Andrew Amaya-Shaw arrived at the Cove about 3 p.m. Tuesday, almost three hours before tip-off time.

The 21-year-old senior wasn't taking any chances on being late to see this UNO men's basketball game, the most important one the Privateers have played since he was in diapers.

"This is so important," Amaya-Shaw said. "I can't even begin to describe what this means for the school, to bounce back from where we were. There were rumors last year that we would be closing, and all the budget cuts, so we didn't even know if the school was going to make it."

But UNO made it, playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996, when Amaya-Shaw wasn't even a year old.

Folks of all ages packed into the school's dining facility Tuesday to watch UNO play Mount St. Mary's in the first game of March Madness.

Some, like 8-year-old Patrick O'Connell and his 6-year-old friend Miles Laan, weren't entirely sure why they were there. Patrick was there because his mom said so. Little Miles was there for the food.

"Future Privateers," Meg O'Connell called them.

McConnell, who works at the school, and her four siblings all graduated from UNO. She called the team's success "heartwarming."

Steve Himelfarb and his wife, Becky, sat a table away, wearing blue March Madness T-shirts they had just purchased on campus.

"This is more than just a game; it's an event," Steve said. "It's sort of like the Saints when they played in the NFC championship game and Super Bowl. It's in that realm of bringing all New Orleanians together. The school went through such a hard time, so it's good to see them shine."

The Himelfarbs live in Gentilly, just a few blocks from the UNO campus. They helped with rebuilding efforts in the neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina.

"That's when I really found out just how much UNO was a part of keeping this city together," Becky said. "It's been a rough 10 years for all of us, especially UNO, so I really just want to be here to celebrate the victory. The people here at UNO worked so hard for this city, and they were really unsung heroes."

They cheered every time UNO scored and got especially loud late in the first half when the Privateers rallied to cut their deficit to 32-29 at halftime. The roar grew even louder when UNO tied it at 40 five minutes into the second half.

Travis Avery sat near the back. He played on the UNO team the past four seasons before graduating last year. He knew more than any of the other 200 or so folks in the Cove just how far this team has come.

"It means a lot to see them go from where they were then to where they are now," Avery said. "Everything is coming to fruition. I knew the school would turn it around, but not as fast as we did. To have such a quick turnaround is great for the city."

UNO has a special place in Pierre Champagne's heart. It's where he met his wife back in 1971. The school means everything to him, so he wasn't about to miss this moment.

"When I look over my 45 years involved with UNO, this is one of those moments of life," he said. "It's like your favorite child or your favorite place. At the moment, it's the most important thing and, when I look back at life, it'll be among the most important things. Right now, it's the center of our existence. It means an awful lot after all the university and community have gone through."

Courtney Roblez, who plays volleyball at UNO, was just a few months old the last time the Privateers played on the NCAA's big stage. As an athlete, she's always had school pride.

"But to see everyone with this school pride is amazing," she said. "My mom used to always tell me about how UNO used to be the place to be. Well, this is the first step to making it be the place to be again."

The party finally ended with UNO's season coming to an end in a 67-66 loss.

"We're still proud of them," McConnell said.

Christina Early, a senior at UNO, couldn't hold back tears when the game and season finally came to an end, just as she couldn't just three nights earlier, when UNO punched its ticket to the Big Dance.

Early was performing in a play when she hit the refresh button to get game updates and learned that the Privateers had won the Southland Conference tournament.

"I ran backstage, running up and down St. Claude Avenue screaming and crying," Early recalled. "We are such a Cinderella story and such an underdog story.

"No one can ever take this away from us. No one will ever be able to say UNO is a commuter school. We are a school with heart, soul and UNO pride."

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.