It was one of those moments about which, 10 or 20 years from now, people will smile and say, "Oh yeah, I was there." (For the record, I wasn't there, although I certainly would have liked to have been. Some of my track kids decided that they wanted to volunteer at the Special Olympics event at the same time as the game.) On a Saturday afternoon in April—a day usually reserved for basketball junkies to plop down on their couches with a truckload of chicken wings and a commensurate amount of cold beverages to watch the Final Four—14,664 people showed up at McKale Center to watch a basketball game that didn't involve the Wildcat men's team.
And they all paid to be there. It wasn't like they were filming Air Bud 3: The Reckoning and they put out a casting call, giving everybody who showed up a free T-shirt and a chance to win a lifetime supply of dog biscuits. This was a real by-golly basketball game with some badass athletes and refs and a championship on the line. The Arizona Wildcat women's team built a fairy-tale end to a season and the fans—they came.
Say it with me: FOURTEEN THOUSAND, SIX HUNDRED SIXTY-FOUR! It feels like you could write a song with that number as the title and put it in Rent 2: The Reckoning.
This was such an improbable happening, coming out of nowhere and, over the next couple weeks, building to a crescendo that no one could have predicted and, even now, few fully appreciate.
For more than a decade, University of Arizona women's basketball had been hideous. As a high-school girls' basketball coach, I would offer to take my kids to a UA game and they would say, "Can't we just do full-court suicides instead?" If they were giving away UA women's tickets in a contest, First Prize would be two tickets and Second prize would be four tickets.
At least it was cozy in there. It was like that one year that Ben Lindsey coached the UA men's team (1982-83). I remember writing that I would go study at McKale during games because it was less crowded and noisy than the UA Library.
When former All-American Adia Barnes took over as the new coach, there was guarded enthusiasm, but mostly a whole lot of "Oh yeah, show me!" from win-hungry local fans. After Barnes' Cats won six games last season, a general sense of having seen this movie before settled over the program.
But then came this season. The UA women charged out of the gate, winning all but one of their non-conference games. They hit the Pac-12 part of their season like it was a brick wall, but that was understandable. While the Pac-12 was way down on the men's side this year, for the women, it's the toughest conference—top to bottom—in the entire NCAA. Four Pac-12 teams reached the women's Sweet 16.
The Wildcat women struggled in conference play, but came so close to having a stunningly good season. They had a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer against powerhouse Stanford. They lost close games at Oregon and Oregon State. They won just enough to show that they were pretty good, but lost just enough to keep them out of the NCAA Tournament.
The Women's National Invitational Tournament came calling and the Cats jumped at the chance. The WNIT is an odd business/post-season tournament that features no games at neutral sites. Schools bid against each other to see who gets to play host. It's a financial gamble for a school, but one that can pay off, both in wins and windfalls. The Cats drew a ho-hum couple thousand fans for the first game, a win over Idaho State. Then 4,000 people showed up for a win over Pacific. Local and social media kicked in and, all of a sudden, the UA women's team was a thing. A butt-kicking, fun-to-watch, winning thing.
New attendance goals were set and then shattered. They then beat Idaho and Wyoming in front of 6,307 and then 7,717. These were shocking numbers. The UA administration kept upping the ante to keep the games at McKale. In the semifinals, an astonishing 10,135 showed up to see the Cats brush aside TCU.
And then came Saturday. A noon matchup with Big-10 school Northwestern. It would be televised on cable, which could keep the crowd size down. Instead they sold the place out, something the men didn't even do every game this year. It was a new Pac-12 attendance record and certainly the first time the women ever sold out a home arena.
The game itself was not an Instant Classic. Way too many turnovers for both teams. Spotty shooting that looked like each player had borrowed somebody else's prescription glasses. But the crowd was into it.
It's going to be interesting to see how (or if) this carries over to next season. The Wildcats return all five starters, but so does Oregon State. Oregon and Stanford return four starters each. No one expects the Cats to start off next season playing before huge crowds, but good-sized crowds are certainly in the realm of possibility. This magical run to the WNIT title could forever reset the relationship between UA women's basketball and Tucson's cynical fans.