GREENVILLE, S.C. _ Welcome to college basketball's promised land, Kent State University fans!
Over 500 loyal backers and a national television audience witnessed firsthand the most glorious moment in the school's storied athletic history Saturday afternoon, when the Golden Flashes advanced to the "Sweet 16" for the first time ever by upsetting Alabama 71-58 in the second round of the 2002 NCAA men's basketball tournament.
KSU proved to the entire nation that it belongs among the true elite by earning its 20th straight victory in stunningly convincing fashion over a Crimson Tide club that was ranked eighth in the country, much to the delight of proud supporters like 1973 graduate Patrick Barbato of Poland.
"This is the greatest victory in Kent State history in any sport, period," Barbato claimed. "This will give Kent State a name in college basketball that everyone will recognize. I can't wait to go to Lexington. I certainly don't mind taking two more days off work."
The Flashes will play the winner of today's Pittsburgh-California game in the South regional semifinals Thursday at legendary Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
KSU never trailed and thoroughly dominated Alabama throughout the contest, which surprised most of the 13,962 fans that packed soldout Bi-Lo Center. But Barbato, who has attended virtually every Flashes home game for the past several years, claims he saw it coming.
"I watched Alabama play Florida Atlantic (in Thursday's first round), and that team took it to them inside. And they were a No. 15 seed," said Barbato. "I felt good after that, because people don't realize how good Kent State is. It's a special group that's experienced and knows how to win."
Dan Thompson and his wife Andrea, both of Cleveland, drove all night just to see Saturday's showdown in person.
"We left at 6 p.m. last night, got in this morning at 5:30 a.m., took a quick nap and ran over here," said Dan Thompson. "This is something you just want to be a part of. You see all the Kent State people here, and you wouldn't have seen any of this six or seven years ago. It's finally starting to catch on."
Laing Kennedy, KSU director of athletics, found himself still living in a dream exactly one week after his men's and women's basketball teams made history by both capturing Mid-American Conference Tournament titles.
"Last week we did something that had never been done, and now this," said Kennedy. "Every time I think I've seen the most special moment I'll ever see, it gets topped. This is just unbelievable. I don't know what other word to say. Kent State in the 'Sweet 16.' Only 16 teams still playing basketball in the entire country, and we're one of them. What a proud moment for the entire university."
Kennedy admits he's never seen a team gel like the Flashes.
"They play with so much confidence, intensity, togetherness," he said. "People who have never seen this team play before fall in love with them instantly because they see how unselfish they are and how hard they play. The team concept that makes this team special is something you just don't see."
While most fans began celebrating well before the final buzzer sounded on Saturday, Jennifer Huffman, the mother of KSU star guard Trevor Huffman, found herself reaching for the Kleenex with several minutes still showing on the clock.
"I started crying with about 12 minutes to go," she smiled. "Trevor tells me I shouldn't celebrate early, but I couldn't help it. To see these guys achieve their dreams after all the hard work they put in is just so wonderful. I'm so happy for them."
How does it feel to play a part in the most celebrated victory in KSU sports history?
"I don't know what to say," said Trevor Huffman. "I just think God gave us all a gift, and we're using it to the best of our abilities. We're just going to go as far as He takes us."
"Maybe when we're old and fat we'll get together for our reunion and think about all we've done," said senior guard Andrew Mitchell. "But right now everything's happening so fast, I don't think it's hit us yet. I don't really know what to think of it. I just know this is truly a special group of people, and who knows how far we can go?"
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