The main reason my wife and I decided to visit Houston on spring break (translation, the main sports event) was the NCAA South Regional.
I never had attended an NCAA men's tournament game (I don't count the Dayton play-in as an actual tournament game), so I was really looking forward to the experience that awaited us at Reliant Stadium. We ordered our tickets in December, long before we knew who would be playing in the three games.
This led to a whole new activity for me: cheering for higher-seeded teams in the first two rounds so we'd get to watch great teams play. (I love underdogs as much as or more than the next guy, but I didn't spend this much money to watch a 10 and 11 seed do battle.)
My wishes were fulfilled—our regional semis would pit No. 2 Texas against No. 3 Stanford and No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 5 Michigan State. Four great teams, and even one from my hometown Big Ten.
The tickets we ended up with were in section 332. Having read about the "new stadium layout" (the NCAA court sitting at midfield in the NFL Texans' stadium as opposed to an end zone), I was nervous about how good or not good our seats would be.
Verdict: not too bad, considering. But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself.
Before we got to our seats, we had to find a place to park the car. Good news: the Reliant Park complex (which also includes the world-famous Astrodome) has plenty of surface parking lots.
Bad news: a parking space cost me $20.00. If I ever want a job that makes real money, I've decided I just need to own a huge parking lot near a major sports facility.
The security screening was interesting, too. At each entrance, the lines divided into men and women. I decided this made a lot of sense for the pat-down procedure. Then, I realized the men's line I was in would be searched by a female employee.
So much for logic.
We were pleasantly surprised to find our seats in the club level (300s) as opposed to the upper deck (numbered in the 600s). That means real concessions, nice bathrooms, and closer seats. Good start.
The problem is I knew our seats were in a corner, and I also knew the NCAA would curtain off both ends. I turned to my wife as we walked towards 332 and said, "I hope our seats aren't actually behind the curtain."
She laughed and said, "They wouldn't sell us seats behind the curtain." We continued to walk through the club level, looking out into the stadium, and counting down each section as we walked closer and closer to the far end (and far curtain).
Then, it was her turning to me, saying "They wouldn't really put us behind the curtain, would they?"
And, finally, we arrived. Sigh of relief. The curtains angled past us into the corner. In fact, there was one section outside ours (331) before the end was curtained off.
Thanks to the elevated stage, we could see the floor better than I had anticipated (translation: feared). We could even make out the players' numbers (without binoculars). And we could hear everything (not live, but thanks to cranked-up microphones on the rim, the backboard, the referees' whistles, the pep bands, and, unfortunately, the cheerleaders).
Time for the games: I won't spend a bunch of time on stats and scores—you already know who won. Texas took the first game, 82-62, on a huge 20-3 second-half run. The home crowd sure didn't hurt, as Stanford easily had the fewest fans of the four teams (and there are a lot of Texas fans in Houston, go figure.)
In the nightcap, Memphis destroyed Michigan State, jumping out to a ridiculous 50-20 lead. If a team can ever get within 15 points of the explosive Tigers, their well-documented free-throw shooting problem could actually become a factor.
But that didn't happen in Houston. Five hours after the first tipoff, it was time to go back to the hotel and reconvene two days later for the much anticipated matchup between Memphis and hometown favorite Texas.
And it wasn't much of a matchup. I thought going in that Memphis had the better talent, and Sunday's final wasn't even close. In fact, the only thing that disappointed me about the South Regional was the lack of close games.
Texas 82, Stanford 62.
Memphis 92, Michigan State 74
Memphis 85, Texas 67.
If you haven't ever been to an NCAA tournament session—bands blaring, fans screaming, colors abounding, coaches gesturing, buzzer-beaters falling—you need to go sometime in your life. I'm glad I did.
And that's the story of the South Regional final—from the cheap seats.
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