For years I’ve wondered why the men’s NCAA basketball championship is played on Monday and the women’s championship is decided the day after. In most other sporting events where males and females compete in separate championships, the women precede their male counterparts (think Olympic sports).
But then this year’s tournaments played out. The top men’s teams kept bowing out while the Connecticut women kept winning by 40; men’s teams from small schools in small markets advanced and Brittney Griner blocked shot after shot. When the Final Four shook out in each tournament, the men’s version was devoid of the top teams (saved by Duke) and the top players (not one first team All-American) and the women’s edition had the top two teams in the final AP women’s poll (UConn and Stanford) and Baylor’s freshman sensation (Griner).
Beyond that, the UConn 76-game winning streak was in tact and the Lady Huskies had a semifinal matchup against Griner and Baylor with the possibility of a rematch with Stanford. The Cardinal were the last team to defeat UConn (in the 2008 national semifinals) and were the only team to lead the Huskies at the half this season when they played on Dec. 23.
The opportunity was there for the women to upstage the men. I wrote about Griner being the star of both tournaments and touted the match-up with UConn as a monumental one. The two teams delivered a hard-fought game, won by the Huskies. That set up the rematch with Stanford, and everything seemed to be falling into place.
It was on Monday night, after the Duke-Butler game, that I thought to myself, “This is why the women play after the men.” Think about it: the men just had an amazing game that many were hoping would eke its way into overtime. Then you have the women’s final with the fantastic story of UConn’s 77-game winning streak against Stanford, eager for payback. For basketball fans salivating for more and with UConn being advertised by some as the greatest team in the history of college ball at any level, die-hard hoops fans (like me) would naturally gravitate to this game. The thought of a team as dominating as John Wooden’s UCLA squads could draw viewers. People would surely watch. What an opportunity for the sport of women’s basketball and the NCAA!
But then the teams took the court…and stunk it up.
ESPN sent a text out at the end of the half with a news alert telling subscribers that UConn was losing to Stanford, 20-12. This probably caught the attention of casual fans who knew about the Huskies’ 77-game winning streak. The telecast probably gained viewers within minutes of this text going out. Unfortunately, at the same time viewers who were watching since the opening tip were changing the channel to Dancing with the Stars, American Idol or The Biggest Loser.
Why? Because it was the lowest scoring game in NCAA championship game history and may have been the worst half of college basketball at any level.
Stanford’s defense was superb and their game plan to slow things down and keep the score low almost had them pulling the upset, but for a fan who was giving the women’s game a shot for the first time, what they witnessed would have had them running for the remote to watch Chad Ochocinco dance the Paso Doble on DWTS.
The first half saw 32 total points scored and the team combined to shoot just over 21 percent from the field (13-for-60). UConn shot 17 percent on their own, making just five of 29 shots. Even the teams shot poorly when defense wasn’t an issue, making just one of six free throw attempts in the half. Connecticut missed all four of their free throws in the half. Fans attempting to buy in to the women’s game must have been thinking they had the wrong channel.
From a gameplay standpoint, the Huskies were completely lost in the first half. Geno Auriemma so much as admitted that, saying that they really needed a halftime to talk things over. UConn was so out of sorts that several shots were just throw up there, including air balls, shots that went astray off just the backboard and attempts that clanged off the rim. Stanford didn’t do much better, but they seemed to be more in the flow of their offense and they had the lead throughout the half, so keeping the status quo wasn’t much of an issue for coach Tara VanDerveer and the Cardinal.
But for a basketball fan who just watched the Duke-Butler game the night before and was still itching for some fundamental hoops, watching this game must have been a travesty. The women’s game got what it wanted: interest. People were finally focussing on the UConn story and on the female tournament. ESPN had the broadcast rights, so the mothership was pouring it on pretty thick. The stars were aligning. How many new fans could have been had if the game was played at a high level, with good shooting and a better performance from UConn?
I tuned into the game for the first half and was floored by the bad shots, the lack of scoring and the sloppy play. What a way to showcase your sport and then see it all go up in flames.
Hopefully, those who tuned in after the text sent from ESPN stuck around. They would have seen a much better second half where UConn opened up with a 17-2 run that put them in front for the long haul. The Huskies eventually won the lowest scoring NCAA championship in history, 53-47. I’m willing to bet, however, that the broadcast lost more viewers after the first half’s abysmal play than they gained when people found out UConn was actually losing. I know they lost me.
The sad thing is that this was a magical tournament for the female brand of basketball. Despite the fact that parity isn’t part of the women’s game at the moment, Griner gave the effort a boost with her stellar play and UConn is a spectacular story as they now aim for Wooden’s UCLA record when the 2010-2011 season gets started in November. But what could have been will be what organizers and supporters of women’s basketball will now wonder. What fans saw on Tuesday was brick after brick when they should have seen two rivals and the best teams in America fighting for a trophy.
Defense wins championships, but in the case of Tuesday night’s women’s final, it lost potential fans.