NCAA fans take a quick breather

Day off between games provides time to relax, see Houston's sights

By St. John Barned-Smith, L.M. Sixel and Mónica Rojas

April 3, 2016 Updated: April 3, 2016 11:29pm


Mark Reagan and Patrick Murphy walked out of a Galleria-area convenience store Sunday afternoon still basking in the Villanova Wildcats' victory the night before.

The two New Yorkers, among 70,000 fans in Houston for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, planned to spend Sunday celebrating with a pair of 12-packs at a pool party.

"It was surreal," a jubilant Reagan said of the 95-51 shellacking his Wildcats handed the University of Oklahoma.


While some Sooners and Syracuse fans fled town as quickly as possible, those fortunate enough to have a team and a ticket in Monday's championship match-up between Villanova and the University of North Carolina enjoyed a respite Sunday, celebrating, sightseeing and looking forward to the big game.

"I'm moderately nervous," Reagan said. "This is the first year we've made it out of the first or second round. I'm hesitant to be optimistic given that recent history.

Matt Brenner, 31, was still all grins Sunday about the University of North Carolina's 83-66 defeat of the Syracuse Orange.

The North Carolina native now lives in Amsterdam, but he wasn't going to let a little thing like the Atlantic Ocean keep him from coming to see his Tar Heels in their quest to win the tournament. "There's nothing like it," he said. "My whole family came here. It's a good excuse to come back to the U.S."

He spent the off-day watching the Houston Rockets play at the Toyota Center - where they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Monday's championship game, however, loomed.

"I'm just excited about soaking up the atmosphere," he said.

Watching with 3,000 friends

Villanova fan Mike O'Neill made the trip from Philadelphia with his two children. He and his family spent the day soaking in the picture-perfect weather at the Shell Houston Open golf tournament.

"March has been a magical ride," he said. "We've really enjoyed our time in Houston. It's much warmer. We appreciate that. It's 35 degrees in Philly today."

They're looking forward to a Villanova reception on Monday before the game at NRG Center.

"It's an indoor tailgate for 3,000 of our closest friends," he joked.

California resident Bren Petar traveled to Houston for his 35th consecutive Final Four with his wife, Kitty. The concierge at their hotel recommended they spend the off day at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. "I was amazed by the gems," said Bren, a retired coach.

The couple was among 40 friends who call themselves the "Hoops Historians." Membership requires attendance at three or more Final Fours.

Some in the group spent the day at NASA, and others went to the Rockets game, he said.

Discovery Green packed

Downtown, thousands of people thronged to Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center. Many Houstonians enjoyed the festivities the tournament brought to the city, regardless of whether they were fans of the teams.

"The Final Four games really are irrelevant when it comes to all the things that this brings to Houston," said Jose Chavez, a 32-year-old Houstonian, who turned out to listen to some tunes.

The growing crowd forced police to start turning people away from Discovery Green when it reached capacity around 5 p.m., leading some to complain of poor planning and offering a potential forecast of the challenges the city might face when it hosts the Super Bowl in 2017.

"It should be done in a bigger venue," said Miriam Nieves, 24, who remained in line hopeful it would reopen prior to headliners Pitbull and Maroon 5. "They should let people in when others leave, so that everyone can take part of the event. Some people get bored or get hungry and leave, but they wouldn't let people take their place."

As fans of the winning teams reveled in anticipation of Monday's match-up, thousands of other disappointed fans like Mike Vadala wrestled with another predicament and question: Now what?

"We had to play a perfect game and we didn't," the Syracuse Orange fan said, sadly sipping coffee in the lobby of the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

It was Vadala's fifth time attending the Final Four, though the 59-year-old New York native brought his son this year.

Head home, or stay in town?

Other fans, like 30-year-old Matt Gelles, spent the day rebooking flights to get home earlier than hoped.

"I'm not staying around to watch these UNC and Nova fans enjoying themselves," he said, chuckling slightly.

In Hobby Airport, haggard and hungover fans marked a subdued contrast to the throngs of happy vacationers departing on cruises or other trips.

Among them was Johnson Edwards, headed for Dallas. He'd planned to stay in Houston until Tuesday, but after OU lost, he changed his mind - then missed a 10 a.m. flight Sunday morning when he overslept.

"It was a late night last night," said Edwards, who was sporting a Sooners cap and tinted glasses as he hurried through the airport concourse.

Joe Puglisi, a Syracuse fan, said he'd decided to go to the Fan Fest downtown and would be rooting for the Syracuse women's basketball team as they squared off against the Washington Huskies, and potentially take on the University of Connecticut, the NCAA women's juggernaut.

"We just want them to get to the championship game," he said. "It'll be very cool to see Syracuse to play against UConn and Breanna Stewart," he said, of the Syracuse native who is one of UConn's star players.

For most, basketball remained king, even if their team had lost.

"I'm here for the whole duration," said Oklahoma fan Jackie Willis, vowing to watch Monday's championship game between the Tar Heels and the Wildcats.

"We had a hell of a season, I wouldn't trade any of our players or coaches for anyone," said Willis, a 67-year-old oil-and-gas worker. "They were just a little flat. We shot our worst, (Nova) shot their best game."

Staff writers Jordan Blum and Phylicia Davidson contributed to this report.

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