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For Gopher fans, on to New Orleans... or Minneapolis
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The 700-plus crowd of fans at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis cheered the players on as if they were right there with the team in Norfolk, Virginia. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
The University of Minnesota women's basketball team is going to the Final Four in New Orleans. The Gophers beat the Number-one-ranked Duke Blue Devils 82-75 in Norfolk, Vir. It was a close, exciting game. Hundreds of fans watching at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis brought an excitement to the evening that could match any live Gophers game on campus.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The fans didn't care the players were hundreds of miles away, that stars Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen were just two-dimensional images running around on a movie screen. The 700-plus crowd of fans at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis cheered the players on as if they were right there with the team in Norfolk, Virginia.

Many of those who came out, like Bob Burlingame of Ham Lake, are self described "converts" to the women's team.

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Image Needs a lift to New Orleans

"I got into it a few years ago on accident," he siad. "Where I work they usually give free tickets to the boys. And one night, my neighbor -- she likes sports -- was like, "' bought one for the girls.' We haven't missed a game since. They play hard. You don't see the dunks and the slams, but I think they play harder and they play more intense."

Minnesota played hard against Duke. The Gophers led by as much as 10, but the Blue Devils managed to stay close. And even though Duke would tie the score with 5:53 remaining, the Gophers never gave up the lead.

Longtime fans Bill and Michelle Fish of St. Paul marveled at the Gopher women's skill and teamwork, and how far the team and its fans have come.

"We used to come to the games with our daughters probably about 10 years ago, and there wasn't hardly anyone in the stands, so this is great. They used to play at the sports Pavillion; (you'd) be lucky if you had a thousand people in the stands. Probably more people in this theater tonight then used to be at some of those games," they said.

For some in the theater, the game against Duke was two hours of voice-cracking Gopher madness.

Meet 12 year old Rebecca Strommen, decked out in maroon and gold. A big maroon-and-gold mullett wig on her head, a Gopher's shirt and jacket. Frantically waving yellow cheer noodles, she leads over 700 fans of all ages in cheer after cheer after cheer.

By victory time, she was pretty worked up.

"We just shut 'em down," she screamed. "I cannot breath. I think they're going to make the championship. They beat a number one -- Duke -- they beat number 2 -- Kansas State -- they beat number 3 -- Boston College -- they can beat number 2 UConn. They already beat a number 2 before."

Rebecca says she's going to New Orleans to watch the Gophers in the Final Four -- with or without her family.

Linda Strommen says she loves having such a big Gophers fan for a daughter.

Other parents who brought their girls and boys to the game say the Gophers are an inspiration for the kids, and an opportunity to learn something new. It's pretty impressive how much some of the young fans know about the game.

"It was a great game, " said Ella Counihan, 8. "That was the first time ever that a number 7 seed got into the Final Four."

She's right. Ella's mother, Racquel Counihan, says the family became Gophers fans just last year and bought season tickets.

"I knew that they could win, but I really didn't know if they would," she said. "And they proved they could play with any team in the country. So it was really, really, really fun. Nerve wracking, kind of a nail biter. But really fun."

Fouls and free throws for the Gophers were answered by some amazing long shots as the clock ticked down. A neck-and-neck game to the last. Final score Minnesota 82, Duke 75. On to New Orleans.

Or, for most of us, back to a big neighborhood television screen for next Sunday's game against the Connecticut Huskies.

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