Villanova soundly defeated Oklahoma 95-51 in Saturday's first of two semifinal games in the NCAA men's basketball tournament in Houston, while North Carolina eclipsed Syracuse 83-66 in the second game.
The two winners will meet Monday for the tournament championship.
As college basketball fans flooded into Houston to the watch the Final Four games, the city was in a party mood. Visitors were packing downtown restaurants and bars.
There were many events scheduled for families and free concerts in parks. But adults had a lot of watering holes to choose from, including the Prohibition Supper Club downtown, where employees dress in 1920s fashions and a young woman in a feathered costume swings above the bar while a big, bearded man with a fake Thompson submachine gun stands by with a look of menace.
Many other locales offered Final Four specials and feature large-screen TVs set to sports channels, as well as posters and insignias for all four competing teams on the walls.
Hosting this event brings lots of visitors and lots of dollars to the local economy, and Houston leaders are trying to use it to showcase what the city has to offer. Next year, the city will host the Super Bowl American football championship.
But all the events and attractions were a sideshow for basketball fans. For them, the real party was at the huge NRG Stadium, site of the competition. Many fans attended pregame practice sessions to check out their teams.
For Carlee Daub of Norman, Oklahoma, the Final Four is very special.
Carlee Daub of Norman, Oklahoma, is thrilled at the prospect of watching her Oklahoma Sooners play in the Final Four, and she has a special connection to the team: She's married to one of the coaches. (G. Flakus/VOA)
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see our boys in the Final Four," she said Friday. "And I am pretty close with one of the coaches — he might be my husband,” she said with a laugh, displaying her wedding ring.
Many local people will also see the games, but much of the excitement comes from fans who traveled long distances to be here.
Twelve-year-old Tyler Hathaway and his father, Eric, came all the way from Rochester, New York, to support the Syracuse team.
Twelve-year-old Tyler Hathaway and his father, Eric, came all the way from Rochester, New York, to support the Syracuse team at the Final Four in Houston, Texas. It's a "huge opportunity," Eric says. (G. Flakus/VOA)
“We are season ticket-holders," Eric said. "This was a huge opportunity and with them being in the Final Four, it was something we could not miss.”
Jerry Chu from New York City has friends on two separate teams — one is a coach for Villanova and the other is a player with Syracuse.
“To me, I am torn, in the sense of the players I know, but in the sense of the game, it always keeps it interesting,” he said.
Indeed, many people attending these games came here from states with no team in the competition; they are here simply for the love of the game.
“I have played basketball my whole life," said Jason Enoch, a fan of the sport from Kentucky. "Anything about basketball, I have been a part of it. I don’t know, I just love the game.”
The Oklahoma Sooners' cheerleaders pause for a selfie. (G. Flakus/VOA)