University of Colorado student Ashton Horowitz attended a total of four basketball games over the course of her first two years at the school. She didn't know the players' names or backgrounds, and she didn't care to learn them.
"Now," the senior said, "basketball is my life. I get (to games) an hour-and-a-half before game time. I wait outside in line and sit in the front row."
Horowitz credits the contagious enthusiasm of the increasingly populous student section, the "C-Unit," for her personal transformation.
"The basketball games have turned into an incredible atmosphere, and nothing beats the feeling of being able to cheer at the top of your lungs, with your friends surrounding you, knowing the impact you make and the help we give to the team," she said.
Early this morning, along with Athletic Director Mike Bohn and Chancellor Phil DiStefano, Horowitz and 24 of the loudest, rowdiest and most loyal C-Unit members boarded a chartered flight and headed to Austin, Texas, where their beloved Buffs will face Illinois in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64.
The trip, funded by private donations, is a continuation of CU's efforts to reward the school's most avid basketball fans with all-expenses-paid trips to crucial postseason games. Last year, the school sent 50 students to Los Angeles for the Pac-12 Tournament and 100 students to Albuquerque for the NCAA Tournament. CU also sent 50 students to last week's Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.
"It's our way of thanking the students for their support throughout the season," DiStefano said.
The 25 C-Unit members who punched their tickets to Austin did so by attending nearly every men's and women's basketball game at the Coors Events Center.
"You can't not be excited," said CU senior Taber Peif before leaving for Texas. "All of us who have had the opportunity to go on these trips are stuck for life."
Along with fostering long-term fanaticism, the trips also tighten bonds among the students fortunate enough to go on them.
Jariya Phanpaktra, a senior, said the camaraderie to and from Albuquerque was one of the highlights of that trip.
"It was crazy because it was such a long bus ride, but we didn't sleep. Everybody was up talking the whole time," she said.
Added Horowitz: "The students that sit in the first few rows are a core group that have been able to go on these trips of a lifetime, and they have become some of my closest friends. We have these experiences to never forget. There is a bond with them that I don't have with my other friends I've met at CU."
Phanpaktra says her voice is "still raspy" from cheering so hard last week in Las Vegas, but she'll be ready to go when CU and Illinois tip off.
"I'm very excited," she said. "We can provide that energy and the spark when the team needs it. Crowd atmosphere and fan energy make a big, big difference."
Should CU advance to the Sweet 16, which would send the team to Washington, D.C., Phanpaktra says she'll do "whatever it takes" to get there.
Sports information director David Plati has been at the school for 35 years and said the C-Unit deserves some credit for the steady improvement of CU basketball.
"They've become a real force in helping the outcome of some games," he said. "I don't recall the students being this numerous, this loud and this much in force in all my years here."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Alex Burness at 303-473-1361 or firstname.lastname@example.org.