ARLINGTON -- Excitement was in the air on Good Friday in DFW as the NCAA Men's Basketball South Regional semi-finals, better known as the Sweet 16, was ready to get under way at Cowboys Stadium. Fans from Kansas, Michigan, Florida and Florida Gulf Coast gathered at the world's greatest football stadium, which had been masterfully reconfigured to feel like a natural basketball venue.
Since I was among the record crowd to attend the 2011 NBA All-Star Game at Cowboys Stadium, I had a general idea of what the setup would be. While 108,713 people crammed into the stadium on that bitter cold Valentine's Day, the capacity for the Sweet 16 was set around 42,000 and felt much more intimate with the curtained off top section.
Prior to the first game of the evening -- No.1 seed Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 4 Michigan Wolverines -- there were many fans wandering around the stadium for the first time. Many of them were awestruck.
"I'd say the stadium has the feeling of a Las Vegas casino," said Ashley, a 24 year-old Kansas fan who was in DFW for the first time. "This is definitely worth the trip down here just to see it."
By the time Michigan's Trey Burke had practically willed Michigan to rally and beat Kansas 87-85 in overtime, including a long 3-pointer to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation, most Kansas fans had likely seen enough of Tarrant County following the Jayhawks embarrassing 62-55 loss to TCU in February. As for the Wolverines, this game had a much happier ending than Michigan's 41-14 loss to Alabama in the Cowboys Classic football game last September at the stadium.
"I think (Cowboys Stadium) will be a great place to have the Final Four next year," said Becca, a 28 year-old Michigan fan who has been to a few Dallas Cowboys games at the stadium. "Hopefully the Wolverines will go on to Atlanta this year and I will be at the Georgia Dome for all the fun."
Michigan advanced to play the third seeded Florida Gators, who ended the Cinderella run of the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, 62-50. Florida Gulf Coast had become the nation's darlings with their high-flying slam dunks (and it didn't hurt that head coach Andy Enfield's wife, Amanda Marcum, is a former Maxim model). But the Gators, regular season SEC champs, overcame an early onslaught by the team known as 'Dunk City' to advance to their third straight Elite 8.
The announced attendance for Friday night was 40,639 -- or roughly twice the capacity of American Airlines Center -- and there were many familiar faces in the crowd, including SMU head basketball coach Larry Brown, Dallas Mavericks star Vince Carter, former Mavs Rolando Blackman and Sam Perkins, 2011 DFW.com Hot Issue cover model Paula Tabares, former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Kelsi Reich and Chicago Bulls forward Joakim Noah. Noah, a member of the two-time national champion Florida Gators (2006 and 2007), was already in DFW with the Bulls set to battle the Mavs on Saturday afternoon in Dallas.
Up next is the Elite Eight round with Florida taking on Michigan at 1:20 p.m. on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. The winner will advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.
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