Hailing from as far away as Princeton, New Jersey and as near as East Sacramento, college basketball fans descended on the Golden 1 Center on Thursday for a fun-filled weekend of March Madness.
Ask any basketball devotee, and they’ll tell you it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Conference tournaments give way to the “Big Dance,” more formally known as the NCAA men’s basketball championship. And for the sixth time, Sacramento gets to play host to the madness-filled first and second rounds of the tournament.
Eight teams took the court Thursday and the four survivors will battle it out again Saturday for the chance to play in the Sweet 16. But the action on court is only half of what makes March so magical.
It wasn’t long ago that pandemic-era games without fans proved the real magic comes from the stands, where thousands of supporters scream words of encouragement (and occasional profanities), igniting the air with excitement.
The Bee spoke to several fans to capture their NCAA gameday experience. Here are a few of their many stories:
The ‘Banana Kid’ from Colorado
Thousands of faces graced the Golden 1 jumbotron Thursday afternoon, but Thomas O’Rourke’s bright yellow banana costume turned more than a few heads.
“There’s the banana kid!” fans shouted as the 13-year-old from Littleton, Colorado walked the concourse with his mom Leslie, dad John and little brother William. Missouri had just knocked out Utah State in the afternoon’s opening matchup.
“Oh my gosh, I love your outfit!” one woman told Thomas. “I might just have to steal it.”
Unlike many of the fans in Golden 1, the O’Rourke family has no particular allegiance to any of the teams playing in Sacramento this weekend. Thomas’s parents cheer for the Duke Blue Devils since their colleges – Sewanee and the Colorado School of Mines – don’t have strong basketball programs. (Thomas likes Villanova, who failed to make the tournament this year).
The O’Rourkes use March Madness as a guide to their family’s spring break vacation. They look at which cities are hosting the first and second-round games and then pick one they’ve never visited before. The family visited Nashville in 2018, Columbus in 2019, and Portland in 2021. Last year, the family traveled to San Antonio for the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8.
So far, the family says Sacramento ranks high on the list of tournament cities they’ve visited. They’re planning to explore Midtown and visit some local breweries, including Urban Roots, after the games.
“I love it, because it has all the amenities of a big city,” Leslie said, “but at the same time it feels cozy.”
The banana kid’s verdict?
“I like it a lot because people are really nice,” Thomas said. “It’s pretty cool!”
The underdog band
Annabelle Davis doesn’t usually watch college basketball. But she had to read up on the Princeton versus Arizona matchup when she learned her high school band was selected to play for the Tigers during Thursday’s game. The university’s own pep band wasn’t available, since they’re accompanying the women’s basketball team in Salt Lake City.
A junior at West Campus High School in Sacramento, Davis had Googled the teams during her English class on Wednesday. She learned that if Princeton won, that would be a huge upset.
“My dad said they were going to get crushed,” said the 16-year-old flute player. “I don’t watch basketball, but I’m going to apply there next year.”
Across the arena from Davis and the West Campus crew sat the Arizona Wildcats’ pep band, decked out in the traditional red-and-white block-striped rugby polos of college basketball bands. It’s intimidating to go up against a college-level band, Davis said, with their loud heckles and even louder brass.
“It’s very intimidating,” she said, “but they were nice!” The Wildcat band cheered and gave double thumbs-up to Davis and her friends as they warmed up backstage, she said.
Since bands take turns playing during media timeouts, West Campus was on deck for the second half’s first timeout. The score sat at Princeton 32, Arizona 37. As the buzzer sounded, Davis and her bandmates stood up and locked their eyes on director Briana Fonseca. She counted off four beats, and the band launched into its rendition of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes.
Davis, who happily skipped her AP Calculus class to play with the band, had never been to a college basketball game before Thursday. Nor was she an avid Princeton sports fan. But March works in mysterious ways, and by the second half, Davis couldn’t help but feel like she had a stake in the game’s outcome.
“I’m very invested – I really want them to win!”
A historic upset
Princeton fans came from far and wide in hopes of witnessing a historic upset.
“I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it,” said Jess Deutsch, a 1991 Princeton alum and fan who flew in from New Jersey late Wednesday night. “But I was determined to get here!”
Deutsch, who works for Princeton athletics in student athlete services, battled flight delays out of Newark to watch her Tigers compete Thursday afternoon. Even before the Tigers ever took the lead, she didn’t doubt they could pull off the upset of heavily-favored Arizona.
“It’s March – anything can happen!” she said. “And I believe!”
Natalie and Dan Holligan, also Princeton fans, drove in from Walnut Creek with their two young children to see the Tigers take on the Wildcats. Dan played water polo and graduated from Princeton in 2004.
“We’re fighting hard,” Dan said as he watched the game from the upper concourse, holding his daughter Delilah. The Tigers were in a scoring drought. “They don’t have any quit in them.”
The family doesn’t often find themselves in Sacramento, but they were impressed with what the city had to offer – especially the Kings’ new home at Golden 1.
“The stadium is gorgeous – they have a beautiful arena here,” Natalie said. “I’m kinda jealous.”
Two sections over, Dan’s former teammate Kevin Foster was dialed into the game. The Davis native proudly wore his Princeton water polo cap, the number “2” emblazoned on the side, and didn’t take his eyes off the court.
With about six minutes left in the game, the Tigers sunk a 3-pointer and Arizona took a timeout. Foster leapt up, towering above the Arizona fans in the next row, and motioned with his arms for the fellow Princeton fans to get on their feet.
“Get up! Let’s go!” he shouted.
As the clock ticked down, and the Tigers inched closer to victory, the cheers grew louder from everyone except fans in Arizona gear.
The Wildcats, who were down by four, launched a half-hearted Hail Mary from the backcourt as the buzzer sounded. Doink! A miss.
Ashley Conrad-Saydah, a class of 1999 Princeton alumn whose family lives in East Sacramento, roared with cheers.
“It’s another David and Goliath story – just like (27) years ago,” she said, referencing the iconic 1996 upset when Princeton knocked off defending champion UCLA. “It’s about student athletes persevering. This is what we’re meant to do when the Ivies get to the tournament.”
Instead of going out to celebrate, Conrad-Saydah said she had to go pick up her kids from school after the game. But for a few minutes, she soaked in the glory of the moment alongside fellow fans in black and orange.
“We have this beautiful arena, this gorgeous downtown, this beautiful day after all this rain,” Conrad-Saydah said. “It’s like it was meant to be.”