Women take center stage

Monday will feature No. 1 UConn vs. No. 2 UNC and No. 4 Duke at State

Staff WriterJanuary 18, 2009 

Three of the nation's top teams will tip off in the Triangle Monday in two games that will feature some of the highest caliber of women’s basketball in the nation – fast paced, potentially high-scoring and talent-laced.

When No. 1 Connecticut visits No. 2 North Carolina and No. 4 Duke plays N.C. State, the spotlight will feel like a NCAA Tournament championship game and perhaps women’s basketball – for a few hours – will gain equal footing with the men’s game in the Triangle.

That will definitely surface on the minds of those who watched N.C. State coach Kay Yow and other pioneers work to build the game to a high-quality level, especially after learning on Jan. 6 that Yow would take a leave of absence for the remainder of the season to address health issues related to stage-four breast cancer.

Monday’s showcase, in many ways, is what Yow has steadfastly pursued, coming along in an era where women’s basketball rarely took center stage. Now a combined 10,000 or more spectators are expected to attend these two games.

“It’s a celebration and something Kay in particular should be proud of,” said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie whose team takes a 13-game winning streak into Reynolds Coliseum for a 5 p.m. tipoff.

At 7 p.m., attention shifts to UConn and UNC, a game this season that has replaced UConn and Tennessee as the marquee regular-season matchup. ESPN2 will broadcast the game.

“There’s none bigger than this one,” said Anne Donovan, the former Old Dominion star and Hall of Famer.

N.C. State associate head coach Stephanie Glance has talked with Yow about the growth of women’s basketball over the 38 years she’s participated in the sport.

They both marvel at the versatility of today’s women’s basketball players, who can dribble-drive, face the basket and shoot from long distances.

These women, Glance said, play a vigorous brand of basketball.

“We have garnered respect that we can play the game, play it really well,” Glance said. “We’re physical and athletic and can do a lot of things that maybe early on some people counted us out. ... People like coach Yow paved the way.”

Looking at women’s basketball genealogical bloodline, it’s a chasm between Yow and Connecticut’s sensational sophomore Maya Moore, yet the connection will become clear for all who watch the undefeated Huskies (17-0) face the undefeated Tar Heels (17-0) on Monday night at the Smith Center.

It’s the first meeting of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Triangle since top-ranked Duke faced UNC on Feb. 8, 2007.

Former N.C. State guard Debbie Antonelli, now a women’s basketball television analyst, will call the Wolfpack game on Fox Sports Net South.

“As soon as we’re done, I’m going to drop my headset and I’m going to start running,” she said of getting to the Smith Center. “I can’t wait to get over there.” Antonelli’s excitement centers around the unparalleled talent she believes the Huskies and Heels bring to the court. Between Connecticut senior point guard Renee Montgomery and North Carolina senior forward Rashanda McCants, the teams boast at least six players among the nation’s best.

With the country’s top two scoring offenses, both teams have three players who average double-figures.

More importantly, Antonelli said, both teams have players with skill sets that represent the growth of the women’s game. She said there was a period when women were just fundamentally sound. Then there was an athletic period.

Now, she said, those two periods have merged, creating players with dynamic games.

Take, for instance, Moore, who many believe is the best player in the country. This season, she’s averaging a team-high 18.3 points and 8.9 rebounds, while dishing 65 assists, collecting 29 steals and blocking 27 shots.

Moore’s athleticism, her ability to effortlessly move with the ball, is meshed with her superior grasp of fundamentals. Pivot, drop-step, jab step, crossover, turnaround, she’s got a bevy of moves to free herself for shots or passes.

And she will not be alone on Monday.

North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said the pace at which both teams run – squeaky-sneaker transition basketball – allows for these dynamic players to showcase their skill in the most entertaining fashion.

“It’s just fun and exciting,” she said, her team having defeated Virginia on Friday 103-74. “More and more people are playing that way.”

Before his team played Oklahoma early this season, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma called Sooners’ coach Sherri Coale and asked if she wanted to play at a fast pace or at a typical championship-game snail-pace where scores are locked in the 50s.

He said he didn’t have to call Hatchell because her teams always run. He said that potentially sets the stage for a riveting game.

“It’s good if the ball goes in the basket,” Auriemma said. “When two teams that play an uptempo style, it’s fun to watch if the ball goes in a lot. Or it’s just running up and down and missing.”

Hatchell has said she would like for Monday’s night’s game to break the ACC attendance record set twice by Maryland – against Duke and UNC – when 17,950 fans packed the Comcast Center in 2007.

This season, while Carmichael Auditorium is remodeled, the Heels play at the Smith Center where it seats 21,750.

In 11 games, the Heels have averaged crowds of 2,873 this season, their season-high crowd 7,010 against N.C. State, a number that would not have been considered a sellout at Carmichael (8,010). In 2008, they ranked 21st nationally with an average of 5,142 in 18 home games.

Hatchell, however, hopes the crowd on Monday reflects the hype surrounding the game. She said there is plenty room for basketball fans.

“We’ve certainly got the product,” she said. “You’ve got No. 1 and No. 2 in the country. The style of play. I don’t know what else you could ask for.”

That’s been a call of women’s basketball coaches for the past few years. McCallie, in her second season, has toured the area in search of potential fans, finding her desire for a “real” sellout (9,1314) a difficult task. “That’s the dream,” she said.

The Devils drew a season-high crowd of 7,550 against Maryland on Jan. 12. A nationally-televised game against Stanford on Dec.14 drew 6,999. They have averaged 6,155 this season after last year setting a single-season attendance record with an average of 6,764 in 13 home games. That placed them 10th nationally.

N.C. State has averaged 1,061 fans in nine home games this season.

While some ACC attendance numbers may seem low compared to men’s collegiate basketball in the Triangle, women’s basketball coaches say they have seen some slow improvement. The addition of television coverage, with ESPN at the front, has brought more eyes to the sport.

Duke senior Abby Waner said women’s basketball has done well to piggy-back off men’s college basketball and finding its own popularity and niche.

“You can’t necessarily compete with men’s basketball because they’re two different games,” she said. “We’re not going to draw the same viewership as a Texas-Oklahoma game. That’s just fact.”

Instead of comparisons, Antonelli prefers to talk about something few rarely think about when it comes to women’s basketball: game-day traffic.

Expect traffic at the Smith Center on Monday night.

“You’ve got to get there early,” she said.

edward.robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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