RICHMOND — As the Virginia Commonwealth basketball team’s improbable trek came to end Saturday night with its 70-62 loss to Butler in the Final Four, the 1,400 students who gathered to watch the game at the school’s gym stood in stunned silence.
And then they got to their feet and gave the team a final cheer.
Throughout the game, the students had hung on every play, erupting when the Rams scored and gasping when they turned the ball over, as if the play were live in front them instead of on a giant television screen erected by the school’s administrators.
But when their team finally came up short, the mood was not as somber as might be expected: Despite their disappointment, VCU’s students said they hoped the unexpected Final Four run, by a team many had said should not have even made the NCAA tournament, would bring new respect to their university, which previously was a little-known commuter school.
“Before this, who had ever even heard of VCU?” said Chezdan Baker, 20, a sophomore from Rocky Mount, Va. “It’s extremely disappointing. But just to have gotten to the Final Four, to come back each week and surprise people, it’s been fantastic.”
Enthusiasm for the Rams had consumed Richmond in the days leading up to the game. Professors canceled classes or postponed assignments so that students could celebrate the team’s accomplishment.
“When VCU made it to the Sweet 16, I was like: ‘Oh. My. Gosh.’ I went crazy. When they went to the Elite Eight, I thought I was going to die,” said Rupali Saxena, 19, a sophomore who is majoring in bioinformatics. And then the Final Four? “It has been a riot. That’s the only way to describe it.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch added basketballs to its online masthead. Students at the school’s satellite campus in Qatar got up in the middle of the night to watch. The Richmond Symphony delayed the start of its performance Saturday night so concert-goers could watch the game.
“Everyone else is finally seeing what we always knew about VCU,” said Zach Mullins, 18, a freshman mechanical engineering major from Chesterfield, Va.
Other universities have found that March Madness success quickly translates into admissions success, with more applications from a wider range of students. It will be months before VCU’s administrators will learn if the same is true for them, but the school’s admissions Web site has seen a spike in hits, said Pamela D. Lepley, VCU’s executive director of university relations.
“It certainly makes recruiting easier,” she said. “Now you don’t have to explain who VCU is.”
In the past two weeks, “VCU” has been a trending topic on Google, and the university’s main Web site has been getting millions of hits — including 11 million last Sunday when the Rams beat Kansas to make it into the Final Four.
But the simplest joy of the team’s run had belonged to the students, who stood in endless lines at the school bookstore for black and gold VCU gear and crammed the streets near the school’s downtown campus Saturday to express a love for their school that many had never felt before.
“I have friends in San Diego and Arizona who finally know where I go,” said Adele McClure, the VCU student government president who is from Northern Virginia. “If you didn’t have school spirit, now you have it times six.”