One of My Best Experiences: 2012 NCAA Tournament

This past week I had the opportunity to travel with the Montana Grizzly Basketball team to the 2012 NCAA Tournament.  I had an absolutely amazing time.

The NCAA Selection Committee decided to send us out to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the second and third rounds of the tournament. While Portland, Oregon, was probably everyone’s top choice on where to go, Albuquerque was definitely number two. Not only did we get a favorable geographic location, we also got a favorable seeding. The Selection Committee tabbed us as a #13 seed and set us up with a matchup against Wisconsin on Thursday.

Our Montana contingent left Missoula on Tuesday morning. Three buses that consisted of the players/coaches and their spouses, athletic staff, media personnel, the Dance Team, and our pep band left campus at 10:30am en route to the Missoula airport. Escorted by the Missoula Police, we had a hero’s send off as people lined the sidewalks as we drove down Broadway Street. It was so cool to see all the support and pride that Missoula has for the program.  We got to the airport and went through security. One of the perks about going on these special trips is that you get to fly charter. That means you don’t have to worry about checking in, checking luggage, or hauling big bags all around. Everything is pre-arranged and pretty much done for you. After eating lunch at the gate, we boarded our plane.

Me just about to board the bus and start the trip to Albuquerque.

The plane ride had a couple of little quirks thrown in. First, we were delayed on the ground for about a half hour. Once we finally got in the air, it was pretty much smooth sailing. However, as we started to fly over Albuquerque and descend into the city we all of a sudden flew out and ascended higher into the air. It turned out that because of our late start, the schedule had been messed up a little bit and other planes were landing at the time. So we had to spend some extra time in the New Mexico skies joyriding around before we were finally cleared to land. Once we touched down on Albuquerque soil, we picked up our luggage that was conveniently waiting for us right outside of the plane and hopped on buses to take us to our hotel. The first thing that hit me upon our arrival in Albuquerque was the beautiful weather. In the low seventies and sunny, my mood was sky high.

The NCAA put us up in the Marriott Pyramid in the north part of Albuquerque. The hotel was definitely the Luxor of New Mexico and it was very nice. The lobby was gorgeous with waterfalls, nice furniture, a restaurant, and a lounge. Streamers strung from the ceiling cascaded down the ten floors, giving it a really cool look. NCAA Tournament banners were hung all over the place, reminding everyone of the  major event that was going on. The NCAA also placed the UNLV Basketball team at our hotel as well since they were playing in the South Region, making it so we would not play them in the initial rounds.
Our hotel, the Marriott Pyramid. Very nice and classy.
By the time we all got checked into the hotel and settled, it was around 4:30pm. We spent that first night pretty much just hanging out as a staff. With the team getting concentrated on Wisconsin, we as a staff just enjoyed each other’s company and watched the First Four games that were going on that night. Later on a bunch of us ventured out to a restaurant called El Pinto for dinner. It was the start of a whole bunch of Mexican food that I would consume on the trip. I gobbled down chips and salsa and had a mammoth burrito that was very tasty and spicy. The best part though? The margaritas! At El Pinto they make them the real way by cutting out the artificial margarita mix and using lime juice. The fact that the tequila was Patron Silver also added to the taste. It was the best couple margaritas I had ever had in my life. The best way I could explain the taste was to say it was as if I was drinking the liquid version of Trix cereal. It was also at the restaurant where I first learned the mini obsession that New Mexico has with putting red and green chilis into everything!
Doug and Megan at the El Pinto bar as we wait for our table.

We got back to the hotel and once again gathered as a staff to just enjoy each other’s company, chit-chat, and watch sports. I stayed up until around 2am talking with our radio announcer and one of the basketball managers before hitting the hay.

I awoke at 7:30am the next morning, showered, and went down to the hotel lobby where I caught up on necessary work as I updated our website and social media outlets. Joining me in the lobby were several staff members who were tending to the activities that were going on that day. At 10am, I went right outside the hotel with Christie as we watched the Dance Team and band practice. It was another amazing day out. I had not felt so comfortable in a long time as I stood outside in the beautiful New Mexico morning sun.

The Dance Team practicing in the beautiful weather.

After practice I hopped on the bus and we went out to the University of New Mexico campus for the basketball team’s practice. The team practiced at the venue they would play at tomorrow, the famous facility known as The Pit. The arena holds around 16,000 people and is simply a great facility. Even though it was decked out for the NCAA Tournament, the New Mexico Lobos presence was everywhere, serving as an example of successful branding. The practice itself was pretty much just a formality. For one hour the team just got loose, ran some basic drills, and became accustomed with the floor they would be playing on. After that practice they would go to a local high school for a more intense and traditional closed session.

The team practicing in The Pit.

