Women's NCAA finals come of age with record crowds, nationwide TV

The University of Tennessee won the national women's basketball title Sunday, but the championship was more broadly a victory for the women's collegiate game in general. Before a record final-game crowd of 9,823, plus a national television audience on CBS, the Lady Volunteers routed Louisiana Tech, 76-44, with a relentless defense that never left much doubt about the game's outcome.

It was the most lopsided score in women's championship history.

The final game followed last Friday's semifinals, in which Tennessee beat California's Long Beach State University, and Louisiana Tech dashed the hometown hopes of the University of Texas by defeating the top-ranked Lady Longhorns, the defending champions.

After Sunday's game, both coaches said they considered the weekend's three-game National Collegiate Athletic Association championship as proof that women's basketball has attained a long-deserved stature in the sports-viewing public's eye.

Recognizing that Sunday's audience, the majority of whom appeared to be Texas supporters, no longer had its favored team to root for, Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore said, ``I don't believe many people came back today out of loyalty.'' They returned, he said, ``because they saw excellent basketball'' at the semifinals, and ``because they knew they were going to be entertained.''

Friday's attendance of 15,303 was the largest in NCAA women's basketball history.

Tennessee Coach Pat Summit said that ``after 13 years of playing in front of so many empty gyms,'' it was ``exciting'' to see women's basketball ``has grown to a level that is long overdue.''

The victory was particularly sweet for Summit, whose Lady Vols had made eight trips to the semifinals in the last 11 years without ever taking home the national title. Summit, who coached the US women's basketball team to its 1984 Olympic gold medal, said Sunday's win was ``just as special.''

There was some speculation Sunday that this year's attendance figures may be difficult to match next year, when the women's finals will be played in Tacoma, Wash. Austin is nationally known for its support of women's basketball: Billboards around the city proclaim Lady Longhorn games ``the hottest ticket in town,'' and attendance levels indicate people believe it.

But Summit said interest in women's basketball has grown nationwide to the point it can be played successfully almost anywhere. Even though Tacoma ``may not necessarily be a basketball town,'' she said, ``I'm confident the attendance and excitement will be there.''

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