Fairbanks pays tribute to UAF basketball team

Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2002

FAIRBANKS - The celebration continues.

Fans in downtown Fairbanks cheered Tuesday afternoon as the University of Alaska Fairbanks basketball team held a brief victory parade commemorating its historic championship of the 2002 Top of the World Classic over the weekend.

Workers took short breaks, leaving their stores to stand on the sidewalk, waving signs and cheering. Patrons of shops and hotels and bars mingled in, adding their voices of support to the giant-killing Nanooks.

The Nanooks rode on the back of a flatbed truck through a 20-minute route, continuing the festival atmosphere that began with UAF's first-round win over Wisconsin-Green Bay on Thursday, built with a victory over Nebraska in Saturday's semifinals and climaxed with a championship win over Weber State on Sunday.

UAF became the first men's NCAA Division II basketball team ever to emerge from an eight-team Division I tournament as champions. The University of Alaska Anchorage women's basketball team accomplished a similar feat in 1990 when the Seawolves won the now-defunct Northern Lights Invitational.

Two days later, as the darkness of the winter night enveloped Fairbanks, the city and the Nanooks were still enjoying the warm afterglow of victory.

"We are just so proud of them, for the coach, the players. It is just unreal," said Mark Herzberg, holding a UAF Nanooks Rule sign over his head and yelling as the Nanook truck drove past. "Its unbelievable. I was at all three games and I still cant believe it."

Herzberg was standing just outside his place of employment, Big Rays, on Second Avenue. He was joined by another employee, Bill Huntley, who also held up a sign congratulating the Nanooks.

"I had to miss the tournament; I had to work, but I heard about it the next day. It was fantastic," Huntley said watching as the truck rolled past the store a second time.

Banners and streamers proclaiming the championship adorned the truck. Icicle lights hung between posts in the back of the truck. Small Nerf hoops adorned each post and a larger freestanding basketball net stood near the front.

The players held UAF flags and waved at the sporadic crowds of people while a line of cars followed through downtown.

"This fits in with the whole tournament," UAF coach Al Sokaitis said at the post-parade reception at the Westmark Hotel. "Its a community event. It was wonderful. I got a kick out of the people running out of the stores, restaurants, hotels. ... Not a single person in Fairbanks doesnt feel like they won a championship, too."

"Its awesome," said UAF freshman Justin Bourne, who graduated from Fairbanks' Lathrop High School. "Three big wins like that. It is just awesome. I woke up today and it seemed like it was back to normal life and then I looked over and saw that (championship) hat laying there."

The Nanooks beat Wisconsin-Green Bay 78-55, Nebraska 64-61 and Weber State 77-65 to win the tournament. UAF won only four games last year, but is already 5-0 this season, including a 3-0 mark against NCAA Division I schools.

UAF had laid claim to the previous best finish by an NCAA Division II school in an NCAA Division I tournament when it placed third in the 1998 Top of the World Classic, which featured Arkansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Virginia, Washington State, New Mexico State and Villanova. The Nanooks beat Washington State and New Mexico State that season, losing only to eventual champion Villanova in the semifinals.

Since beginning the tournament UAF has a 7-14 record against NCAA Division I schools.

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