NEW ORLEANS — Back in 1995, when Connecticut won its first NCAA championship in women’s basketball, the sport seemed ready to explode.
The attention Rebecca Lobo, Jen Rizzotti and the rest of the Huskies received from the adoring media, especially in the New York City area, helped fuel a “Year of the Woman” campaign for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and the birth of the WNBA a year later.
Title IX triumphs!
But as the confetti fell on UConn’s eighth title team Tuesday night in the New Orleans Arena, there was the general feeling that women’s basketball, both on and off the court has plateaued.
No less an authority than Geno Auriemma, the coach of those eight UConn championships, agreed.
“I think, like any other sport, the product you put on the court has to be excellent,” he said. “And you have to aspire to be really, really good, which means you have a majority of the teams in college basketball shooting 40 percent from the floor, which we don’t.
“And the interest level has to come back.”
That’s a big part of the reason why the NCAA has commissioned former WNBA Commissioner Val Ackerman to prepare a white paper on all aspects of the college game. The results are expected be announced later this month.
Nobody seems to know what the findings will be.
But there’s a good chance the report will find that for all of the hopes of those who’d like to see women’s basketball conducted at a higher playing level with the attending attention level, it’s not going to happen.
“Sometimes I wish people would quit trying to make it bigger than it is by pushing their social agendas on it,” said Basketball Times’ Wendy Parker, who has been covering the game since the early 1990s. “It’s a niche sport, and actually a very successful niche sport.
“There are certainly pockets of local interest, but the fans are fans of their teams but not necessarily the sport.”
That’s why there were large swaths of empty seats in the arena for Sunday’s semifinals as well as Tuesday. If Baylor had made the Final Four as had been seemingly preordained before Louisville proved you’ve got to actually play the games, doubtless the many Lady Bears fans who had purchased advance tickets would have been in attendance.
But they chose not to come, and there was little market for suddenly available seats.
Likewise, if Baylor had been here, there would have been heightened national interest because of the presence of the Lady Bears’ Brittney Griner, whose dunking ability has gotten outsized attention.
But instead, when a game between Baylor and the perennially powerful Huskies might have moved the meter, we got a 33-point blowout.
UConn doesn’t have to apologize for being that good, and Louisville certainly doesn’t have to apologize for not being able to hang with the Huskies after pulling off four straight victories against higher-seeded teams. In fact, a Cardinals victory might have given hope to other programs in a sport where 16 of the 31 championships have between shared by two schools, UConn and Tennessee.
On the court, the players are bigger and stronger than they were two decades ago. But that seemingly has resulted in a game that is far less fluid than when it was easier for the most-talented players to dominate.
Off the court, the players themselves remain engaging.
They’re healthy, personable young women who seem much more like their fellow students than their male counterparts, and who, because of the efforts of those who have gone before them, are enjoying the opportunity to compete at a highly supported level, plus a professional one as well.
Maybe that’s short of what some hoped for back in ’95. But, all-in-all, it’s not bad.