Danielle McCray ventured to downtown Lawrence on Friday night to get something to eat.
Before and after dining, McCray was often interrupted by Kansas University basketball fans who recognized her and wished her well in the WNIT championship game the next day against South Florida.
McCray had earned that limelight, and she basked in it.
“It’s cool,” McCray said, “that not just the guys get all the love.”
In a city that treats Kansas men’s basketball players like icons, McCray is the first KU women’s player in a long time — since Lynette Woodard, perhaps — to achieve equal status with the men.
That gender equity was too long coming to KU basketball, but certainly one that was inevitable.
No one will ever call Allen Fieldhouse the “House That Danielle McCray” built, yet she forever will be linked with the largest crowd to attend a women’s game in the KU arena.
Many longtime Lawrence residents no doubt thought they never would live to see the day a KU women’s team would lure more than 16,000 fans into the Jayhawks’ ageless basketball facility.
At the same time, those folks had to be at least slightly in awe of the South Florida team that withstood the din and clamor that so often rattles opposing teams.
“I’ve been at South Florida for nine years,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said, “and we’ve played at a lot of places, but this atmosphere is totally terrific.”
Fernandez went on to add he was happy his seniors were able to conclude their careers in Allen Fieldhouse because “that is something they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.”
South Florida’s players wouldn’t have been there, in all likelihood, if McCray hadn’t fueled the late-season surge that carried the Jayhawks deeper into a postseason tournament than any previous KU team ever had been.
A 5-foot-11 junior from Olathe East, McCray posted three straight 30-points-plus performances to propel the Jayhawks into unfamiliar ground. That she had an off day shooting (7-for-25) Saturday certainly didn’t diminish her talent in the eyes of USF coach Fernandez.
“She’s going to be a pro,” he said. “She’s got three-point range and a great body. And she can get to the rim.”
McCray led the Jayhawks in scoring (21.6) and rebounding (7.7) during the 22-14 season, KU’s best in a decade. She will go into her senior year as an All-America candidate and, quite likely, the preseason pick as Big 12 Conference player of the year.
After Saturday’s 75-71 loss to the Bulls, several KU players talked about how they weren’t going to be in the WNIT next year, that they would be good enough to be invited by NCAA instead.
Nevertheless, that’s hardly a cinch because coach Bonnie Henrickson isn’t going to climb into the Big 12’s first division for the first time without more scoring punch to go with McCray and Sade Morris (12.7 ppg).
Angel Goodrich, the freshman point guard who sat out the season because of a knee injury, should help. A skilled penetrator, Goodrich should make KU’s post players more productive next season.
Henrickson signed five players last November, yet none comes with a pedigree that would imply instant impact.
One of the five is Tania Jackson, a 6-3 forward who missed her senior season at Lawrence High due to a torn ACL. Henrickson is bringing in two other forwards, both from Houston and both with the same last name — 6-3 Carolyn Davis and 6-1 Annette Davis.
The other newcomers are guards — 5-10 Monica Engleman, a freshman from San Antonio, and 5-9 junior-college transfer Marisha Brown.