Fans follow Illini across country in support: 'We're home here in Omaha'

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OMAHA — Jana Mitchell goes by "crazy illini lady." That's her Twitter handle, and that's how the Illinois men's basketball players know her. Her profile picture is of her standing between Dain Dainja and Sencire Harris, looking half as tall as them.

She gets the nickname honest. Mitchell has been to every Illinois men's basketball home game this season after retiring from corporate finance and moving from Evansville, Ind., to Urbana.

"Most people retire to Florida," Mitchell said with a look like she knew how crazy her path sounded. "No, I retired to Urbana because I was tired of making the three-and-a-half-hour drive two ways to the games."

She made the move so she wouldn't have to travel so much, but she's still a big enough fan to make the trip to Minneapolis for last week's Big Ten tournament and now Omaha, Neb., for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.


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The distance and all the expenses that go along with these trips — tickets, hotels, food, etc. — didn't scare Mitchell away. She went to every game during Illinois' run to the national championship in 2005, and she didn't hesitate to confirm she'll be following the Illini to Boston if they beat Duquesne on Saturday and all the way to Phoenix if they make the Final Four.

"As far as they go, I'm there," Mitchell said. "I'm that crazy that there's no decision making. That's why I retired. Basketball got in the way of work, so I had to retire."

Mitchell has had a bit of a different experience than four Illinois fans from the northern part of the state. Ted and Melissa Nocella and Zach and Angie Sharp are "dear, dear best friends," and Thursday was just the second time all year they've been to an Illini game in person. The first was Jan. 14, when they lost to Maryland in Champaign.

The Nocellas are from Wheaton, on the outskirts of Chicago, and the Sharps live almost three hours west in Moline. The Nocellas picked up the Sharps on the way to Omaha and completed the last four-and-a-half hours together.

"We started planning this the second they won (the Big Ten championship)," Angie Sharp said. "We just knew it was going to happen. We were like, 'We're going to go to Omaha.'"

Similar to Mitchell, these friends did whatever it took to make this Omaha trip work. They got their own parents, also Illini fans, to babysit their kids, and they're sharing an Airbnb.

"You don't put a price tag on experiences like this, especially with your best friends," Melissa Nocella said. "We're just happy to be here."

Sharp piggybacked off Nocella's comment, joking that their kids might have to make the team when they get older to get the money back.

"We're hoping our kids will get full rides to the University of Illinois, so we kind of just took it out of the college fund," Sharp said with a laugh. "It's OK. They're only 3 years old. There's time to replenish the bank account."

Mitchell went with the team to Spain over the summer, and she said it was evident then that this season would be special. If the Illini can win Saturday, they'll advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since that 2005 run to the title game.

Now, she's around like-minded fans. All passionate and all there to cheer for their favorite team.

"There's so much orange here, which is great," Mitchell said. "In Minneapolis, we felt outnumbered. We were loud, but we were outnumbered. Here, it's awesome to see so many Illini people and so much orange."

It's almost like they're in Champaign.

"March Madness is my favorite time of year no matter what, but when your team is in it, they're a 3 seed and they're on this hot streak, this is incredible. It's the best atmosphere to be in," Nocella said. "Everyone you meet here is very much in it and very, very passionate. We just yell letters at each other, and we know we're home here in Omaha."