David Cloninger

Columbia shoots and scores with NCAA Tournament

I felt like Janine Melnitz in one of the greatest scenes from the great movie “Ghostbusters.”

“WE GOT ONE!!!!!!!!!,” I yelled as I read the news release from the NCAA, but not having a buzzer to summon Drs. Venkman, Stantz and Spengler, I settled for popping open another Diet Dr. Pepper amid the reams of regional sites on my desk.

Columbia got an NCAA men’s basketball regional Tuesday. I break sportswriter code and say “we” because we’re all in this together, as Columbians and South Carolinians. We did what’s right, and it created an opportunity to bring a lot of revenue into this state, although it took an unspeakably horrible tragedy to finally get there. Now the basketball fans in this state will get a weekend of the best basketball there is, and it’s on the heels of watching some of the best basketball ever played by USC’s two teams.

The only drawback is we won’t be able to watch the Gamecocks at home on either side if the teams make the 2019 tournament, but at least for the women, there’s the possibility of playing a couple hours away (and if the men make it, there is a regional in Jacksonville). But that’s a risk the city and university were willing to take, because of the money an NCAA regional will bring in – an estimated 10.5 million frogpelts.

Greenville was fun in March. I’m sure the owners on Main Street filed some serious non-declared income on April’s 1040s.

But with nearly two years to finalize everything before Columbia’s date with The Dance, I’m sure Columbia will do it better.

The Vista offers the same variety as Greenville’s Main Street, and a closer walk. Fans will have access to the main roads in town, to get to Harbison or the zoo or the lake, or to simply stroll USC’s campus. Off days can feature a Fireflies or USC home baseball game, and best believe there are plenty of places with wall-to-wall TVs so you can catch the other days of the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

“I have been here for 12 and a half years,” said Scott Powers, executive director of Experience Columbia SC Sports, the new name for the Columbia Regional Sports Council. “I was at a conference in Sacramento when the men’s team and women’s team were playing. Everywhere I walked around with my Columbia, South Carolina, shirt on, all they wanted to do was talk Gamecock basketball.”

That’s the kind of dedication it took. Powers knew when he came in there was no way for South Carolina to host as long as the Confederate flag flew at the State House. The politics of it wasn’t his business – he just knew the NCAA said “no” as long as it was up.

It came down, and his dozen-year slog began to have light at the end of the tunnel. He and the sports council, Harris Pastides, Ray Tanner, and a huge helping hand from Ron Morris, a friend, mentor and the man who quarterbacked this effort, got this done.

The only problem I can see is parking. It’s nutty enough for a USC home game; I can’t imagine what it will be with fans from across the country packing into town. The NCAA regional will miss USC’s spring break by a week, so you can forget empty garage spaces; perhaps there will be a shuttle system from the Fairgrounds.

Powers confirmed there will be several shuttle services, from hotels and other lots, although the city can’t do anything about the train schedules. Yet, that’s a minor problem to address when the time comes, and the time will come when the eyes of the world – the NCAA Tournament draws in more viewers than anything but the Super Bowl – are trained on Columbia.

“They see us as the destination where champions are made,” Powers said. “This is why we’re here.”

Why we’re finally here.

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