Hours before UNC beat Duke 81-77 in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game, senior tenor saxophone player Megan Pope stepped outside to see a clear blue sky.
She tweeted: “The clouds have cleared and there are Carolina Blue skies in New Orleans!”
Pope said that was the moment she knew the game would end in North Carolina’s favor — and she would be in the stands to see it.
Pope was one of 29 students of the UNC Marching Tar Heels selected to travel and play during the NCAA Tournament.
Pope said that aside from the importance of academics at UNC, basketball is what influenced her to attend the University.
“I grew up a Carolina basketball fan," she said. "So for someone like me, this past season was just a dream come true."
The Marching Tar Heels is a group of around 275 students who perform at basketball games, football games and other sporting events on campus, in addition to some away-games.
With 11 years of tenor saxophone experience, Pope has been a member of the Marching Tar Heels since her first year at UNC. When she turns 22 in June, she will have been playing for half of her life.
This semester, Pope spent 18 nights traveling, sleeping in hotels and exploring different cities with the Marching Tar Heels during the NCAA Tournament.
The experience, she said, wasn’t just about basketball.
“It was getting to spend time with folks that I didn’t really know all that well,” she said. “It was getting to know the band members and the cheerleaders and the mascot.”
Junior Gabriela Duncan has been a member of the Marching Tar Heels since fall 2019. It was the alto saxophone player’s first time in New Orleans when she played at the Final Four.
Duncan said that the Marching Tar Heels had a surprising amount of free time to explore the city between band obligations. She visited the French Quarter, ate beignets and jambalaya, saw free performances from Macklemore and Imagine Dragons and went on a swamp tour.
“When I look back at those three weeks, I think about all of the basketball games that we attended,” Duncan said. "But honestly, most of it that stood out to me was just the random memories I made with my friends.”
Those memories included eating a cheesesteak in Philadelphia for the first time and riding a mechanical bull.
Duncan said she was sad when the experience came to an end, but has fond memories and gifts to remember the occasion — including a piece of wood from the Final Four court at Caesars Superdome.
Director of University Bands Jeffrey Fuchs said that his greatest takeaway from the season was watching band members experience things that they may never have the chance to experience again.
He said only a limited number of students have had the opportunity to play with the band when UNC makes it to the championship game.
“That’s what I enjoy," Fuchs said. "Watching the students walk into the arena and seeing the Superdome with the basketball floor and just watching them experience that for the first time."
Pope said that for someone who loves North Carolina basketball the way that she does, walking into the Superdome for the first time was overwhelming.
At that moment, Duncan said her jaw dropped.
“The place is just massive, it is insane," Pope said. "So it was honestly kind of shocking, and then to walk in and see ‘Oh, we’re literally sitting at the court, I can reach and touch the floor’ was just literally insane.”
Though Pope has had many impactful experiences throughout her time in The Marching Tar Heels, she doesn’t think anything will ever compare to the Final Four game against Duke.
“Had we won the national championship, it would have been phenomenal,” she said. "But beating Duke — that was the moment of the season. That one day was the highlight of my season.”
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