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OKLAHOMA CITY--Former student and longtime Texas A&M season ticket holder Russ Mason spent some time leading up to Friday night's A&M-Green Bay basketball game relaxing in a chair at a pre-game reception across the street from Chesapeake Energy Arena.
While excited Aggies buzzed about the room in eager anticipation of the team's first NCAA Tournament game since 2011, Mason was content to sit back, sip on a cup of water and enjoy a few quiet moments chatting with some friends.
Most in the room didn't know it, but he was in the midst of his own version of March Madness.
Mason, a member of the Class of 1970 who lives in College Station, was on the first leg of the ultimate Aggie basketball support circuit. His game plan for the long weekend was knee buckling. Mason may be the only fan attempting the College Station-to-Oklahoma City-to-College Station-to-Oklahoma City-to-College Station drive over a four-day stretch in an effort to attend both men's games in OKC and both women's games in College Station.
That equals about 1,500 miles of windshield time in the span of about 100 hours. (A&M athletic director Scott Woodward will also attend each game, but he is flying instead of driving.)
"My brother already told me I'm crazy," said Mason, an A&M superfan and 12th Man Foundation supporter who owns season tickets to football, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball and soccer. "But I can do this. I may not feel very good Monday, but I feel pretty good today."
Mason's devotion is exceptional, but so too was the performance many wearing maroon and white witnessed during A&M's 92-65 destruction of Green Bay on Friday night.
The emphatic win put the Aggies on the brink of their third Sweet 16 appearance in school history. Third-seeded A&M will play Sunday against 11-seed Northern Iowa, which stunned Texas on a half-court buzzer beater. The winner will play in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday in the Sweet 16 against either OU or VCU.
For A&M, its ascension into the postseason has been a year in the making. Kennedy made waves following the team's NIT loss last year to Louisiana Tech when he boldly predicted during the postgame press conference that his team would be an NCAA squad in 2016.
After a run through the regular season that culminated in an SEC championship, the school's first conference title in 30 years, Kennedy's words were proven to be prophetic.
Kennedy said his team immediately bought into that belief.
"I give our leadership, our seniors credit," Kennedy said. "We weren't just trying to get in (this year) because we should have gotten in last year. Houston being the host of the Final Four...our guys know that, and that was one of the first things we talked about. We've talked about it from day one, and I want them to have that kind of vision and that kind of dream because I believe it's possible."
Now, A&M will be playing in primetime against a team that has already produced an iconic March moment and is one of the darlings of the country.
Much like the Aggies, the Panthers enter Sunday's game on a roll.
UNI has won 13 of its last 14 games. After finishing fourth in the Missouri Valley, Northern Iowa shocked top-seeded Wichita State in the conference semifinals and hasn't looked back. The Panthers have also showed a flair for the dramatic, winning their last five contests by an average of 3.6 points. The last four have all been tied in the final minute, with the last two being decided on buzzer beaters.
A&M players needed to look no further than Chesapeake Energy Arena on Friday night to see just how dangerous the Panthers can be. UNI exploded early on the Longhorns by racing to a 16-point lead in the first half. And when Texas battled back to take a six-point advantage midway through the second half, Northern Iowa's seniors Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson and Wes Washpun combined to score the team's next 19 points and stake the Panthers to a two-possession lead.
Jesperson eventually won the game with the half-court heave that sent the arena into pandemonium.
"Every team in this tournament is really good," said A&M senior Jalen Jones. "Every night, you have to be locked in and ready to go. Those guys play with a lot of heart and passion, and they're trying to win a national championship just like the higher-seeded teams."
It's a real pleasure for us to do this, because I think back about all the support Aggies have given me. No one accomplishes everything in life by themselves, and A&M and the Aggie network have definitely been there for me throughout my life."