For four days starting Thurday, Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center becomes the mecca of SEC women's basketball. The 2002 Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Tournament tips off Thursday afternoon, and crowns a champion on Sunday evening.
Between now and then, you can count on plenty of joy, heartbreak, hugs, tears, craziness and high drama at Music City's downtown arena.
And for the first time ever, Vanderbilt's women won't need to board bus or plane to attend. This is Nashville's first crack at hosting the women's tourney, an event that slowly grows in popularity each year. Chattanooga has hosted seven of the last nine of these affairs, while Memphis' Pyramid got the honor last year.
The women's tournament is no stranger to the state of Tennessee... only to Nashville.
So that should give Vandy a big home court advantage, right? Well, yes and no. YES, for the first time ever the Commodores won't need to pack any luggage. And yes, the Commodores know this court well, having played and beaten James Madison here earlier this year.
But unfortunately the decided crowd advantage will belong to the team wearing orange.
The University of Tennessee Lady Vols, you must understand, are the 500-pound gorilla of women's basketball in this part of the country. Doesn't matter where the Lady Vols play, they bring with them a huge following and a huge crowd advantage. That's of course a tribute to Coach Pat Summitt and her program... but it's also an indictment of the other 11 SEC programs. No one else, it seems, can match the fervor of the Lady Vol fans.
The SEC knows that letting the Lady Vols host the tournament at Thompson-Boling would bring about a hue and cry from the league's other schools. But the SEC has been reluctant to schedule the women's tournament more than a short drive from Knoxville, for fear that if Lady Vol fans decide not to show up, tournament attendance will take a dip. (In fact that's what happened in 1997, when the tournament took a rare excursion to Columbus, Ga.)
Which brings us to this year's tournament. Dominant as the Lady Vols have been over the last decade, suddenly there's another little program inside the state that's sprung up to provide a thorn in Ms. Summitt's side.
Last year in Memphis Jim Foster's Commodores surprised the seemingly invincible Lady Vols in the semifinals and ended several years' worth of frustration. (So incensed was Summitt that she forced her charges to stay around another day to take notes on Sunday's Vanderbilt-Georgia finale.)
Then just three short weeks ago, before a national TV audience on ESPN2, Foster's gals spoiled Tennessee's party again, this time in Nashville in convincing fashion. Ten days ago in Knoxville, the Lady Vols returned the favor and prevented the ignominy of three straight losses to Vandy.
Now everyone-- Gaylord officials, the SEC, ESPN2 (which will televise the final), and everybody else are praying for a Vanderbilt-Tennessee rematch in the finals. Such a finale would provide one of the most glamorous games of the season for the sport, and without a doubt the biggest women's game ever in this city's history.
The only problem with that is that these things seldom work out the way you think they're going to. It's called March Madness because typically some team comes out of nowhere to humble one of the favorites.
With the league as balanced as it's been this year, all bets are off as to who'll still be standing by Sunday. Frankly, the Vandy's and UT's of the league, already locks for the NCAA tournament, have a lot less to play for than teams of lesser stature on the proverbial bubble.)
But still, it's hard not to drool when thinking about it... Summitt vs. Foster, Anderson vs. Snow, McElhiney vs. Lawson in a nationally televised clash of the titans in the state capital on Sunday evening.
So, with the potential for this kind of drama, tickets should be hard to get, right? Wrong again.
Gaylord seats 16,304. The highest attendance ever for a women's tournament session is 11,788. Good tickets, sadly, should be plentiful. At $70 for a ticket book-- that's under $6 per game-- they only cost a fraction of what tickets for the men's tournament cost. (Single-session reserved seats are $15, and single-session general admission tickets are $10.)
When you consider that a ticket book lets you see future WNBA stars like Chantelle Anderson,Vanessa Hayden, Kara Braxton, and Latoya Thomas... as well as hometown favorites Zuzi Klimesova, Ashley McElhiney and Jillian Danker... a better sports bargain would be hard to find. And almost right at our doorstep to boot.
That's why it's so important that Vanderbilt fans turn out and support this tournament. If ticket sales are good, the event may see fit to make more visits to Gaylord in future seasons... which would only be a boon for Vanderbilt and women's basketball in the middle part of the state.
Sure, you could stay home and watch the games on TV for free. Doubtless many will.
But for Pete's sake, if you appreciate great women's basketball... if you appreciate what this year's Vanderbilt team has meant to the school... and if you want to make your presence felt against the infiltrating orange hordes... drift on down to lower Broad and pick up some ducats.
Otherwise... a women's event of this magnitude may not pass our way again.
The SEC Women's Basketball Tournament starts Thursday at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. Session One begins at noon Thursday; Session Two at 6 p.m. Thursday; Session Three at noon Friday; Session Four at 6 p.m. Friday; Session Five at 6 p.m. Saturday; and the Championship Game is at 7 p.m. Sunday.
ESPN2 will televise the championship game, with Michele Tafoya and Ann Meyers calling the action. The rest of the games are on Fox SportsNet, except for two Thursday evening games on Comcast/Charter Sports.
Women's Tourney could be one for the ages
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