Staging the women’s NCAA Tournament in one place has led Iowa coach Lisa Bluder to ponder if a permanent neutral site is the way to go for the sport.
The entire women’s tournament is being played this month around the San Antonio area due to coronavirus concerns and precautions. That’s a departure from the recent pattern of upper-bracket seeds hosting early round contests, and sometimes the regional semifinal and final, or at neutral sites not far from some of the favorites’ campuses.
Bluder has seen the setup work for the Hawkeyes but acknowledged it gave her team a competitive advantage. And she likes how this year is leveling the playing field.
“I think what we’re seeing right now, with neutral sites, it can be done,” Bluder said Wednesday. “I think people didn’t think it can be done. It can be done. And it can be done well.
“I go back to Debbie Antonelli’s from years and years (ago) saying that we should be playing a Sweet 16 all at one place and one neutral site. We’re seeing it right now and it’s working and it’s going to be done well.”
Though these are unusual circumstances — everyone wants the arenas mostly empty due to COVID protocols.
For last weekend’s first two rounds, players, coaches and game officials were the only voices heard at host sites with each participant allowed up to six tickets.
With schools hosting on-campus sites, while creating a disadvantage for visiting teams, the upside was playing in a loud, charged atmosphere.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey remembers the downside of playing at neutral sites.
“We tried that and nobody showed up at the games,” she said.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma echoed Mulkey’s comments, noting what works for men’s basketball may not work for the women’s game.
“If you could say, ’Hey listen, if you have these things at neutral sites, the fans will show up, then I think I’m all for it and I think that would be great for the game, if you can do it,” Auriemma said Wednesday.
“But I think if you don’t have fans in the building, then you don’t have an NCAA Tournament either, because you’re missing the atmosphere that goes with being part of an NCAA Tournament game.”
Geno Auriemma is still amazed at the reception he got after arriving late in San Antonio.
“Part of me was really appreciative and, ‘Yeah, wow, I can’t believe how much they miss me.’” Auriemma said Thursday. “The other part of me recognized right away, ‘Oh, here’s another opportunity for them to post something on their accounts,’ you know. They just need content.”
Auriemma said it felt great to be mobbed by his team when he showed up at their hotel in San Antonio Wednesday after 10 days isolating at home after testing positive for the coronavirus. The Hall of Fame coach said it was surreal watching the Huskies’ tournament games from home and not being able to have any impact on what happened on the court.
“A couple times, I just got up and said, ‘I can’t watch this’ and I just left,” he added. “You know, they played better when I wasn’t watching.”
GUARD PLAYING BIG
Mykasa Robinson has come up big in the women’s NCAA Tournament.
The 5-foor-7 junior only averages 2.4 points but matched her career high of nine rebounds and made a pivotal defensive play to help the Cardinals advance to the Sweet 16. After poking the ball away from Northwestern’s Sydney Wood, she saved it from going out of bounds. Louisville took a 55-50 lead and never looked back in a 62-53 win.
“We all expect her to come up with big plays like that, because that’s just something she brings to this team,” said senior guard Dana Evan, an Associated Press first team All-American. “She’s super tough and she don’t really care about what she gets on the stat sheet or anything like that. She just wants to contribute to this team and she just wants to see us all win.”
Robinson, selected to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s All-Defensive Team, is averaging eight rebounds in the tournament. Louisville hopes she’ll have another stellar defensive performance when the Cardinals play Oregon on Sunday.
AP Sports Writers Pat Eaton-Robb and Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.
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