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Published: Monday, 3/24/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Savage stop soon will be thing of past

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

For one half, unbeaten Notre Dame got more of a fight than it has been used to seeing of late, but by the end of Monday’s second-round NCAA women’s tournament game, the nation’s No. 2-ranked team had taken another convincing step toward a championship.

Next stop for the Fighting Irish, who turned back Arizona State 84-67 at Savage Arena, is the Sweet Sixteen round on its home court in South Bend.

Critics of the women’s tournament would suggest that’s a problem. But it is far from a rarity at any point short of the Final Four. You don’t often see the upsets — the true madness of March — as you do in the men’s brackets. It can’t and won’t happen as often when you give higher-seeded teams the added advantage of playing at home.

And it’s going to get worse.

Monday night’s game at Savage Arena was the last true neutral site the women’s tournament will stage, at least for the foreseeable future. Starting next season, the top 16 seeds will host four-team brackets on the opening weekend.

That eliminates neutral sites in the early going and erases the chances for mid-major schools like Toledo and Bowling Green, which hosted NCAA games at the end of the 2011-12 season, and their fans to get a small taste of the big time.

“Things tend to go full circle, so this is not to say we’ll never go back to this [current] format,” said Jane Meyer, the NCAA site rep at Savage. “But the committee’s intent is to grow women’s basketball. We’ve tried a lot of things, and I think that’s a positive. This is not going backwards. It’s trying something new to enhance women’s basketball. The committee is open to trying new things and finding something that sticks.”

If the high seeds/home sites concept sticks it will be to the disappointment of many coaches like Arizona State’s Charli Turner Thorne, whose program may not be elite, but regularly finds its way into the NCAA field.

She probably didn’t enjoy finding a power like Notre Dame in her bracket, but she appreciated the meeting being on a neutral floor.

“We fought so hard to get our tournament to where we got it … we were pushing and almost got to the neutral site thing, to the fairness of that, but we couldn’t put enough people in the seats,” Turner Thorne, a past president of the women’s coaches association, said. “I understand the economics of it. I know how much money [the NCAA] loses on this.

“But we were moving towards more parity, towards having a great tournament and now, pure and simple, we’re moving away again. To me, that’s sad.”

The two sessions at UT drew 7,856 fans. Two seasons ago, when top-seeded Baylor, Ohio State, Florida, and Cal-Santa Barbara played at BG, game nights drew 8,302 to the Stroh Center.

“Toledo was incredibly professional,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “The court was great … great atmosphere for an NCAA game. I just want to thank the University of Toledo for hosting such a great and memorable event.”

That echoed comments made by Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and her colleagues at Bowling Green two years ago.

We won’t be hearing more of that, at least not at mid-major neutral sites, here or anywhere else in the nation, for at least awhile.

And that’s a step back for women’s basketball and the NCAA’s attempt to conduct a true national championship.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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