At long last, Final Four fans got to see their teams playing for the NCAA men's basketball title Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Virginia took the lead over Texas Tech with a buzzer-beater just before halftime, then built a small lead over the Red Raiders. But the No. 1-seeded Cavaliers couldn't completely shake its foe.
The action came after a long buildup of weekend fun.
Earlier Monday, Virginia fans looking for a bite to eat got a surprise when the Cavaliers and their coach walked through the IDS Center downtown. The crowd quickly broke into chants of “Let’s Go Hoos” as security guards scrambled, scolding those who climbed on fountains to get a better photo.
UVA juniors Janey Oline, Katie Lee, A.B. Bugg and Meagan Walters were taking photos in front of a team poster when they heard the cheers and saw the team walking through the crowd.
“We lost it,” Bugg, 21, said. “I had a front row view.”
Oline whipped around to take a selfie as Coach Tony Bennett walked by. She wore a shirt she’d had custom made with his photo.
The friends had decided to do whatever it took to get to Minneapolis after they’d had a blast on a road trip to Louisville for the Elite Eight round. This time, they flew to Milwaukee, drove to Chicago to spend the night at Oline’s parents’ house and then hit the road again for a final six-hour leg to Minneapolis.
Oline has to leave town right after the game to get back to campus in time for a 6:30 p.m. midterm exam Tuesday. Her efforts to convince her instructor to postpone or reschedule the exam didn’t fly. They’d heard Texas Tech canceled class Tuesday.
“Hopefully I’ll make it,” she said.
Monday was filled with a steady stream of fans stopping to ask volunteer Peter Lowry for photos and information during his four-hour shift at IDS tower. So many asked the Burnsville resident for directions that he ran out of skyway maps.
“People are really happy. I haven’t heard anything negative,” he said. “It’s all positive.”
Fans planning a full day of full-on celebrating and cheering got an early start Monday.
At Hen House Eatery in downtown Minneapolis, crowds spilled out the door. Texas Tech fans Mike and Juanita Keller said they decided to return to the spot for a good luck breakfast after seeing it had a menu section called “El Matador Corner” during an earlier meal there over the weekend.
“I was like, it’s a sign!” Juanita Keller said.
The couple drove 17½ hours from Dallas in their Ford pickup truck Thursday after getting a last-minute opportunity to buy tickets to the weekend games. (Along the way, they dropped off their dog Buddy with their college-age son.)
Both said they were enjoying friendly people and good food, as well as the ability to walk everywhere.
So, fortified by their lucky breakfast, what did the Kellers think of their team’s chances — especially with pundits predicting a win by top-seed Virginia?
“I like being the underdog,” Juanita Keller said. “They focus on the same old powerhouses.”
It seems fans in general are warming up to a game that, at the beginning of the tournament at least, seemed an unlikely championship matchup.
According to online ticket seller TickPick, title game ticket prices were climbing by early Monday afternoon with average listing prices jumping nearly $100 over the previous 48 hours. TickPick reported the average listing price was up 20 percent and was sitting at $590. Prices have increased by 52 percent since last Monday, up from $387.
On game day last year, championship game tickets averaged $467 — 21 percent cheaper.
The cheapest ticket? About $128, as of Monday afternoon. The most expensive? $6,309, in Section F3, Row J.
A growing crowd milled around Fan Fest midday Monday, as fans flocked to a rock climbing wall and face painting station while adult fans got a chance to strut their basketball stuff on the court erected in the middle of the arena.
Andrea Soderberg and her 2-year-old, Finley, cheered as her 4-year-old son, Krayton, and her husband, Kramer, shot hoops. Soderberg, who is from Decatur, Ill., is only three weeks removed from having baby number three, but the family still decided to venture north for a chance to cheer on Virginia.
Soderberg’s father-in-law is a Cavaliers assistant coach.
“We had to make the trip with Grandpa coaching,” she said. “We’re hoping for a win.”
Some of those folks whose teams didn’t win seemed to like Minneapolis so much that they’re hanging around.
Michigan State fans Andrea Tighe and Dawn Myers proudly toured the Fan Fest in Spartan green zip-up jackets. Three generations of the sisters’ family — including their siblings and, as of next fall, all four of Myers’ kids, are also Spartans. Tighe attended the Spartans’ national title victory back in 2000, the last time a Big Ten team won the title, and was hoping for a second championship.
After the loss, the sisters decided to stick around to watch Monday’s final.
“It’s too bad my team didn’t win, that would have been more fun,” Tighe, who lives in Rye, N.Y., said. “But we’re hoping for a good game.”
Bryce Nitschke, a college student from Moorhead, sported a Duke jersey to Fan Fest. He had hoped to watch Blue Devils star Zion Williamson during the Final Four, but said Saturday’s nail-biter between Auburn and Virginia was “sweet to see in person.”
“It really stinks,” he said of Duke’s Elite Eight elimination. “But they’ll be back next year.”
Monday was also the day another Final Four champion was crowned — for reading, not hoops. Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart Elementary School in Buffalo Lake, Minn., captured the Read to the Final Four announced in a 10 a.m. ceremony at Fan Fest, in front of cheering parents, teachers and fellow third-graders.
Other Final Four schools included Galtier Elementary of St. Paul, Liberty Ridge Elementary in Woodbury and Scandia Elementary School of Scandia.
Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart third-graders Lanie Skolberg, 8, Amelia Markgraf, 8, and Sophia Markgraf, 8, celebrated their win with Coca-Cola and Ritz cracker samples after the ceremony (Sophia and Amelia are cousins). The girls said they were really proud they came out on top, despite having one of the smaller class sizes.
“I was going to cry,” Lanie said of learning her class was the champion. “I thought Liberty Ridge was going to win because they have more people.”
The three girls said their class used fun challenges to motivate them to log more minutes reading, like wearing masks while reading and going for walks with their books. They heard their teacher was going to spend the prize money on classroom supplies.
“We definitely need more headphones,” Amelia said.
Not far from the winners, a group from Liberty Ridge Elementary sipped colas of their own as they reflected on their fourth-place finish. Even though they didn’t win, they were proud of what they accomplished. The school logged 20,000 books and 500,000 pages as part of the challenge.
Isabelle Shikhlinski, 9, said she read so much she spilled Mountain Dew on her tablet. Her friend Chaarvi Kesharwani, 8, squeezed reading between activities and a visit from her cousins, bringing books along in the car.
“It was really fun to get to the Final Four,” Chaarvi said.
The statewide program, inspired by the NCAA Final Four tournament, promotes reading among third-graders throughout the year. It is supported by a library of nearly 6,000 digital books. In all, 275 schools participated in the competition, including 17 schools from the Twin Cities metro area and from 70 school districts outside the Twin Cities.
Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this story.