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Tigers fight for fans as well as victories

Women come up short against tough competition, but few notice.
Friday, February 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:48 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

With a couple of sold-out games at Mizzou Arena, coach Mike Anderson is looking more like the savior of Missouri men’s basketball he was predicted to be. Add a few more conference wins, especially one against Kansas, and he’s looking at a future filled with possibilities.

The other team that plays at the arena likely won’t see a sellout soon.

The 14-9 women’s team has a nearly identical record to the 14-8 men’s team. The women played a tougher nonconference schedule, only losing to then-No. 4 Stanford. They received an NCAA tournament bid last season. The players sign autographs freely after every game.

But the Missouri women’s basketball team has one of the lowest average attendances for Big 12 Conference games in the Big 12, and the Tigers notice the lack of fans.

Missouri center EeTisha Riddle, despite scoring 31 points against then-ranked Texas on Jan. 10, was despondent after the heartbreaking overtime loss. The career high meant nothing if her team couldn’t win.

Her one consolation? The standing ovation from a tiny crowd of 1,692.

“I just hope they all come back,” Riddle said that night, brightening up in the media room. “It just seems like they enjoyed it. Hopefully they’ll come see us when we come play again here.”

Missouri coach Cindy Stein said attendance was something the program has been fighting for a long time. While at Hearnes Center, the team twice brought in 10,000 fans for a pack-the-house night. At Mizzou Arena, it hasn’t even been close.

Last year, Texas Tech led the Big 12 in attendance and was ranked second for the highest women’s basketball game attendance in the NCAA. Missouri was 10th in the Big 12.

“We’re also competing in a market that’s smaller than the rest of them,” Stein said. “Lubbock’s a lot bigger, Austin’s bigger, Lincoln. Kansas State, no one has anything to do in Manhattan. Ames, same thing. There’s nothing else to do.”

Missouri’s small fan base mostly consists of young girls and adults and lacks college students, who get in free with a sports pass. Tickets are sometimes given away for women’s games, and other gimmicks, such as free T-shirts and discount nights, have to be used to attract fans.

Women’s basketball, especially in high school, has been stigmatized as too basic. It’s slow, people say. They can’t dunk. They play like girls.

But college women’s basketball is changing. Shots get blocked. Fast breaks open up. And a few women, particularly Tennessee’s Candace Parker, have mastered the art of the elusive dunk.

[photo]

Missouri’s EeTisha Riddle, left, scored a career-high 31 points against Texas in a 79-77 overtime loss on Jan. 10 at Mizzou Arena. She got a standing ovation from the sparse crowd of 1,692. (ADAM WISNESKI/Missourian)

No one likes to watch a losing team, but Missouri is learning to lose with style against the NCAA’S best teams. Wednesday night, Missouri was down by 21 points at halftime to No. 16 Texas A&M, before it made a 25-4 run to come back and take the lead for a short period.

Many of MU men’s players were in the stands. Junior guard Jason Horton sympathized with the women.

“I really think the fans of Columbia don’t know what they’re missing,” Horton said. “They play real good basketball.”

The women lost that night. Only 1,354 showed up. It was MU’s lowest of the Big 12 portion of the season.

“We used to have crowds like that,” Aggies coach Gary Blair said. “Give it time. It will take a while. You have a beautiful facility...sometimes, when an NCAA team comes back with seven seniors, they got to have the passion and the game that the coach has. Cindy has the passion and the game.”

With only two conference wins, the Tigers are struggling this season. But last season, the Tigers finished fourth and attendance was no better.

While fans are focused on the men’s team, they don’t realize the Big 12 is the top women’s basketball conference in the NCAA. According to ESPN.com, if bids were sent out at the end of January, eight Big 12 teams would make it to the tournament, tied for the most teams out of any conference.

Advancing to the tournament might not be possible for Missouri, which is 11th in the Big 12. Stein has admitted she can’t figure out why her team is consistently losing in the conference. But she’s made it clear her team is more talented than it has shown and she is not ready to give up on the season.

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After the Aggies’ win Wednesday, coach Blair appeared to be one of few who had an extraordinary amount of faith in the Tigers, who play Oklahoma State on Saturday.

“I respect this school. I respect this athletic department. I respect Cindy Stein,” Blair said. “Don’t worry, she’s going to get it right back again. You all stay on her bandwagon, OK?”

ONE SMART PLAYER: Senior forward Carylnn Savant was named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District VII University Division second team.

Savant, who is now in her master’s program in psychology, has a 4.0 GPA. She averages 11.4 points and 7.5 rebounds and is third in the nation for her .916 free-throw shooting.

Division I schools from nine states make up the University Division of District VII. They are Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.


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