Final Four brings flood of fans to see rivalry, hometown hero

Ten-year-old Addison Campion of Belle Plaine described her Sunday night plans succinctly: “See Paige play.”

That she did, in a game that won’t soon be forgotten though the going was tough early on for Paige Bueckers and her legions of hometown fans. The 20-year-old Hopkins High graduate and her University of Connecticut Huskies fell behind hard and fast to top-ranked South Carolina early Sunday night at Target Center.

No matter. Bueckers was the favorite of the young fans who packed the lobby and sidewalk before the game for the red carpet arrival of the two star-studded women’s teams.

“I love Paige and I want her to win in her hometown arena,” said Teona Bebeau, 16, of Deer Lake, Minn., who was wearing a Connecticut hoodie as she waited for Bueckers. “It’s just a cool opportunity. We all want to meet Paige or just say hi and good luck.”

Sunday night’s game was the culmination of the NCAA Women’s Final Four 68-team tournament and a March Madness weekend that brought multiday sporting events back to the Twin Cities. The event breathed life back into downtown after two years of a pandemic that kept workers and tourists away.

Leading up to the final game, fans saw two tough semifinal basketball games Friday and kept things lively in a variety of basketball-related events and exhibitions at the Minneapolis Convention Center and Mall of America.

Organizers expected some 30,000 visitors and the fans showed up, mostly filling Target Center. The announced attendance both Friday and Saturday nights exceeded 18,000. And the crowd was eager and deep outside Target Center two hours before the finale on Sunday night.

Bebeau was among the Native American basketball-playing youth brought to Minneapolis through the Indigenous Athletics Council Engagement. They attended the games, participated in a clinic and feast Saturday at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, swam in their hotel pool and went on rides at the Mall of America.

With Bebeau was Kaydence Fairbanks, 12, holding a glitter-rimmed sign that read, “Have no fear #5 is here.” Fairbanks said that Bueckers, “plays for everyone and for herself, and I like that about her.”

Addison Campion said she had a Sharpie in her pocket and was hoping to get Bueckers’ autograph. “She just doesn’t give up. She has a good attitude. She takes the shot,” Addison said.

In between the games and activities with her dad Peter, Addison played in a tournament in Hopkins. She didn’t get Bueckers’ signature as the players walked quickly past. But Bueckers smiled the whole way.

“She saw her,” a beaming Peter Campion reported after Bueckers swept past his daughter into the building.

Before the player arrivals, Elizabeth Hackbarth, 22, of Zimmerman, Minn., posed with her parents in front of a giant version of the national championship trophy erected for the pregame “Party on the Plaza.”

Her favorite player? “I mean, Paige Bueckers,” the St. Cloud State University student said. “She’s got a lot of swag.”

For others, the South Carolina team was the draw.

Cynthia and Roger Hall, retirees from Aiken, SC, wore Gamecocks sweatshirts as they waited for the players to arrive. The retired couple made their first trip to Minnesota, going on tours of US Bank Stadium, the University of Minnesota and the state Capitol before refueling at Gluek’s Bar and Restaurant. They planned to drive out to Mount Rushmore and return for the Minnesota Twins home opener on Thursday.

“We love your city,” Cynthia Hall said. “When we landed, we saw snow on the ground. We don’t get to see snow.”

Taylor Givens, 10, from Auburn, Ala., and her mom Rodgetta Williams were a few fans deep from the actual red carpet, but they saw South Carolina star Aliyah Boston wave as she walked the carpet. “She saw us,” Williams said.

Boston, Givens said, is “really tough. Whenever she’s down, she keeps going. She never gives up.”

Williams reported that Taylor “did everything” basketball-related through the weekend, including winning a shooting contest at Tourney Town that netted her a signed basketball on the spot from Texas A&M Coach Joni Taylor.

Williams said she hopes the women’s game continues to grow and get more attention. And she’s got big dreams for Taylor. “Hopefully in 2031, I’ll be back here watching my kid,” she said.

Leave a Comment