Road to The Final Four: Minneapolis
Score one for the North
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Final Four returned to Minneapolis in grand style after an 18 year hiatus. After the host city witnessed Christian Laettner’s iconic buzzer heater in 1992 and an epic comeback in the 2001 semifinal en route to championships, more Duke heroics with the current lineup was anticipated. Someone did not notify the script writers as upsets made for a lineup of Auburn, Michigan State, Texas Tech, and Virginia.
The prior Final Four’s were held in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Upon its 2014 demolition, U.S. Bank Stadium was erected for an estimated $1.06 billion on the same site and saw its first events in 2016. Per NCAA gudelines, the stadium was required to host at least one basketball game prior to the national semifinals and finals. Four contests were held in November/December 2018 including a featured Oklahoma State versus Minnesota matchup. An additional $4.6 million approximately was spent on blackout curtains, designed to keep sunlight off of the court a sunny day.
Doors opened to the public on Friday, 10 a.m. Fans were treated to a day-long free feast of team practices and an all-star game featuring local star Jordan Murphy. An estimated 36,000 spectators poured in and were able to enjoy access to players as well as merchandise, food and beverages. Lines to get in stretched over three city blocks at times. Just down the way at the Minneapolis Convention Center, Fan Fest began its event-long run of offering activities.
Saturday arrived and the action did not disappoint. An announced crowd of 72,711 took in excitement and created an immense amount of energy. In game one, Ty Jerome paced Virginia for the first 35 minutes and the Cavaliers had a seemingly insurmountable lead. Auburn, however staged a furious rally and was on the precipice of victory until the final second. Kyle Guy’s missed three pointer sent the Tiger faithful into a deafening frenzy. The jubilation was short lived. A foul was called, Guy hit all three from the charity stripe, and the Wahoo contingent suddenly went from grief to elation.
Game two was a defensive struggle. Texas Tech withstood an early charge by the Spartans and took a two point halftime lead. Paced by Matt Mooney’s 22 points, the Red Raiders punched their first ever ticket to the championship 61-51. Just two short years ago, Mooney was playing for the University of South Dakota and losing in the first round of the NIT. Now, Mooney put Chris Beard’s defensive juggernaut in the Monday final.
Sunday’s off-day presented fans an opportunity to enjoy the best the Twin Cities had to offer. The Minnesota Timberwolves hosted Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Many Final Four fans flocked to the Target Center to take in the nationally televised clash. Across the street, First Avenue Bar was a popular photo spot for music fans. Mall of America was hopping with shoppers. The Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River was also a destination. The Minnesota Zoo offered family fun. For the foodies, the trendy North Loop saw a boost in traffic. Fans also hit local spots like Matt’s Bar and Grill to get a Jucy Lucy and the 1029 Bar for a Connecticut Roll. The Nicollet Mall area of Minneapolis also featured a giant ferris wheel. Also on display all weekend was “Minnesota Nice.” The hospitality of the whole area was tremendous.
Monday saw flurries of action pre-game as secondary market outside ticket sales ebbed and flowed. Inside U.S. Bank Stadium, a pedantic start by both squads gave way to hot spurts. Buoyed by Kyle Guy’s 10 points, and a Ty Jerome trey at the buzzer, Virginia held a 32-29 halftime lead.
The Wahoos carried that momentum to the second half, using a 6-0 run to extend the margin to 9. The lead crawled to 10 at the halfway mark. The faithful from Lubbock saw the deficit cut to six a couple times, but it took a Matt Mooney three and then a traditional three by Norense Odiase to even the contest at 59 with 3:28 to play. The teams traded shots back and forth until Jarrett Culver put Tech ahead with a layup. A defensive stand followed by two clutch Odiase free throws looked like the decisive margin until De’Andre Hunter nailed a trifecta. Overtime.
Virginia withstood a 5-point barrage from Mooney and rode another Hunter long distance make to take a 2-point lead into the final minute. Free throws from a contingent of Cavaliers provided the ultimate difference. An announced crowd of 72,062 then saw Virginia take the title, 85-77.
18 years had passed between visits from the Final Four to Minneapolis. The sites for basketball Final Four are set through 2026. U.S. Bank Stadium is host to the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Championships. Following an event filled and highly attended weekend, hopefully Minneapolis and U.S. Bank Stadium can get into regular championship rotation.