A big deal in sports happened here over the weekend. We know this because we saw people roaming local streets wearing multiple color schemes not native to the area’s teams. We saw a clear indicator when prominent athletes from other sports, in this case Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, attended. And we can guess at its national import because ESPN brought 25 cameras to cover it.
The event that sold out the American Airlines Center Friday and Sunday was the NCAA Women’s Final Four. Basketball teams representing Stanford, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and the University of Connecticut competed in the Division I national tournament semifinals.
Could UConn win a fifth straight title and continue a 111-game winning streak? Would the Samuelson sisters (the Cardinal’s Karlie and the Huskies’ Katie Lou) become the first siblings to oppose each other in a national title game? South Carolina prevented the latter with a win in Friday’s opening semi, and MSU stymied both, courtesy of a Morgan William overtime buzzer-beater in the nightcap.
Those results created intriguing new plotlines, including which of two Southeastern Conference schools would become the first from its conference besides Tennessee to win a title. (Current member Texas A&M was still in the Big 12 when it won in 2011.)
Pat Lowry adjusted on the fly to the changing circumstances. She served as one of two coordinating producers for ESPN’s Women’s Final Four broadcasts and had to plan how her crew would convey the weekend’s ebbs and flows. While there is no home team, she still believes the event can have an impact on its host region.
“I think you get exposed to the highest level of women’s basketball,” she said. “If you like basketball, when you see this, it’s going to open a new door for you, because you’re going to see that women’s basketball is a little different than men but equally as entertaining and competitive.”
Getting sports fans to view women’s basketball happenings as significant is an ongoing process. While the men have had a Final Four since 1939, the NCAA didn’t officially sanction women’s basketball or any other sports for female students until 1981, when about 9,500 fans watched Louisiana Tech win the first women’s NCAA title in Norfolk, Va. Since then, those involved in promoting the game have made progress in turning it into a big deal, one that can sell out NBA arenas. That the local venue should host the spectacle is appropriate and overdue, according to basketball pioneer Nancy Lieberman.
“This city deserves the Final Four,” said Lieberman, who played for the Dallas Diamonds of early women’s pro leagues in the 1980s and believes North Texas has been ahead of the curve in embracing women’s hoops. “You should be rewarded for your foresight and rewarded for giving women something before it was the chic thing to do.”
Area fans supported those Diamonds teams, though their leagues folded when other cities failed to muster the same level of patronage. The women’s pro game reappeared in North Texas last year, with the WNBA’s Dallas Wings playing in Arlington’s College Park Center. At a reception Thursday evening, NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Championships, Anucha Browne, said the competition she supervises is likely to return as well.
“If we have an opportunity to bring the Women’s Final Four back to Dallas, we’re coming back, because we love what this community means to women’s basketball,” she said in front of a crowd that included Wings head coach Fred Williams and point guard Tiffani Bias. “When we decided that we would select Dallas, it was because of the history.”
The history of this particular tournament will read that South Carolina won its first-ever NCAA title in the sport of women’s basketball. For those like Browne, who believe “women in sport changes life” when it inspires young girls, the event’s legacy may be whether the area continues to support the women’s game in the manner to which it has become accustomed: like it’s a big deal.