TWO hours before game time, a young boy saunters toward the University of Connecticut's Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. He wears a knee-length UConn basketball jersey as a coverall and symbol of his allegiance to his sports heroes -- Rebecca, Kara, Jen, and the other members of Connecticut's top-ranked women's team.
Basketball loyalties know no gender in the Nutmeg State. The days when UConn's women could only be counted on to attract family and friends have long since passed. This year's undefeated team will play in the women's Final Four national college championship in Minneapolis's Target Center this weekend.
Last October, the school sold out its entire allotment of nonstudent season tickets -- 6,541. Fold in the undergrads, who gained admission via lottery, and 8,241 became the standard attendance figure, as it was one night last week when play began in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) East Regional Championship.
Before the opening tip, a young photographer with the Willimantic (Conn.) Chronicle expressed dismay that his paper, a regular member of the state's sizable, active basketball press corps, had been denied a second photo pass. That's the price some have paid for the Huskies' success -- a perfect 33-0 record that has attracted a growing regional and national media following.
Reporters at the women's East regional were fed enough relevant information to write a book. UConn alone provided a slick, 88-page summary of its never-to-be-forgotten season, highlighted by a 77-66 midseason home-court victory over perennial national power and then No. 1-ranked Tennessee.
The Huskies are so popular that Connecticut public television carries many of their games. Against Tennessee, though, Connecticut-based ESPN broadcast what Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan called ''the biggest women's sports event in the history of New England.'' ESPN takes over for CBS next year in televising the women's Final Four, which ESPN will carry through 2002.
In this season's regional play, the University of Alabama was first to feel the heat of UConn's northern hoops ''hospitality'': an arena full of high-decibel loyalists and a take-no-prisoners host team. UConn fell behind early, but then scored 20 unanswered points to stake itself to a 51-25 halftime lead that became an 87-56 win as fiery playmaker Jennifer Rizzotti enjoyed one of her finest outings (24 points, seven assists, and eight rebounds).
Huge margin of victory
The victory margin in Connecticut's first three tournament wins averaged 35.6 points. In last Saturday's regional final, however, the Huskies' character was severely tested by Virginia, a team coached by Debbie Ryan. Coach Ryan was once assisted by neatly coiffed Geno Auriemma, UConn's current coach. (Women's college basketball is gender inclusive, with men and women frequently sharing the coaching, officiating, and broadcasting duties.)
Against Virginia, Connecticut blew a 19-point lead to trail by seven at the half, its only halftime deficit of the season. Thereafter, Connecticut regained its composure and rode the ample shoulders of Kara Wolters, UConn's 6 ft. 7 in. sophomore center and US national team member, to a berth in the women's Final Four.
UConn's men's team, which plays about half its home games in Hartford in order to accommodate spectator demand, had hoped to simultaneously make it to the men's Final Four in Seattle. Coach Jim Calhoun's squad came up one victory shy, though, losing to UCLA (102-96) in a regional final last weekend.
Men's team successful, too
Rebecca Lobo, Connecticut co-captain, academic All-American (on a team with six dean's list students), and College Player of the Year, says the mutual ascendency of the men's and women's basketball teams has caused no ''sibling rivalry.'' Nonetheless, their joint success has served to create a lofty, shared standard.
If the UConn women can get past Stanford, and then defeat the winner of the Tennessee-Georgia semifinal, they would give New England its first college basketball champion since 1947, when Bob Cousy led Holy Cross to victory in an eight-team tournament. Two more victories would allow Connecticut to join Texas (34-0 in 1986) as the only other championship team in women's NCAA history to finish with a perfect record.
Today, both the men's and women's tournament is 64 teams strong. The men's tournament is a hot ticket no matter what community hosts the games. The women's tournament, however, is still relatively young as an NCAA event and must exercise especially good judgment in the site-selection process. Doing so has helped lift average attendance from 2,500 per session in 1982, when the NCAA took over the event from the now-defunct Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, to roughly 5,000.
Various spectator strongholds for women's basketball dot the American landscape. Two of them, Connecticut and Tennessee, made friendly regional tournament sites for this season's highest-rated teams, a situation avoided in men's play, where neutral courts are the norm throughout the postseason.
Neither the women's team from Connecticut nor Tennessee, a three-time national champion, had to venture off its home court in advancing to the Final Four. UConn extended its home-court winning streak to 37 games, Tennessee to 64 games.