After practice I returned to the hotel and by this time I was starving. Jimmy, Christie, and myself ate lunch at the hotel restaurant. I don’t believe I have ever mentioned Jimmy in one of my posts before but he is our Assistant Athletic Director for Business and Finance. Not only does he keep all of our money straight, he also arranges all of the team travel…pretty big job if I do say so myself. At lunch I ordered the chicken macaroni and cheese. Once again, it came with green chilis. Anyway, I think it may have been the best macaroni and cheese I had ever had in my life besides what my mom makes and despite how hungry I was and how much I love mac and cheese, I was not even able to eat it all!! That is how big it was.
Me with my macaroni and cheese.
After lunch, we got back into the buses.  Christie, our dance team coach Megan, and I took the band and dance team to a major shopping mall area. It was fun traveling to the shopping area and seeing all of the different businesses and buildings in Albuquerque. Once we dropped off the students at the mall, the three of us went to a place called St. Clair Winery and Bistro and we sampled some wine. Megan ordered some chicken macaroni and cheese. While it looked good, it did not compare to what I had a couple hours earlier. We left the winery and walked the sunny streets of Albuquerque, entering into an area called Old Town. Random shops and old structures lined the area. After looking around a little bit, we headed into a hole in the wall restaurant called Old Church Café. We sat out on the back patio and over some chips and salsa and margaritas we simply just chatted and enjoyed ourselves under the sun. At that point I made a note in my head how lucky I was to be there, it was one of my best memories of the trip.
Myself, Christie, and Megan at Old Church Cafe. One of my favorite moments of the trip.
The bus then picked us up and we went back to the hotel. After hanging out with the staff some more, we took the Dance Team and band out to another Mexican restaurant called Sadie’s. After the dancers and band members got seated, the three of us went to a different area in the restaurant to relax. It was here that Christie and I met a guy all the way from Baltimore who talked to us about how he became a Griz fan the moment he saw our football team on ESPN against Appalacian State in our classic semi-final  night game played in the snow from a couple years back. We had a great time chatting and he assured us he would cheer on the Griz tomorrow. I had enchiladas at this place and just like everywhere else, the food was amazing. At Sadie’s they also had a serve-yourself chips and salsa station. No need to wait for refills! I thought that was pretty cool.
My meal at Sadie’s. So good!

After dinner we returned to the hotel and once again it was more staff bonding time. I think one of the best parts of all this time we got to spend together as a staff was getting to know people you did not know very well (or in some cases even at all) before. By this time, my mind was starting to focus on the game tomorrow and my adrenaline started to pump a little bit. Later on in the night, Megan, Doug (assistant director in the equipment room), a couple people from our student government, and I went out for a little bit. Being the younger people on the trip aside from the student athletes, band, and dance team, we had a little more energy than some of the other staff members. We returned to the hotel and then Megan, Doug, and I stayed up and talked until around 5am. As I said, it was just tough to sleep with an NCAA Tournament game looming the next day. In fact, after Doug and Megan went to bed, I just made it an all-nighter…no sleep for this guy.

Myself, Megan, and Doug.

At 7am I showered and caught up on updating everything on the web and socially. I got put in charge of giving all of the people in our travel party their tickets for the game. I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant with Jerek (our video person) and a couple of the local sports anchors who had made the trip with us. I had the New Mexico omelette that came with chorizo sausage, cheese, peppers, and you guessed it…green chilis. After breakfast we hopped on the buses and made the trip down to The Pit…it was show time.

When we arrived at The Pit, excitement was starting to build outside of the arena. Several Griz fans were gathering around the gates and I was passing out WE ARE MONTANA cards to them. Again, the weather was beautiful. Christie and I entered through the media entrance and made sure the dance team and mascot were settled in one of the New Mexico weightrooms so they could warm up and stretch. I then went out to the floor and sat on the team bench and just looked around for a few minutes. Looking at the court, press row, television cameras, and various NCAA officials actually made me get a little emotional. Here I was courtside at the NCAA Tournament…the thing that I had watched religiously for the past fifteen years of my life and believed to be the greatest sporting event in the world. It was a little surreal and a little magical.

Christie and I outside The Pit.
Watching our team take the floor and then our dance team and Monte take their positions under the basket gave me a huge sense of pride. Walking around the floor area pre-game was a little chaotic as cameramen, security, NCAA officials, media personnel, and others were moving all around. Although exciting, I was happy when the National Anthem was performed and the game was about to begin. Christie, Megan, and I sat front row in one of the corners of the arena so we could be right by the Dance Team and Monte. The Pit employs ushers who wear distinctive red coats. The one right next to us three informed us that he was rooting for Montana.
Getting Monte ready to go!

At 12:10pm on Thursday, March 15, the Montana Grizzlies tipped off against the Wisconsin Badgers. Most of you know how the game went. For the first half, the Griz stayed right with Wisconsin. Although trailing by ten points at half, it was a very competitive first twenty minutes. When the second half started, Wisconsin started to pull away. The lead started to extend. At one point,  the lead was cut back to ten points on back-to-back three pointers but it was not meant to be.  Wisconsin beat Montana 73-49.

Me at the tournament.

After the game, Christie, Megan, and I went to the press conference to support our team. Behind the disappointment, it was really cool to see how a major press conference is conducted and set up. Seeing the media workroom was also a neat site. We walked around The Pit for a little bit and then we went back to our seats and watched the Vanderbilt-Harvard game. Vandy ended up winning the game but would eventually fall to Wisconsin on Saturday.
At the press conference after the game.

After our game ended, word quickly got around that we would be leaving at 8pm that night. After the Vandy-Harvard game we got back on the buses to go back to the hotel and pack. Before we packed though, a bunch of us shared one last meal at the hotel restaurant. As we ate and chatted, I realized that I really did not want to leave New Mexico.

Megan got macaroni and cheese one more time.

We got on the buses and headed to the airport. Our buses pulled right up to the plane and we went through security in the dark right when we got out of the bus. We got on the plane and I immediately fell right asleep. When I opened my eyes next, we were landing in Missoula. We were greeted by a cold, consistent rain. The buses took us back  to campus and I trekked from where we were dropped off to my car which seemed like a thousand miles away. Once I reached my car sopping wet I got in and drove back to my house.

Despite the early exit in the NCAA Tournament, I had a wonderful time in Albuquerque. It was a true highlight for me and something that I feel very fortunate to have experienced. I love working for Grizzly Athletics and I love working with the people who I work with. This trip could not have confirmed those two facts any more. Don’t Blink.

Christie and I…what a great trip.

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