Sam Tastad Reflects on his Final Four and National Championship Experience
March Madness hit home for me this year.
In the first week of the month, I was privileged to write about the Summit League tournament for ESPN 99.1. I sat in the upper corner of the arena reserved for media, breaking down two, or three basketball games a day, and attending a post game press conference after the games. One of my favorite quotes and interviews was from North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips, who jokingly said the Bison prepared with soothing music, long walks, and yoga. I also talked to Summit League commissioner Tom Doupal, and USD women's coach Amy Williams. As a media member, watching student-athletes compete for a shot at the NCAA tournament was a lot of fun, and it's one of the most underrated conference tournaments in college basketball. The level of play, atmosphere, and support of the community, fans, media is really special.
As a media member, I truly enjoy recognizing student-athletes for their hard work on and off the court rewarded by cutting down nets at the end of tournaments.
After NDSU, and the University of South Dakota went dancing, and clinched their spots in the NCAA tournament, I was able to experience firsthand the Final Four and National Championship in North Texas with my dad. As I walked up to AT&T Stadium on Saturday afternoon, I was amazed at the size of the stadium. There was fans of all ages, and genders cheering as basketball fans and for their schools in seas of red for the Wisconsin Badgers, blue and orange for the Florida Gators, navy blue for the Connecticut Huskies, and royal blue for the Kentucky Wildcat. I was amazed with the atmosphere inside a building known for football that was turned into a basketball mecca for a few days. I walked inside Jerry's World, and smiled. My jaw dropped. Russell Wilson was being interviewed on the stage of CBS Sports. I was out of words in amazement. In today's age, like any millennial, I picked up my phone and snapped pictures. I walked around the stadium with a big grin on my face, and when I got to center court, the video screen was bigger than the basketball court!
As I neared my seats at the edge of the lower level, I had to stop and soak up the moment as Florida and Connecticut were warming up. Before tip-off, the American flag draped the court as the national anthem was sung. Florida got off to hot start, and Connecticut couldn't finish at the rim. Soon the Huskies started throwing alley-oops, and playing suffocating defense that led to the Gators first loss in 30 games. Not even the help of Dwight Howard in the Florida student section could help the Gators.
In game two, the stands filled up even more as Jerry's World was a sea of red and blue for Wisconsin and Kentucky. I was surrounded by Badgers fans, but a few Wildcats fans made it entertaining. The crowd was raucous, not holding anything back. Students cheered for their lives. The Badgers got out in front, throwing crisp passes, and swishing three's. In the second half, Wisconsin was on top, but Kentucky went on a run. Julius Randle made his presence inside known with a few dunks, and this game was going down to the wire. Under a minute, and every one was on their feet. With five seconds left, Aaron Harrison caught a pass, and hit a deep three to go ahead by one. In fact, a Kentucky fan sitting with my dad and I called it. The freshman guard had hit the same shot as he did in the Elite Eight. Jerry's World was going nuts. I couldn't believe what I had just seen. Wisconsin had one more chance, though. Traevon Jackson had a good look, but his shot sailed off the rim. The Wildcats run of destiny was going to continue for one more night.
My dad and I exited the stadium, still in awe. There was no doubt I was witnessing the best basketball I've ever seen.
Monday night approached, and the granddaddy of them all, the national championship was set to tip-off between Kentucky and Connecticut, a No. 7 and No. 8 seed. A Wildcats and Huskies fan sat behind my dad and I, bantering back and forth, telling why their team would win. The Connecticut fan was excited because he had just met Marcus Camby and Richard Hamilton.
Darius Rucker sang the national anthem with a choir in the background. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Tony Romo appeared in a press box and stole the show for a moment as the crowd erupted cheering and smiling. Back to basketball, though, and the pace was fast, and both teams stayed close in the beginning. A few minutes in, Shabazz Napier started heating up, hitting treys, penetrating in the lane, and staying aggressive on defense. The senior guard was showing shades of another Connecticut guard, Kemba Walker. While Napier was wowing, the Huskies other dynamic guard, Ryan Boatright, kept the Wildcats guessing, and flashing moves around defenders, as he crashed the basket. At halftime, it was a four-point game with Connecticut leading. Aaron Harrison got the Wildcats within one, but every time Kentucky scored, Connecticut answered. Later on, Napier made a nice move and hit a jumper. Kentucky's James Young came back down the floor, and had a filthy jam over two Huskies defenders. The crowd's reaction was priceless. Kentucky stayed close, but couldn't hit their free throws down the stretch. Napier was feeling good and he wasn't going to let the Huskies down, making several moves that left the crowd speechless. The Huskies won 60 to 54, and their fans cheered loud as the cannons sounded, and confetti dropped. It was truly an amazing sight to see the smile of sweet victory on the Huskies faces.
Jerry's World gave fans the best basketball of the year to watch in record breaking fashion. A new tournament record of 79, 238 people watched the championship game, while 158, 682 people attended the Final Four over two days. The average person sat in attendance with the likes of Howard, Drake, Johnny Manziel, Tom Izzo, Lute Olson, J.J. Watt, Russell Wilson, Ray Allen, Danica Patrick, and many more. Even a father and son stole the show, dancing to Pharrell's "Happy."
The only words that sum up my experience at the Final Four and national championship: pure joy.
As a sports writer from small town South Dakota, and a fan of basketball, I will always remember this moment with my dad. I am grateful for this opportunity and would like to thank ESPN 99.1, and Jeff Thurn for the tickets and taking a chance on a kid who is passionate about sports.
**You can send comments or story ideas to Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samtastad**