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NCAA Tournament: Road trip! Fans converge on Salt Lake City

Published March 21, 2013 7:17 pm

NCAA Tournament • From Albuquerque to Phoenix to Ogden, they're here for the games
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The second round of the NCAA basketball tournament Thursday turned Energy Solutions Arena into a melting pot of college colors and a gathering place for families and friends.

Some fans brought a rooting interest to the games. Others simply like college basketball and book hotels and buy tickets to the closest location to their towns without regard as to who will be there.

Jan and Howard Mead hardly hesitated when they decided to make the 14-hour drive from Kansas to Salt Lake City to cheer Wichita State to an upset of Pitt. Howard has been a Shocker fan for 40 years. Jan, who works for the school, viewed seeing Utah's mountains as a bonus.

Xaviae Johnson of Ogden proudly wore a Wichita State hoodie but quickly admitted he had never visited the Kansas town. He said his brother, Shocker player Demetria Williams, gives him gear all the time. So he came to cheer for him.

Marvin Garcia and his father made the nearly 10-hour drive from Albuquerque to support the Lobos and were at the Utah Division of Travel office at Council Hall learning about Utah and picking up some souvenirs.

"It was a nice road trip," said Garcia, who said they would have likely followed the Lobos anywhere they played. "The scenery was nice."

Perhaps the most prominent father fan at the game was former Utah Jazz great John Stockton, who got a nice round of applause when put on the ESA JumboTron. His son David plays for top-seeded Gonzaga, who brought one of the largest fan contingents to Salt Lake.

Some fans now living in Salt Lake came to the games despite the fact that their schools were playing elsewhere.

Neil Wheeler proudly wore a VCU sweatshirt.

"I went to VCU and I am now living in Utah," he said. "I can appreciate any college basketball. When a good team comes to play Utah or BYU, I watch. I couldn't make the trip to Michigan, so I decided to do the next best thing."

Matt Thomas, an Indiana grad, said he couldn't follow the Hoosiers to Dayton so he came to the games where he is living now to enjoy March Madness with the hopes of watching Gonzaga get upset, something that almost happened.

Doug Young of Wendell, Idaho, joined Iowa State friends from around the country to watch the game, despite the fact the Cyclones were playing in Dayton, Ohio, Friday. His group was staying in Wendover and commuting to Salt Lake.

Other fans lucked out when their teams were sent to Salt Lake City. Rob and Sari Wilson of Twin Falls, Idaho., who lived in Spokane until a year ago, were driving back from a Las Vegas vacation. They kept their Thursday open in hopes of seeing Gonzaga. Rob took photos of the scene inside the arena. He proudly wore a Gonzaga No. 1 T-shirt that arrived the day before he headed to Vegas.

Eric Venezie of Elwood City, Penn., was in Phoenix watching spring training with his brother and father. He was thrilled when Pitt made the field in Salt Lake City, and wanted to watch Gonzaga. He booked a flight from Phoenix that arrived Thursday before the tournament began.

One of the smallest and loudest group of fans came from Southern in Baton Rouge. School administrator Earl Hill guessed about 100 fans made the trip in hopes of pulling upsetting top-seeded Gonzaga.

"The kids loved it," said Hill. "People treated us nice."

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton