TUCSON – Everybody loves a winner, but it seems likely that women’s college basketball is more than a passing fad in Tucson.
“I know (the support) can continue,” said Mark Berman, a booster shopping for gear at The A-Store at McKale Center.
Berman has been a season-ticket holder since the 1970s, and he’s excited enough to make the trip to San Antonio for Friday’s Arizona-UConn showdown in the women’s NCAA Final Four. Regardless of how this turns out, he thinks the energy that the program has built under Adia Barnes can continue into next season.
“I expect we’ll be selling out. The UA women will sell as many tickets as the UA men. … I’m expecting it.”
‘This didn’t start yesterday’
It’s worth considering as the University of Arizona’s sports department considers how to fill a vacant throne.
The men’s basketball program is sitting at home watching March Madness, following a cheating scandal that saw an assistant coach land in federal prison. The football program, meanwhile, is rebuilding after years of ineptitude.
Closed-minded and sexist sports fans might scoff at the notion that a women’s program could carry a town, but that perspective doesn’t reflect the attitude down south.
“The energy … the excitement … This didn’t start yesterday,” said Mickey Scholnick, a clerk at the sports apparel shop.
“I feel like this has been building up the last couple of years, obviously starting with the NIT win. … And last season, of course they could have gone pretty far if the season hadn’t been cut short.
“It’s been building up, but this is definitely ‘next level.’”
He said there has been a steady stream of customers who come in looking for Final Four merchandise.
Now, just imagine the vibe if there were more students on campus.
“If there were fans all year, the interest level would have been more than just these past two weeks and March Madness. It could have been from start to finish,” said Kelly Horyczun, a senior broadcast journalism student, working on a video report outside the basketball arena.
Barnes has been growing a culture in Tucson that people are noticing, regardless of whether they’ve been able to gather.
“I’m seeing it all over people’s Instagram stories,” said Sarah Jones, having lunch just off campus at Momo’s.
“When they made it to the Sweet 16 it was all over social media, and now that they’ve made it to the Final Four, it’s just blown up.”
It’s about time.
Respect for women’s sports has come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.
A photo contrasting men’s and women’s workout facilities at the NCAA Tournament showed how far we have to go to reach equity. The men had access to an indoor football field’s worth of high-end equipment. The women had some dumbbells on a rack that belonged in the workout room of a budget hotel.
It’s a problem, but things can get better.
After all, the NCAA acknowledged the mistake and upgraded the facilities. Maybe this is a turning point where the powers that be show more love for women’s athletics?
“It’d be amazing to see that change, to go from minimal (support) to around the same level,” said Ashley Vogel, sitting at Momo’s.
‘So much easier to relate to’
Time will tell, but there’s a real chance that a new queen has inherited the throne.
“Our UA women’s basketball program with Adia Barnes as head coach has completely changed,” said Niki Woods, sitting with Vogel and Jones.
“She’s putting in so much work. She’s getting the school excited about the women’s basketball program. It’s really exciting to see it. She’s a bad-ass.”
Berman, the long-time program supporter, seems to share that optimism.
“Tucson is truly a basketball town,” he said, making the point that basketball is basketball, regardless of the gender of the players. “Fans came out in droves two years ago and will do it again.
“The women are playing so much better, and they’ve been so much more out in the community. The men have been hiding for the last three years in my mind.
“The women’s program for many people is so much easier to relate to. To be honest, the men that come to UA all expect to be pro in one or two years. We get to see these women develop into better players and better people and the people here really enjoy that, learning about them. Not one year and they’re gone.”
Everyone loves a winner, so there certainly are plenty of bandwagon fans.
But the vibe down in Tucson suggests this energy around women’s college basketball might be sustainable regardless of the outcome this weekend.
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