Published April 09. 2014 11:55PM
Storrs - Minutes before students would welcome their champions home Tuesday afternoon, Gampel Pavilion was near-empty, quiet save for the overhead buzz of fluorescent floodlights.
Around campus, the student body was noticeably blue-tinted, making its way between classes donning school-spirited gear. It was calmer, certainly, than the previous night, when rowdy revelers brought a lamppost crashing through a window, toppled cars and lit fires, with 30 arrests made by 1:30 a.m.
But not for too long. At the front of the court, two neat rows of chairs sat on a blue-curtained platform - a soon-to-be throne - and the four-entrance dam was set to break open in minutes to streams of fans, filing in for a quick glimpse of their heroes.
Freshmen Maria O'Connell of Greenwich and Rhegan Fisher of Trumbull were at the front of a growing crowd at the north entrance, having arrived more than an hour early for the 4:30 p.m. door opening.
O'Connell had a grinning husky on each of her cheeks, while Fisher donned blue eye shadow. Both wore brand-new UConn tank tops and worn-in sneakers for comfort. They were planning on sticking it out for the long haul, staying in the pavilion after the rally for the victorious men's team to watch the women take on Notre Dame.
"We're not even leaving our seats," O'Connell said. "No leaving seats."
They came even earlier to watch the game at Gampel Monday night, an hour and a half before tipoff, and said they were "almost trampled."
But they didn't mind. O'Connell cheered, she said, when she saw a chair tossed into a roaring fire sometime in the early hours of the morning.
"It's so much fun," she said. "People are crazy around here."
As the seats filled up, the cameras panned readily to small children putting their older counterparts to shame with enthusiastic dance moves. Near the floor in matching pink foam bone hats, graduate student Becky Acabchuck sat calmly with her three daughters - third-grade twins, her oldest in fifth.
Acabchuck heard about the rally, she said, and made a split-second decision when picking up her daughters from school, driving straight here.
"I was like, 'Oh, we gotta go,'" she said.
Being a part of the UConn community is a different experience as a graduate student, she said: At the end of the day, she goes home to her kids.
But this is a way for all of them to celebrate together.
"It's just exciting to be a part of it," she said.
A half-hour passed, then another. Word on the street was that the team stopped at McDonald's on the way back from greeting the governor fresh off the plane in Windsor Locks.
At 6:07 p.m., and again five minutes later, at cue of the emcee, the crowd rose to its feet with roars growing louder each time. False alarms both times.
Finally, after a quick round of Queen's "We Are the Champions," not quite two hours late, the team arrived to deafening noise. Crowd members leapt to their feet and, this time, stayed.
They relived every key moment of the game in slow motion on the screen, reacting as though it were happening in real time. They watched Shabazz Napier watch his name be unveiled by his mother on the Huskies of Honor wall.
They thronged around the team and coaches on the court, a moving flock of handshakes, hugs and selfies.
And in less than two hours, they hoped, they'd have a new reason to celebrate.