DALLAS – As part of the NCAA’s 50th anniversary celebration of Title IX, all three women’s basketball title games were held inside the American Airlines Center. While Division I typically has its Final Four at the same location, Division II played its semifinal game 10 days ago. At the same time, it was a two-week waiting period for Division III between the semifinal and final.
The city of Dallas was a terrific host and gave each team an incredible experience. The question on my mind entering the weekend was whether the players and coaches would consider the experience worth the challenges of waiting so long between games.
The answer was a resounding yes!
“That was a great arena to play in,” DII Player of the Year Brooke Olson from Minnesota-Duluth said following the Bulldogs loss to Ashland. “The floor is unbelievable, and the NCAA has done a great job here. It's great that we played on the same floor as the D-I teams and on a huge stage. Being there last night and (witnessing) a sold-out crowd for the South Carolina-Iowa game. Then going down and playing today was an absolute pleasure, so that was a pretty good highlight.”
“I would want to see it continue. Any National Championship is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, (but) this was even more so,” Ashland coach Kari Pickens said. “We were in a suite watching Final Four games, and we get to do it again tomorrow.”
While the coaches and players hope to have all three title games on the same floor continue in the future, there were challenges to playing inside a large arena for the first time. Ashland was the only team of the four that played Saturday to shoot above 38.5 percent.
“It was kind of a culture shock to all of us. We've never really played in a big arena like that, so getting used to it,” Transylvania’s Madison Kellione said after defeating Christopher Newman to win the program’s first DIII title. “We spent our whole practice here two days ago just shooting and getting used to the backdrop where there aren't walls like in our home gym. It took a second to adjust, but we relied on pushing it in the paint because lay-ups are a lot easier in a big gym.”
“On offense, when we were going to call a play, we needed to use hand signals to communicate because we couldn't hear each other as much,” Maesyn Thiesen of Minnesota-Duluth said. “That was a little bit of an adjustment that we made.”
Communication issues aside, some players felt the opponents deserved credit for the poor shooting.
“Our home court kind of has the same -- not on the same level, but a similar feel to an arena,” Christopher Newport’s Gabbi San Diego said. “Practicing at SMU helped that a little, but at the end of the day, if you're a shooter, you'll catch it and knock it down.”
“People (talk about) the depth perception behind the basket, but you just have to get (the ball) into the hole,” Olson said. “We didn't do that much today, and I don't think it was because of the arena. I think it was just because of Ashland's pressure and us not being in our flow.”
All four coaches felt the extended period between games worked to their benefit.
“I think the challenge would be if you're in a groove and things are going well, you want to keep playing and keep it going,” Christopher Newport coach Bill Broderick said. “For us, that wasn't necessarily the case. But having so many people out of our rotation and all of our injuries, we used that time to try to heal up and teach some of the people that had to fill in. The break gave us time to modify some things because we couldn't do what we'd been doing all year with the numbers and who we didn't have.
“For us, I think it was a good thing. You may want to play it right away, but once you get a chance to be here and have your young ladies experience all they've experienced since we've been here, I think that far outweighs not playing right away.”
Pickens became the first woman in Division II history to win a national title as a player, an assistant coach, and a head coach. She admitted she initially hesitated about the layoff but changed her mind after the experience.
“Normally, I don't love 10 days in between, but having just gone through this experience, it was well worth it. The NCAA did an incredible job of making it feel special (and) making it a first-class experience,” Pickens said. “The 10 days were nice for a few of my players to get healthy. My starting point guard, who had been out for most of the tournament due to a strained hamstring, had 10 more days to get healthy, and she played outstanding tonight. I was thankful to have those 10 days.”
Coaches are also fans of the game and admire some of the players and coaches they see on television. Multiple coaches and players admitted to turning into fan girls during the weekend.
“We got to stand shoulder to shoulder with Caitlin Clark, Kim Mulkey, and Dawn Staley, and I was kind of fangirling at the salute when I got to stand beside them,” Pickens said. “That was a tremendous experience, and NCAA did an incredible job. It would be great for our sport if that were to continue.”
The Women’s Final Four in Dallas was a tremendous success. Let’s hope the NCAA makes playing all three title games at the same location a permanent fixture.