At UM, women's basketball catches on

Milton Kent

March 10, 1992|By Milton Kent

NOT TOO long ago, I was calling a University of Maryland women's basketball game on the campus radio station. The arena was so empty that the player about to put the ball in play in front of our broadcast position could hear my calling her name as clearly as she could hear the ball bouncing and her coach yelling instructions.

Confused, she turned to look at me -- and nearly didn't get the ball from the official.

Some difference between that night and a night last month when I covered a women's game at Cole Field House attended by 16,000 frenetic fans! Outside the arena, scalpers sold tickets for as much as five times their face value. Ticket holders were turned away because there were too many people inside the building.

True, Virginia got its No.1 ranking back by beating Maryland 75-74 that night. And true, too, Maryland finished the season disappointingly. The team was not in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game last night, having lost Saturday to Georgia Tech by a single point. The Terps would have to wait until the NCAA tournament later this month.

But women's collegiate basketball has demonstrated that it has the drawing power, the pizazz -- and some of the talent -- of the big-time men's sport in Maryland.

If thousands of moms and dads can drive their little girls to recreational league basketball practices and games every Saturday, and some of those little girls grow up to play in high school and then college, why weren't there more than a few hundred people going to watch local college teams play?

Certainly, the Maryland-Virginia thriller, decided by one point, less than four weeks after the Terps beat the Cavaliers by just two points, qualified as one of the best games, regardless of gender, played in college basketball this season.

But the excuses for drastically smaller crowds at women's games have become predictable and reflect the biases of the observer more than the reality of the performance.

Those who frown on the women's game say that it is mechanical and slower and played below the rim, meaning that no one dunks.

But as Margo Plotzke, women's coach at Boston College, once told Bob Ryan, a columnist at the Boston Globe, what the women's game currently reflects is something closer to what basketball was intended to be than the high-tech men's version.

"Our game is what basketball was meant to be for the purists," Plotzke told Ryan. "You have to set a screen to get an open shot. You have to move. You have to play defense. We don't play the game above the rim because we can't. This is the game the man had in mind when he hung up the peach basket."

And the game has become more and more athletic. There were more than a few oohs and aahs as Maryland and Virginia players made behind-the-back dribbles and no-look passes to teammates, the kinds of things they've been doing for years now.

Scoring and skill levels continue to rise. Just this season, Ginny Doyle, a senior at the University of Richmond, set a new NCAA record for both sexes when she made 66 consecutive free throws.

And when CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer challenged Doyle's record, because the women use a smaller basketball than the men, Doyle shut him up by outshooting him in a free throw contest, 20-12, using the larger men's ball.

Still, for years now, most women's programs have had trouble drawing more than the curious, the devoted and the related.

In a few places, like the universities of Tennessee and Washington, women's game attendance has rivaled that of the men's program, but usually not without a concerted marketing effort or outstanding play on the court, usually both.

No place is more symbolic of the trials and tribulations of attracting big-time crowds to women's games than Maryland, where the women's team has produced five more Atlantic Coast Conference titles than the men's -- and the only three NCAA Final Four trips in school history.

Yet, before the officially listed sellout crowd of 14,500 at the Virginia game Feb. 11, the largest turnout for a women's game at Maryland was a scant 3,414 for a meeting with Tennessee in 1990.

This year, however, two variables crept onto the scene to bring out those who shunned women's basketball in the past.

First, the team was a lot better than anyone, save for its coach, Chris Weller, expected, ranking in the top five throughout the season. And the school hired a marketing specialist to attract more people to women's games.

Those efforts paid off. The team enjoyed record attendance, including three of the four largest crowds ever to see a women's game at Maryland.

Now, if they could just get rid of that darned "wave."

Milton Kent covers women's basketball for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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