purdue of the Big Ten. Florida State of the Atlantic Coast Conference. And on Sunday, top-seeded powerhouse Kansas of the Big 12.
All but the victory against the Seminoles came by 10 points or more.
About 1,400 students watched VCU’s 71-61 victory on the big screens inside the Siegel Center, then poured out onto Broad Street — and main thoroughfare — to party when it was over.
Many, it seemed, came back to welcome the team home.
Before the team arrived, cars driving by the Siegel Center honked, a bus driver pulled up and screamed “VCU, Final Four Baby” into his microphone, drawing huge cheers from the crowd.
The steadily growing crowd chanted and sang popular songs, and cheered itself, too.
“This puts us on the map,” said Seaver Woolfolk, 24, a senior psychology major. “You can feel the momentum growing nationally. Everyone is pulling for VCU as the underdog.”
Shamiya Dale, 24, was first in line at one entrance, and said she’d arrived at 9 p.m.
Dale said she was working at Sam’s Club while the game was going on, and grateful her post in the jewelry department was right next to electronics so she could watch the game.
“It was very exciting,” she said, until the Jayhawks closed to within two in the second half. With the crowd growing in front of the televisions, “My heart was beating like crazy, but I didn’t give up on them. I knew how hard they play and that they wouldn’t give up.”
Dale, who graduated in December with a Master’s degree in teaching, was among the first to arrive at the Siegel Center, where lines of hundreds of students and fans formed at both ends.
Stephanie Bell came around 9 p.m., too. She said she wasn’t able to watch the game until halftime, and while delighted with the 14-point lead, worried as Kansas came back.
“I was sweating bullets when I saw Kansas close that gap, but I knew they would pull through,” the 26-year-old, who graduated from VCU in December 2008 said. “I think they thrive off the negative comments, and all the people saying they didn’t deserve to be there.”
Bell said she rarely makes it to games, but called in late for her 7 a.m. shift on Monday at the Howard Johnson’s nearby because she wanted to be part of the celebration with the team.
“It’s the Final Four!” she said.
Ryan Darnell, a Richmond native, came to be part of the party, too.
“I was worried,” he said, when Kansas got close in the second half. “I was scared the Cinderella story was ending. I felt like it couldn’t end then. It just wouldn’t be right.”