- Associated Press - Sunday, April 3, 2011

RICHMOND, VA. (AP) - About 100 fans welcomed the VCU men’s basketball team back to Richmond Sunday after its Final Four loss to Butler the night before, ending an unlikely but magical run in the national tournament.

Fans chanted “VCU, VCU,” as the team arrived around 3:30 p.m. at the campus’s Siegel Center near downtown by police escort. The cheers quickly turned to “We want Shaka,” referring to coach Shaka Smart, who flashed a humble smile as he exited the bus before the team.

The Virginia Commonwealth University coach and players took their time going down the line giving high-fives, hugs and autographs to waiting fans, who snapped pictures with their cell phones and cameras.

Gabby Brophy, 10, beamed as most of the team signed her gold, blow-up spirit stick.

“It was awesome,” she said after point guard sensation Joey Rodriguez signed his name.

Gabby and her 6-year-old sister Sidney had decorated their house with streamers and balloons to watch Saturday night’s game, which ended in a 70-62 loss for VCU. She said she hopes to play women’s basketball for the school when she goes to college.

“I really admire the team,” she said.

Rodriguez said the Richmond school’s run from a buy-in bid to the national semifinal was a great experience, and the fan support was much appreciated.

“It means a lot after a loss to have everybody here,” he said. “It was a great four years.”

Christina Willis, a senior homeland security major from Hatteras, N.C., showed up with some friends to support the team. Many of her friends from home didn’t even know where she went to college, but she said the team’s run changed all that.

“They made history, and we just want to show them the love,” she said

VCU fans stood behind their team when the national pundits questioned whether they should have made it into the tournament. The Rams went on to beat powerhouse programs such as Kansas and Florida State.

A question painted on a window across the street from where the fans gathered Sunday summed up the team’s run in the tournament and the sentiment of fans: “Who says we don’t belong?”

Patrick Flores, a 2007 graduate, said he and a group of friends wanted to be there Sunday to show the team they supported them until the end. Flores said he often went to the games, but the school’s time in the national spotlight has brought greater pride to the community.

“There’s a lot more pride on campus, throughout the city of Richmond, probably in the state of Virginia just for VCU,” he said.

Story Continues →