ATLANTA – Turtles supplanted bunny rabbits and vivid crimson trumped the pale pastels of colored eggs on an Easter Sunday in a Georgia city overrun by visiting Marylanders whose religious fervor was devoted in large measure to basketball this day.
Lent was broken in fine style Saturday, with the University of Maryland’s men’s basketball team win against the University of Kansas in the Final Four here for its first-ever shot at a national championship.
The Terrapins face upset upstart Indiana University Monday night in the championship game.
For husband and wife Kevin and Laurie Konopacki, they’re perfectly happy that they’re not spending the religious holiday with their family.
“Mom called and asked if we were coming over,” Laurie said. “We told her that if we did, we’d be really sad.”
That’s because coming over would have meant that the Terrapins did not advance in the tournament. Reaching the national championship is something the couple from Elkridge, Md., has been waiting for as long as they can remember.
“We’ve been fans all our lives,” Kevin said. “We try to go to as many (games) as we can.”
That included making a trip out to last year’s Final Four in Minneapolis where Maryland blew a 22-point lead to lose to the university’s archrival Duke University.
That loss still feels like a fresh wound.
“It was depressing after we lost,” Laurie said. “We just wanted to go home.”
On top of the loss, there were the uninviting Minnesota temperatures to cope with.
So this year’s championship weekend, with 70-degree weather and someone to root for Monday night, helped to redeem their Final Four experience.
“This feels a lot better than last year trekking in the snow,” Laurie said.
Her husband concurs.
“It feels so good to stay around for another day when everyone else is packing up and checking out,” Kevin said. “We saw all these Kansas fans sitting around at breakfast depressed. That was us last year.”
They certainly weren’t alone in their joy.
Interstate 85 South Friday looked like Campus Drive on a home game night, so many Maryland flags and banners hung from car windows.
From Dodge Neons filled over recommended passenger capacities with students, to BMW 740s, fans were quick to show their Terrapin pride by honking their horns and waving red Maryland T-shirts and caps whenever they passed cars with Maryland tags.
The road to Georgia was not as kind to Jayhawks fans.
Ray McElfish, who now lives in New York, is a Maryland fan able to see the disappointment Kansas fans suffered firsthand. His wife and in-laws were at the Kansas-Maryland game, and they are all lifelong Jayhawks boosters.
“I married into a KU family,” he said.
He even got his tickets through the Kansas alumni club.
“It’s tough because I can’t gloat,” he said smiling as he glanced over at his wife and family.
That hasn’t made the victory any less tasty.
McElfish has been following the Terrapins ever since he was a child growing up in Cumberland. He was even a student during the dark days of the basketball program when a star player named Len Bias was on the team. Bias died of a drug overdose after being drafted by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft.
“Campus went as dry as a stone when Bias died,” he said of the basketball program.
So with the rise of this year’s likely NBA-bound stars like Juan Dixon, he couldn’t be happier to see the team return to its glory days
“We’re happy for (Coach) Gary (Williams), and we’re happy for the team,” he said.
His only concern now besides Monday night’s game is when to buy Terp souvenirs and merchandise.
“I don’t know if I should buy stuff now or wait for the national championship merchandise to come out.”
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