A DEFINING moment exists for every major sport, a game or an event that forever is recognized as the turning point in marking that sport’s arrival on the national or international scene.
That game could arrive Tuesday for women’s college basketball, a sport long considered an afterthought to the men’s game, a nice sideshow to the main event on most college campuses and in the public eye.
The women’s game needs the Titanic matchup of undefeated teams for the national championship, which would happen if Connecticut and Notre Dame win their semifinal games Sunday.
“I think it would be an awesome environment,” says Hall of Famer Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s coach and one of the sport’s ambassadors, first as a player and now as a coach, “an awesome environment.”
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ESPN, which will televise the national title game Tuesday, has been promoting the possible matchup as Connecticut seeks a record ninth NCAA championship against an emerging power in Notre Dame, which is making its fourth consecutive Final Four appearance.
A Connecticut-Notre Dame showdown could challenge the 7.3 rating (5.95 million homes) of the first NCAA women’s national championship game in 1982 between Louisiana Tech and Cheyney State shown on CBS. Since ESPN took over the NCAA tournament telecasts in 2003, the most-viewed game was for the 2004 national title between Connecticut and Tennessee that drew a 4.3 rating (3.8 million homes).
Such a game Tuesday could do for the broader exposure – and national acceptance – of women’s basketball what the Jan. 20, 1968 game between No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Houston did for the men’s game. That was the first regular-season game to be televised nationally in prime time, and its success on the TVS Television Network led to the explosion of nationally televised games beginning the next season and continuing today.
Like the potential No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 2 Notre Dame women’s game, the ’68 men’s game pitted unbeaten and top-ranked UCLA, riding a two-year, 47-game game win streak behind center Lew Alcindor against No. 2-ranked and unbeaten Houston and center Elvin Hayes.
Houston prevailed, 71-69, and TV viewers across the country got a first-hand look at the exciting nature of the college game. That game cemented men’s basketball in the nation’s sporting culture.
The same kind of moment occurred in the NFL when the New York Jets of the upstart AFL behind Joe Namath stunned the traditional NFL power Baltimore Colts to win Super Bowl III in 1969.
For Major League Baseball, the watershed moment was Game 6 of the 1975 World Series when Carlton Fisk waved frantically for his 12th-inning home run to remain a fair ball against the Cincinnati Reds at Fenway Park. The same held true for women’s soccer when Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick gave the United States the 1999 FIFA World Cup championship against China.
Now it is women’s basketball’s turn.
Never mind that should Notre Dame advance to the title game it will do so without 6-foot-3 senior forward Natalie Achonwa, whose career was cut short with an injury in an Elite Eight victory against Baylor. She was Notre Dame’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer.
That will not matter to the casual fan, who only will be interested in seeing what would be a 37-0 Notre Dame team challenge a 39-0 Connecticut team that is currently riding a 44-game win streak. The last Connecticut loss came a season ago against, you guessed it, Notre Dame.
Never before have two undefeated teams met with the national title on the line, in either men’s or women’s basketball. While that has USC’s Staley excited for her sport, she tempers her enthusiasm with a cautionary tale.
“I’m torn because I’m one of the other 62 teams that made the tournament,” Staley says. “I look at that, and it’s just like the rich keep getting richer. There already have been commercials about undefeated against undefeated. It’s almost a slap in the face when it comes to everybody else.”
Nevertheless, Staley plans to alter her schedule this year and stick around Nashville for the title game. Normally, Staley attends the semifinal games and the meeting of coaches the next day, but departs without watching the finale.
This year, Staley says she wants to get a feel for the atmosphere and hoopla surrounding the championship game as a way of preparing her team next season to challenge for the national title.
Staley also admits that she wants to be witness to what could be a historic game for women’s college basketball.