Basketball Bliss

Five takeaways from an unforgettable weekend

By Tony Fay

By the time Dawn Staley and her South Carolina Gamecocks hoisted the school’s first women’s basketball National Championship trophy on Sunday evening, Big D’s turn as host of the NCAA Women’s Final Four was already being hailed as an unprecedented success. A sold out arena, twice. Unforgettable games. A slate of flawlessly executed lead up activities. With the nation watching, Big D shined brighter than the midday sun on Museum Tower.

Here are five hot takes from what was Dallas’ first time to host the even… but surely not its last:

5) Friday might have been the year’s best day to play hooky.  Don’t worry, if we saw you getting your Jib Jab on at Tourney Town on Friday afternoon, we won’t tell your boss. Although, you could have easily bumped into any number of C-suiters soaking in the sun at about 3 pm.

The crowds were thick for the interactive celebration of all things hoops that anchored the American Airlines Center parking lot like an old fashioned carnival. Final tallies put the two-day attendance (Sunday was washed out by rain) at 13,000.  On a bright, gorgeous Friday with highs in the mid-80s it seemed like 100,000.

Check your Instagram or Twitter feeds and you are bound to see a string of sun-drenched photos. With The Ticket’s “The Hardline” broadcasting live, basketballs bounced, local media celebs – including NBC5’s Pat Doney, The Dallas Morning News’ Matt Wixon, The Ticket’s Donovan Lewis and Kristi Scales (Dallas Cowboys Radio Network – hoisted awkward (and potentially health-harming) jumpshots during a good-natured (mostly) shootout and vocal chords were generally loosened ahead of a historic night of basketball.

Your boss doesn’t need to know what went down. What happens in Tourney Town, stays in Tourney Town.

4) Everyone should have the energy and enthusiasm of Alicia Thompson. A former Big 12 Conference Player of the Year at Texas Tech, Thompson was appointed “Final Four Ambassador” by the local organizing committee and her performance in that role was MVP worthy. The Texas-native and former WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm tirelessly promoted the effort. From reading to kids at Read to the Final Four rallies, to leading youngsters through a 60-minute workout at Tourney Town, to speaking engagements across the region, Thompson’s odometer put up more crooked numbers than Steph Curry on a hot streak.

On Feb. 21, Thompson helped kick off the NCAA’s “Beyond the Baseline,” a series of networking events and panel discussions designed to inspire and create dialogue among women in the workplace. Thompson led an hour-long presentation at the American Airlines Center that included top executives from the Dallas Wings, Girls Inc. of Metropolitan Dallas and Leadership Women.

A month later, Thompson again channeled her best Oprah for the second “Beyond the Baseline,” this one held at Dallas’ Tower Club. The sold out event, entitled the “Women in Leadership Luncheon, ” included speakers Anucha Browne (Vice President, NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships), Patti Phillips (CEO – Women Leaders in College Sports), Taj McWilliams-Franklin (Dallas Wings assistant coach) and Blackie Sherrod Award recipients Kristi Scales (Dallas Cowboys Radio Network) and Charean Williams (Fort Worth Star-Telegram).

The final Beyond the Baseline, entitled “Legends and Leaders of Our Game,” was held at the W Hotel’s Altitude Club just hours before tip-off of Friday’s semi-finals matchups. This time Thompson surrendered the moderator’s mic to the Big 12’s Dru Hancock, but took part in the all-star panel. Nestled between Hall of Fame coaches Masha Sharp (Texas Teach) and Jody Conradt (Texas), Longhorn legend Fran Harris and Sherri Coale (University of Oklahoma), Thompson grinned with eager excitement; like a 10-year-old at the Scripps National Spelling Bee who suddenly realizes that, for the win, she does know how to spell “elucubrate.”

“I’ve loved every minute of this,” said Thompson. “It was an honor. Everything went so well. We will get the Final Four back in Dallas soon. I know it”

3) Lot’s of good happened in our community.  The Women’s Final Four was a prime example of an event not happening “in” a city, but “to” a city. While the thrilling games – and estimated $30 million of economic impact they brought – would seem to be enough of an reward for hosting the nation’s premiere annual female sporting event, organizers wanted the weekend to leave a lasting imprint on the city.

