Tuesday, April 2, 2013

ODU comfortable playing NCAA hosts

Charlotte Smith
As a sport, women's basketball often deserves about a D-minus when it comes to embracing its history. We've written at length about how the exploits of AIAW players are often ignored. But even NCAA history gets left in the closet. Two years after Duke's Christian Laettner made that last-second turnaround jumper to beat Kentucky in the 1992 East Region final, - North Carolina's Charlotte Smith hit an even bigger shot, a 3-pointer at the buzzer that vaulted the Tar Heels over Louisiana Tech 60-59 in the 1994 national title game.

We read stories and see highlights of Laettner's shot all the time. Can't remember the last time we saw video of Smith's game-winner (could the fact that it was CBS, not ESPN, that originally aired the game have anything to do with it?). We wouldn't be surprised if the majority of today's players have never seen Smith's shot.

Fortunately for fans in the Hampton Roads area, few programs embrace women's basketball history like Old Dominion. A couple of years ago, Nancy Lieberman was a finalist for the Lady Monarchs head coaching job. A couple of weeks ago, Ticha Penicheiro fired up the current players before their WNIT debut against Davidson. And even though the Lady Monarchs are no longer the national powerhouse of years past, the school that hosted the first two NCAA Final Fours has continued its tradition of welcoming some of the nation's best teams to Hampton Roads.

This year's Norfolk Regional, which concludes tonight when top-seeded Notre Dame takes on No. 2 Duke at 7 p.m. at the Constant Center, marks the seventh time in the last 11 years ODU has been an NCAA Tournament host site.

"The university, the community has always really bought into women's basketball," said senior associate athletic director Debbie White. "We've always gotten really healthy support."

White is almost as much of a fixture at these events as the basketball itself. For 19 years she served as the moderator for the Final Four press conferences and has continued running the postgame Q&As whenever the tournament is in town. We've heard her ask "Questions for the student-athletes?" so many times we think she may have coined the phrase. By the way, we're pleased to report that at this tournament, White has replaced "student-athletes" with "players." It's always nice when administrators use the terms the rest of us use.

But we digress. According to White, the key in rallying local support is an early start on what she termed "guerrilla marketing." ODU started beating the drums about this event to its season ticketholders, including football, last August.

"If you wait until the teams are announced, you're in trouble," White said.

Duke, featuring Hampton Roads homegirl Elizabeth Williams, is certainly an attractive team for this market. Notre Dame, led by the charismatic Skylar Diggins, is a nice get for any market. Still, White conceded that the fact that ODU isn't a player in this event made ticket sales more challenging. A noon tipoff on Easter Sunday didn't help, either.

The Sweet 16 attendance figures at the four regional sites over the weekend:

Oklahoma City (Baylor, Louisville, Tennessee, Oklahoma) - 9,162
Bridgeport (UConn, Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland) - 8,594 (sellout)
Spokane (LSU, Georgia, California, Stanford) - 6,146
Norfolk (Duke, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Kansas) - 5,687

To be fair, there frankly wasn't much juice for casual fans in the Notre Dame-Kansas/Duke-Nebraska matchups. Tuesday's Notre Dame-Duke final looks much better on the marquee, especially if the Blue Devils can avoid their all-too-frequent scoring droughts against the explosive Fighting Irish (for what it's worth, the Vegas wiseguys have Notre Dame as a 7 1/2-point favorite). The last time ODU hosted a regional final, in 2004, 7,860 turned out to see Lindsey Whalen-led, seventh-seeded Minnesota topple top-seeded Duke 82-75 for a Final Four spot.

No matter how many people show up Tuesday night, the folks at ODU will be ready for them. The pristine Constant Center continues to look as though it opened 11 days ago, not 11 years ago. And maybe it's because they've done so many off these things, but we continue to be struck by how cool, calm and collected the ODU and Constant Center staff members are as they're going about their business. We're sure there's a million things that go into putting one of these on, and perhaps these folks are churning on the inside. But what they project is a pleasant confidence not just that everything's under control, but they they really enjoy hosting some of the nation's best women's basketball.

According to White, it's not an act.

"Could we host another Final Four? No, (the Constant Center's) not big enough," she said. "But I'll tell you what. If we did, we'd do a great job."

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