Don’t Mess With Wildcats: What It’s Like to Be a Villanova Fan in Houston Right Now
“The Final Four is just huge.”
That’s everything you hear going into it — that the National Semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament are basketball on a scale unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Honestly, it’s a bit of a sensory overload. The stadium is the biggest you’ve ever seen for basketball, the stakes are the highest you’ve ever felt and there are basketball-crazed people literally everywhere you go. It’s hard to put it all into a coherent narrative, so instead of that, here’s a list of the sights and sounds as the Villanova Wildcats and ’Nova Nation have traveled down to Houston for this year’s Final Four.
Villanova 95-Oklahoma 51
There’s been a ton going on in Houston this week, and we’ll get to that, but we have to start with this game. Final Four games are not supposed to go this way. They’re supposed to by taut, low-scoring affairs between two of the top teams in the nation in a cavernous football dome that has been a nightmare for many a sharpshooter. Coming off a blowout victory over Miami in the Sweet Sixteen and a tense triumph over the top-seeded Kansas, Villanova was coming into this game with serious momentum. Oklahoma was, too, though. They had just beaten No. 1 seed Oregon handily in the Elite Eight and superstar Sooner Buddy Hield was averaging 29.3 points per game in the tournament. So while many ’Nova fans felt that they could win on Saturday, not many believed it would be a blowout in either direction. When Hield drilled a three right in Ryan Arcidiacono’s face on the first possession of the game, it looked like it was going to be another big night for Buddy and could be another long night for the Wildcats, who played against Oklahoma in December and lost by 23 points. However, the now-familiar Villanova defense began to assert itself as the game went on, and Hield went the way of Kansas star Perry Ellis before him, scoring in single digits in his final college game. Hield finished the game with only nine points on twelve shots. The three he hit on the first possession would be his only one of the game.
Every now and then, your team has a game when everything seems to go right and every shot seems to go in. That was Saturday night for ’Nova. It’s strange to do it in a game like this, though. As the shots kept falling and the lead kept extending, Villanova fans went from thinking, “This can happen,” to “This is happening!” to “Wait, what is happening?” 95-41. Largest margin of victory in tournament history. Second-highest field goal percentage in Final Four history (trailing only VU’s 1985 championship game win over Georgetown). It was just complete absurdity. Final Four games are not supposed to go this way, but this one did, giving Villanova fans two more nights in the tournament and Jay Wright the chance to bring the school its second national championship.
The gates opened at 2:30 p.m. for the 5 o’clock local tip. There was some uncertainty among Villanova students over whether or not seats in the student section would be assigned — our tickets had seat numbers on them, but nobody actually believed that would be enforced — so there were about 300 students waiting in line as the gate opened.
After going through security and getting a student section bracelet, the fans streamed into a then-empty NRG Stadium. For whatever reason, the NCAA put up large black curtains along the concourse that prevent you from seeing the court until you’re out in your seats. So we’re walking through the stadium, not really sure what to expect, until we are directed to our seats and see an 80,000 seat arena completely empty, and set up for a basketball game. It was chill-inducing and a far cry from the 6,500 seat Pavilion. Watching the Final Four on TV doesn’t do justice to the insanity that a basketball court in the middle of an NFL stadium.
There are a million weird things about a big-time college athletic game. The songs, mascots and traditions rarely make sense. Perhaps the weirdest thing for Villanova fans this weekend was the fans. For whatever reason, Oklahoma fans were really nice. One OU fan asked us to take a photo with his kids before the game. Afterward, there were Oklahoma fans at the Villanova bar just hanging out. People wished us luck before and after the game. Apparently this is par for the course in college athletics, but for fans who were raised on NFC East football, it is deeply unnerving. I mean, can you imagine Giants and Eagles fans wishing each other luck before a clash at the Linc? It almost required a double take for ’Nova fans: “No, this is normal. Be nice to these people.”
In the Villanova section during the game, the only word to describe things was jubilation. The stadium is so big, and each team basically has a corner of the first level, so there were thousands of Wildcats fans all next to each other. As ’Nova pulled away, people were going nuts. They weren’t just beside themselves, they were outside of themselves. It seemed like every 30 seconds a chant of “Let’s Go ’Nova” would rise up. It’s pretty repetitive, not terribly creative and holds nowhere near the gravitas of something like “Boomer Sooner,” but it was a respectable showing from the ’Nova fans. On multiple occasions fans who saw us around Houston simply said, “Damn, ’Nova fans showed UP.”
You can tell you’re there for the Final Four from the minute you step out of a cab in downtown Houston. There are just people everywhere. The home base for Villanova was a two-story bar called The Dogwood that was mobbed with Villanova people and also just random athletes every night. Texans Assistant Coach Mike Vrabel, Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon and Damien Lee, the former Drexel star who transferred to Louisville for this season, were all milling about with the ‘Nova fans. The second-floor outdoor deck supposedly had a capacity of 150, but it at least felt like there were close to 500 people celebrating.
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Villanova plays North Carolina in the national title game tonight. It’s the first time they’ve played for a championship since 1985. The Final Four is in the rear view mirror now, and VU is one of two teams in the country still playing basketball. Houston has been good to ’Nova so far, and the Final Four is an unforgettable experience. Hopefully there’s one more good night for the Wildcats.
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