VCU fans celebrate Final Four-bound Rams’ upset

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.”