Sweet and Elite: My Experience Covering the NCAA Tournament

While March Madness has had its share of upsets, the top two seeds in the West Region prevailed to meet in the Elite Eight. The top-seeded Oregon Ducks met the No. 2 seed Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. They battled it out in a game that would decide which team would advance to the Final Four. The Sooners, who had an impressive shooting performance, defeated Oregon 80–68. Here is what I learned while covering the game as a Kid Reporter.

Oklahoma is more than just a football school.

The University of Oklahoma is well known for its football program — the Sooners have won seven NCAA football titles — but their basketball program is strong too. Senior guard Buddy Hield scored 37 points, which accounted for almost half of his team’s total. Even though Hield’s performance stood out, it was a team effort, as guards Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard also scored in the double digits.

It was especially neat to watch the post-game celebration. The Oklahoma team received the West Region championship trophy on a stage set up in the middle of the court. The players were dancing throughout the entire ceremony, and they took a team photo with Hield holding the trophy high. Afterward, each player and coach climbed a ladder and cut a piece of the basketball net down. When head coach Lon Kruger cut the final loop off the rim and waved the net to the crowd, the Oklahoma fans roared.

Sportsmanship shined through despite the agony of defeat.

While any loss is disappointing, a defeat in the NCAA basketball tournament is even more so because it means the losing team’s season is over. “[This loss] hurts a lot,” Ducks senior forward Elgin Cook said during the Oregon post-game press conference. “We’re done. No one expected it. We were confident. We believed in each other, but this hurts a lot.” While Cook was speaking at the press conference, other Oregon players appeared to be on the verge of tears in their locker room.

Despite their sadness, I was impressed with the sportsmanship that the Oregon players and coaches showed. While I was in the Oklahoma locker room after the game interviewing some of the players, I noticed Oregon coach Dana Altman walk in. Altman walked from player to player congratulating them and wishing them good luck in the Final Four. His sportsmanship is something that I’ll always remember.

The Oregon team has the right to be proud of its season. During the Ducks’ post-game press conference, I asked Altman, “For a team that wasn’t even ranked in the beginning of the season, what does it say about your team’s character to make it all the way to the Elite Eight?”

“Well,” he replied, “they worked awfully hard. I got a great feeling about this team because they did work so hard. Where we came from and how hard they worked throughout the year, I’ve been fortunate enough to do this for a long time and it’s a special group.”

All team members are important.

While most fans recognize the starting players, each team also has many reserve players who play an important role. Reserve players push the starters to get better during practices.

Austin Mankin, a senior Oklahoma reserve forward, shared that playing basketball has been “an amazing experience. You get to play with the best in college basketball. Playing against these studs [during practice] and just superior talent makes you a better player, and we use each other to build each other up and thrive off each other’s successes. It is a great environment to be around.”

The atmosphere at the Elite Eight game was electric.

The bands and cheerleaders were a big part of the atmosphere. During a timeout, one school’s band and cheerleaders would perform, and then during the next timeout, the other school would perform. This went on back and forth throughout the game.

It was fun to see the two groups of cheerleaders get along so well. Before the game, cheerleaders from both schools mingled with each other as they were warming up and practicing behind the black curtains that led to the court.

The cheerleaders enjoy the game as much as the fans. “Being courtside, you see the emotion of everyone that you don’t get to see being in the stands or on TV,” said Kenichi Hackman, a cheerleader for Oregon. “I just love watching the guys put out all the effort trying to get the win.”

Mallory Wilson, a cheerleader for Oklahoma, shared that she enjoys when the “crowd gets really into it…and when the whole [crowd] yells ‘Boomer Sooner’… I get goose bumps.”

The media experience is much different than the fan experience.

I watched the game from the upper press box. It was interesting to hear the difference in volume from where I was sitting compared to the rest of the arena. While fans were cheering throughout the game, the atmosphere in the press box was the exact opposite. Members of the media are not allowed to openly root for a team, so everyone in the press box was sitting down and making almost no noise at all. Most members of the media had their laptops open, and it appeared that some were typing throughout the game.

I spoke with a few members of the media and found that they were more interested in a good game rather than any one team. Said Kate Hairopoulos from The Dallas Morning News, “You want to have a good story to write when the game is over, and that is what you really root for.”

Photos: Harry How/Getty Images (Oklahoma), Sarah Liu (locker room, press box)

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