Sunday, March 08, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: What a reward for those who stuck around. Let's dance!

Radford outruns VMI to claim the Big South men's tourney title and a berth in the NCAA basketball tournament.Radford defeats VMI 108-94 to win the Big South Conference championship securing their spot in the NCAA tournament.

RADFORD -- The university president held out her right arm and swept her hand across the front of her body -- past the student revelers on the court, past the team in its championship T-shirts and hats, past the second-year coach engulfed by well-wishers, past the fans still in the stands applauding and reluctant to go.

"Look at those students," Radford University President Penelope Kyle said. "They did not go on spring break. Some of these students have been out of class since Thursday. We asked them to stay and support the team.

"And look at them. They did."

Oh, they wouldn't miss this. At a school where there is no football, athletic events don't get more monumental than a home game in the Big South Conference tournament finale, with a spot in the NCAA tournament in the balance.

They'll be on a line. When you get right down to it, that's what Saturday's 108-94 victory over the Virginia Military Institute means for the Highlanders. On Sunday, when the bracket is unveiled and office pools start cranking and March Madness takes hold, folks all over the country will study the names on the lines. The Carolinas, Dukes and Connecticuts will all be there, like they usually are.

And this year, for the second time in school history and the first time since 1998, so will Radford.

___________

He had to shout to be heard.

Radford University's Art Parakhouski and teammate Lazar Trifunovic celebrate within a sea of fans after the Highlanders defeated Virginia Military Institute to win the Big South men's basketball tournament championship on Saturday. The victory earned RU a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Associated Press

Radford University's Art Parakhouski and teammate Lazar Trifunovic celebrate within a sea of fans after the Highlanders defeated Virginia Military Institute to win the Big South men's basketball tournament championship on Saturday. The victory earned RU a spot in the NCAA tournament.

   Radford University head coach Brad Greenberg cuts down his chunk of the net after defeating Virginia Military Institute in the final of the Big South men's basketball tournament.

Photo by Justin Cook | The Roanoke Times

Radford University head coach Brad Greenberg cuts down his chunk of the net after defeating Virginia Military Institute in the final of the Big South men's basketball tournament.

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It was halftime -- supposedly downtime for the fans -- and there was still ear-splitting noise echoing off the walls of the Dedmon Center. Matt Vecchio, a senior at RU and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Tartan, was asked what the basketball interest level was when he first stepped on campus.

"Very, very, very low!" shouted Vecchio, his face painted in the school colors. "I've always been a huge basketball fan, I played some in high school and stuff. So how do the players feel when you walk out and there's, like, three fans there cheering?

"It's been real interesting how athletics as a whole have gone up. We're bringing in more students now who are interested in stuff other than just partying. It's been amazing to see."

Noise. So much noise. You couldn't hear the names introduced during pre-game. You could barely hear the piped-in music. Both schools brought large, enthusiastic contingents.

At VMI -- a proud but rigorous school, one of the most difficult places in the country to recruit and retain good athletes -- the corps arrived in town hoping the Keydets would earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 1977. At RU -- where university officials kept dorms and dining halls open beyond their spring break closing time -- students held tailgates in the parking lot. The ESPN2 cameras were here, a rarity for either team.

VMI raced to a 13-0 lead. The cadets, wearing uniform dress pants and red T-shirts, exploded in glee. RU battled back and took a four-point edge at the half. The home folks roared.

The lead changed hands nine times before RU's size wore the Keydets down.

Cops moved the edge of the crowd back in the final seconds. They had no chance. The horn sounded. RU fans poured out of the stands.

Finally, they were on a line.

___________

"Man, it's going to be great," RU forward and native Roanoker Phillip Martin said. "It's going to be great for the area, great for the university. I think it's really going to open up a lot of doors for Radford in the future.

"This was a dream I had as a kid, to play Division I basketball and play in the NCAA tournament, and now it's come true. It's just awesome. We're going to enjoy it."

And so were the alumni, many of whom are already planning their trips for the first round of the NCAAs.

Perhaps the only downside for RU fans is that many of them have seen their chances of winning the office pool decrease because of this.

"You've got to go with your heart," alumnus Doug Day said, grinning. "I'll fill out a bracket, and Radford will be advancing to the second round. No question."

Day, the Blacksburg High School boys basketball coach, was the leading scorer for the Highlanders three straight seasons in the early 1990s. They had some good teams then, regularly contending for the conference title before falling in the league tournament. In 1997-98, RU won its first Big South tourney and was sent to Lexington, Ky., to face Duke in the first round. Day and other alums traveled to watch. The bond between old and new was strong.

But in recent years, that faded. The team struggled. Fans stopped coming.

This season, under second-year coach Brad Greenberg, the team has been revived. As the Highlanders won the regular season title and advanced to the first all-Virginia final in league tournament history, the alumni reconnected.

"Now we're calling each other on the phone, shooting each other e-mails," Day said. "It's just brought the pride back to Radford University."

_____________

Kyle's been a big part of that. She's emphasized athletics at RU like never before. And she was at every home game this season.

She sat in the second row on Saturday next to athletic director Robert Lineburg. Both stood and cheered when the bid was secured.

"Everybody will tell you that it does such wondrous things for your admissions office," Kyle said. "Folks at George Mason tell you that. VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] talks about when they beat Duke two years ago in the first round of the NCAA. You kind of get out there and get your name known."

The Highlanders now have a week to celebrate before the brackets are unveiled. Senior guard Kenny Thomas said he's looking forward to a little rest.

"I know everybody's on a high right now," he said. "I've never seen as much school spirit and pride as we have right now. I can only imagine how the students feel."

Here's a guess: Glad they stayed.

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