Fans send off Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.-- It was the middle of spring break for West Virginia University and the middle of a workday for Morgantown residents, but it surely seemed otherwise at the WVU Coliseum on Wednesday afternoon.
Thousands filed into the arena to give the basketball team a rousing sendoff as it departed for the Final Four.
Among the throng was Joyce Landacre, 71, who was a student at West Virginia University 51 years ago, the last time the Mountaineers made it this far in the NCAA tournament.
The Morgantown resident stood and cheered with friends and family as the gold and blue carpet was rolled out one last time before the team left for Indianapolis. WVU takes on the Duke University Blue Devils on Saturday evening. The winner of that game will play for the championship on Monday.
"I've been following the Mountaineers since I was 12, and this year I really believe they'll go all the way," Landacre said.
She is an avid basketball fan who attends most games. She drove to the Coliseum Monday and was able to speak with John Flowers, junior forward for the team. She told him they needed to win the title.
"I told him that I'm too old to wait for another one," she chuckled.
Landacre was a student at the university when legends Jerry West and Hot Rod Hundley wore the gold and blue. She recalled the team's first trip to the Final Four in 1959.
"We were all excited, but it was nothing compared to this," Landacre said of the rally.
Wednesday marked the 18th anniversary of the day she was told she'd beaten breast cancer. She said she wouldn't have wanted to spend it any other way than cheering on the Mountaineers with thousands of other fans.
Before the team appeared, the crowd was shown a video chronicling the Mountaineers' journey from their February loss to the University of Connecticut to their capture of the Big East Championship and their stunning win over Kentucky last Saturday.
Then the players made their way onto the court to thunderous cheers.
For Pam McKinney it was bittersweet. McKinney, a Morgantown area housewife, watched from the stands with her two grown children as team members Wellington Smith and Da'Sean Butler gave speeches thanking the fans for their unwavering support.
"I just think it's fantastic," she said. "I wish my husband could have been here to see it. It had been his dream to see the team finally get to go to the Final Four."
McKinney's husband, John, who served as a technical director for Mountaineer Sports Network, traveled with the team and was a huge fan. He died suddenly two years ago at the age of 59.
She said she was proud of the team for its accomplishments and thrilled that her husband's dream had come true.
Kyle Hines, 20, showed his dedication with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Coach Bob Huggins wearing the blue-and-gold pinstriped suit he wore during his first game as head coach in 2007 against Arkansas-Monticello.
The cutout, which was made by the parents of a friend, made its first appearance when ESPN's College Gameday came to Morgantown in 2009. It has taken some wear and tear since then. The cardboard hands are a little flimsy now and the figure is missing a foot, but children still asked to have their picture taken with it.
"I only bring him out on special occasions. This is a pretty big occasion, I'd say," said Hines of Morgantown.
The athletic coaching major said he liked the fact that the team is winning despite the rest of the country's apparent disbelief that the little-known West Virginia team could knock off the top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats.
"I like the fact that West Virginia was the only state that was really pulling for us to win," he said, referring to a recent online poll that showed 49 states favored Kentucky to win Saturday's game. Only West Virginian thought their Mountaineers could pull it off.
Students Donte Newsom, 20, and Nathan Wright, 20, both of Fairmont, followed the team to Syracuse for the Elite Eight game against the Wildcats. Both are excited for the team and are happy to be students while the team is going for the title.
"I think it's a special time to be a student here when something like this happens because it's only ever happened once before and it was a long time ago," said Newsom, a junior nursing major.
"I transferred up here at just the right time," Wright said.
Wright, a sophomore business management major, previously attended nearby Fairmont State University but decided to make the transfer to WVU last year.
Newsom said watching the team take on Kentucky was nerve-racking but he's happy to support the team as it continues in the tournament.
"It was stressful being there (in Syracuse) watching the game, but it just means so much to be here now sending them off to Indy," Newsom said.
The pair said they spent all of their money on the trip to Syracuse and likely would not make the trip to Indianapolis.
Neither would Anna-Marie Scarberry, a 20-year-old public relations major, who thought the turnout at the sendoff was surprising.
"It's surprising that there are so many people here because we're on spring break and it's in the middle of the work day," she said. "But it's awesome that everyone came out to support the team."
Scarberry, a Ripley native, said she had been a fan all of her life.
One pair of fans took personal leave from their jobs at the University Health Sciences Center to be at the rally.
Andrea Murphy and Wendy King came straight from work to the Coliseum and didn't have time to change into their gold shirts.
Murphy, who said she was the granddaughter of the university's very first Mountaineer mascot, said her family bleeds gold and blue. She said she and King wanted to see the team off in style.
"We are just so proud of these young people adopting West Virginia as their state," Murphy said.
"And we're really proud of them for going as far as they have," King added.
The team left the rally for buses that took them to the Bridgeport airport where they caught their flight to Indianapolis about 7 p.m. The flight was delayed after an indicator light on the plane malfunctioned.
Tipoff is set for 8:47 p.m. Saturday at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4850.