The Carolina Blue seats of the Dean E. Smith Center were packed on Saturday night with students wearing basketball jerseys, UNC T-shirts or sparkly blue feather boas.
Of course, there was no game held in the center.
The crowd of students and community members gathered in the Smith Center to watch the historic North Carolina men's basketball matchup against Duke in the Final Four.
Held in New Orleans, the game was the first time the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils met during March Madness.
Eyes glued to the TV screens, the watch party crowd cheered for every UNC possession, and held their breath during every foul and free throw.
By the end of the back and forth battle, North Carolina had secured itself a national championship berth.
And after the final buzzer, the crowd stormed the court, before rushing through campus to Franklin Street to celebrate the win.
'Every emotion you can have'
First-year MaKayla Boyd, who has followed the men's basketball team all season, came to the Smith Center watch party with three of her friends.
“I think it was a big deal that we made it to the Final Four in our first year,” Boyd said. “So we had to come to the Smith Center to see it.”
Students were not the only people nervously awaiting tip off Saturday night.
Randy Broach has worked as an usher at UNC games since the 2021 football season. The excitement surrounding the Final Four matchup was ten-fold to anything he has seen at a UNC game so far, he said.
“Every emotion you can have, I’ve got it,” Broach said. “Excited, scared, you name it.”
Broach is a UNC alumnus and was also a cheerleader. As an experienced and long-time North Carolina basketball fan, he said he’d seen it all.
His prediction for the game was nearly spot on: 82-78.
Following the game, Roach witnessed the watch party crowd rush Franklin Street — a tradition he's seen at UNC since the 70s.
“Oh, I’ve jumped over many a fire!” Broach said. “Last championship, I had my stepson with me, we went down to Franklin Street and the crowd was so thick, if you had lifted your feet off the ground, you’d be carried along.”
First-year Brianna Thompson, a friend of Boyd's, said attending the Smith Center event was a memory that she and her friends could share for years to come.
“Like, oh my God," Thompson said. "You remember when we won our freshman year. And I just love being able to celebrate it with my friends.”
'This is epic'
UNC alumna Lydia Hill, receptionist at the Carolina Basketball Museum, was also at the Smith Center to help with the watch party. She said that she had been answering calls for the athletic department throughout the week from people hoping to come to the watch party.
“A lot of people have called and said that they were coming and they wanted suggestions,” she said. “What time should I get there? Should I come at eight o'clock? Is that too late?”
A member of the University's class of 1980, Hill said she’s a lifelong Tar Heel fan that comes from a UNC family.
She has been taking calls from people as far as Atlanta, she said, all of whom were hoping to make the trip to watch the game.
Ray Patterson and his daughter Taylor Elliot drove nearly an hour from Youngsville to watch the game at the Smith Center.
“Instead of watching it at home, we can come up here and the atmosphere’s a little better,” he said. “It's pretty cool to watch it on the screens and be right here.”
Roxboro Mayor Merilyn Newell, who is a UNC alumna as well, also came out to the Smith Center as an event usher.
“This is epic. There’s no question about it,” Newell said. “I know everyone is trying to downplay their emotions and try to keep a perspective of the game itself, but there is so much on the line. We know it. Everyone knows it."
UNC will face Kansas in the national championship game Monday night.
But Newell made it clear that no matter the outcome, the UNC community is immensely proud of the men’s basketball team.
“What you do from here on out we know will be your very best efforts,” she said. “We’re behind you. You’re human, we’re human with you. Just know that our legacy is not built on just one game. It’s built on the efforts of so many people, and they are part of that."
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