In sports, fan bases don’t grow overnight. It simply doesn’t happen. Except that it just did.
The Kansas University women’s basketball team didn’t win enough games to gain a berth in the NCAA Tournament, and it didn’t win the WNIT title game Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse.
Yet, the way the Jayhawks played on the way to getting to the title game and the determination with which they played on an afternoon they couldn’t shoot straight resulted in them winning something in many ways more meaningful than a banner. They won over a town that spends its winters obsessing on the other tenants of Allen Fieldhouse.
The announced attendance for the game won by South Florida, 75-71, was 16,113.
“I didn’t think it was ever possible,” Kansas junior Danielle McCray said of the team she led becoming so popular so quickly. “It was amazing to me all those fans came out. That’s the good thing about if you’re winning. That’s going to help us next year. For that many people to see how hard we played and how much we achieved ... hopefully, we can bring them out next year and do better things.”
McCray had a rough day shooting, in large part because of the team defense played on her by a pack of very quick, smart guards. Yet, she still had a smile on her face talking about the scene.
“Walking in the gym, people clapping for you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen people in line to get in the game, besides the boys game,” McCray said. “That was amazing, and I want to thank the fans for that. They helped us. I wish we could have come up with a win to show our appreciation for them. They really did help us.”
Considering how it all turned out, the NCAA Tournament selection committee also helped the program by making the right call in not granting KU an invitation.
Had the Jayhawks gone to the NCAA Tourney, they would have played out of town in the overwhelming shadow of the men’s program.
Instead, after the men lost to Michigan State, the women had the stage to themselves and finished second in the 48-team WNIT.
The exposure they received did more for the program than an NCAA invitation.
Coach Bonnie Henrickson’s team returns all but two of the points (scored by Ivana Catic) from Saturday’s game. Highly regarded point guard Angel Goodrich and a recruiting class that will fortify front-court depth give KU a chance to make big strides next season.
“It’s been a great platform for these kids to play on,” Henrickson said. “It’s heightened the awareness of our program and the individuals in our program. Next time we roll it out, we’re going to be at Late Night in front of 16,000 people again, and that’s awfully exciting. You build from here with all the new kids we’ve got coming in. We’re so proud of the seniors. The rest of us have to get back to work and grow the program and be in the other tournament.”
While at Virginia Tech, Henrickson experienced such popularity, but her players at Kansas had not until this week.
“I sit back and watch the kids smile, listen to them talk,” Henrickson said. “I pull in, and the tailgaters are there. There’s a line (for tickets). They’ve battled and competed with so much pride for the program.”