Columbia rolls out red carpet for basketball fans

Allen Wallace photos.

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament came to Columbia for the first time since 1970, and the madness extended far beyond Colonial Life Arena.

Thousands of visitors flocked to the city to see the first and second round games, and found a warm welcome. With Saturday a scheduled day off between rounds, Main Street District hosted Hoops Fan Day. The event included live music on the street and inside many local businesses, along with lots of food and drinks.

“This is our first time in South Carolina, and we like it so far,” said Oklahoma University student Madison Langley. “It definitely feels like a college town and everyone has been really friendly.”

Across the city and especially near the arena, businesses offered specials (many basketball-themed) to welcome and attract visitors. After the University of Central Florida won its first round game, its alumni association arranged for a pep rally Sunday at Tin Roof and The Senate before the team’s second-round matchup with Duke.

“These guys have really fought this year. I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” said UCF Athletic Director Danny White to a crowd of more than 100 Knights fans at the event. “This is just the beginning… we’re going to be good again next year. We’re going to be good again the year after that.”

Top-seeded Duke brought perhaps the largest contingent of fans, with a large crowd gathering Sunday outside the Hilton Columbia Center in the Vista to cheer on the team as they boarded a bus for the short trip to the arena.

The Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism worked with many local partners to welcome the crowds and hopefully impress enough to earn future chances to host. Volunteers with “Ask Me” shirts were a common sight, ready to answer questions, and the Segra Fan Fest at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center offered lots of entertainment as well as a chance to show off for many local businesses.

Columbia is eligible to bid to host March Madness again in 2023.

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