Here are how just three of the major initiatives played out:

  • The Kay Yow Cancer Fund donated $100,000 to UT Southwestern Medical Center at the 30-day to tip-off news conference on February 27. The funds support the research of Dr. Angelique Whitehurst, an assistant professor of cancer, cell and molecular biology. Whitehurst’s work is on the cutting edge of breast cancer research.
  • On March 29, the WorldVentures Foundation and Nancy Lieberman Charities teamed with NCAA Team Works, the Big 12 Conference and the Dallas Sports Commission to unveil a $50,000 “Women’s Final Four Dreamt Court.” The facility, which is meant to give children of the underserved neighborhood a safe and fun place to play, is located at Arcadia Park and will be maintained by the Dallas Park and Recreation Department.
  • Third-graders across Dallas were challenged to read more as part of the NCAA’s Read to the Final Four program. T.G. Terry Elementary School won the competition with 61 students who read an average of 1,841 minutes each. The school will receive $2,000 toward a school library refresh. Daisy Navarro from Pleasant Grove Elementary emerged as the top student after reading a total of 12,982 minutes over the course of the competition. Since the program started in November, students at 44 schools have read a grand total of 1,107,420 minutes outside of school hours.

2) That was the single greatest shot in the history of the sport – and the greatest buzzer beater in Dallas sports history.  At the absolute least, THE SHOT by 5-5 “Itty Bitty” Morgan William marks the greatest basketball moment in Dallas by a sub-six footer since Anthony “Spud” Webb won the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest here in 1986.

In all likelihood, the right lane jumper by the MSU guard that a.) ended UConn’s 111-game win streak, b.) sent the Bulldogs to the championship game,  and c.) caused Cowboys QB Dak Prescott to weep on national TV, will go down as the most memorable shot in the history of women’s hoops. ESPN’s SportsCenter spent the first 14 minutes of its broadcast late Friday night dedicated to dissecting it and its implications.

Now, if you really want to take it one dribble further, the shot might just be the greatest buzzer beater ever authored on Dallas soil.  For all its storied sports history, there is a dearth of iconic last second plays in these parts. The Hail Mary toss from Staubach to Pearson remains the local gold standard, but that took place in Minneapolis. Hull’s game winner for the Stars in the ’99 Cup? Buffalo. None of Dirk’s high-leverage, step-back jumpers in the 2011 title run were buzzer beaters.

Itty Bitty’s chief rival might be Joe Montana’s chicken soup-fueled touchdown pass to Kris Haines that gave Notre Dame a miraculous 35-34 come from behind win in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. Or… maybe this finish in the 1994 John Tyler vs. Plano East high school football game at Texas Stadium (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHkABO0VwCg)?

That said… we are biased, and this is the hot take era. William’s shot was as good a theater as anything sports can offer. So, we boldly proclaim last Friday’s buzzer beater the best in Dallas history.  Someone get Dak a tissue.

1) Dallas loves women’s basketball – no… really, really loves it.

The two local “forces of nature” most responsible for luring the Women’s Final Four to Big D – Big 12 Senior Associate Commissioner Dru Hancock and Dallas Sports Commission Executive Director Monica Paul – have had a running joke since the event was awarded in 2014.

Whenever they saw each other, one would say to the other, “19,200.”  It was kind of their secret handshake.

The meaning was simple. It was the number of seats that had to be sold – for each of the two days – in order to sell out the American Airlines Center.  It’d been a long time since the Women’s Final Four sold out.  To do it in Dallas would make a big statement.

Statement made.

Tickets were in high-demand all weekend, with the average ticket on the secondary market for Sunday’s championship exceeding $380. That’s up more than $100 from last year’s finale in Indianapolis.

Hosting the game in the No. 5 media market also proved a boon for television ratings.  The two Friday semi-final games drew an average audience of 1.8 million views to ESPN, that’s a 13-percent increase from last year. Not only was the MSU-UConn instant classic the most watched women’s basketball game in five years, its 2.76 million total viewers on ESPN2 surpassed the 2.21 million watching the Rockets and Warriors that night on ESPN.

South Carolina’s shining moment on Sunday was up 20-percent in viewers from last years championship game.  And ESPN’s live stream did even better:  Up 75% in average minutes viewed, 63% in total viewers and 83% in total minutes watched.

It all begs the question: Could it have possibly gone better?

“I feel Dallas set a new standard for a Women’s Final Four,” said Paul. “It exceeded my expectations.”

Said Hancock: “Dallas has a lot to be proud of. I don’t think we’ll get one Final Four. I think we’ll get multiple Final Fours.”

In the end everyone was – as 13-year-old Henry Feldman spelled in 1960 to win Scripps, “eudaemonic” – in their happiness. And if you don’t know what that means, just check out a photo of Morgan William after hitting THE SHOT.  It’s pretty obvious.

2017 NCAA DIVISION I

WOMEN’S
FINAL FOUR

MARCH 31 & APRIL 2 | AMERICAN AIRLINES CENTER, DALLAS

National Semifinal Games: Friday, March 31 at 6:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. CT

National Championship Game: Sunday, April 2 at 5:00 p.m. CT