More than 6,000 fans filled Koch Arena on Tuesday night to catch a glimpse of the 11-time national champion Connecticut women’s basketball team in its first trip to Wichita.
The audience featured WSU fans who wanted to support the Shockers, casual sports fans intrigued by UConn’s dominance (the Huskies have never lost a game in the American Athletic Conference), and basketball players and coaches of all ages ecstatic to see the nation’s second-ranked team in person.
Even if the game wasn’t competitive, UConn won 84-47, and legendary coach Geno Auriemma didn’t make the trip because of an illness, the night could help grow women’s basketball in Wichita.
“I think having the opportunity to meet our players and watch them play, to aspire to do what they do,” UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey said. “Not only to get a college scholarship but to be on a team and to understand you can play hard and you can be intense and you can get after it on the court and you can still be a young woman off the court.
“You can do both, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can be an athlete and be demanding of yourself and your teammates and be competitive as a female. And then when you’re off the court, you can be a lovely young woman to be around. Hopefully that’s what the little girls and even boys see: being a competitor is great, but being a great person off the court is even better.”
Auriemma has prided himself and his program on being ambassadors across the country for women’s basketball. The impact UConn had in its first trip to Wichita could be seen by the amount of fans and aspiring girls who came out to watch.
“You see a lot of young girls out there and they see UConn and how undeniably amazing they are and their dominance and that’s going to spark a light for some of these little girls in the building,” said Hannah Mortimer, a former WSU women’s player and current member of the Harlem Globetrotters. “They’re going to remember this crowd and how cool this was tonight and they’re going to say, ‘Hey, I want to play for the Shockers and I want to try to beat UConn.’”
Another former player, Kelsey Jacobs, who helped guide the Shockers to three straight Missouri Valley Conference championships from 2013-15, couldn’t help but be in awe of Tuesday night. The attendance of 6,156 was larger than any game Jacobs played for and that was when the Shockers were at their peak.
“It’s pretty crazy to think about how far we’ve come from winning those championships to now in this new conference and UConn is here,” Jacobs said. “It shows everyone that people here in Wichita do have interest in women’s basketball and they can support it. I think this can be such a great influence going forward.”
Wichita native Jodie Dinsmore, who coaches the Independent Panthers, a third-and-fourth-grade girls basketball YMCA team, was one of several coaches who brought an entire team out to watch UConn and WSU play on Tuesday.
She said it is a good opportunity for the girls to see how the best in the country play the game.
“I want them to see how they need to rebound and block out too,” Dinsmore said with a laugh. “But WSU is on their list of favorite teams and then with UConn, we definitely wanted them to see those girls in action.”
The UConn players are aware of their role when they come to places for the first time. Little girls all over the arena look up to them as larger than life.
“That’s why we present ourselves a certain way because we know we have younger fans,” said UConn’s Napheesa Collier, who scored 32 points with 12 rebounds. “I remember when I was younger when they would do something you look up to them so much that you’re watching everything that they do. That’s why we carry ourselves a certain way, try to perform a certain way and act a certain way.”
The spectacle of UConn wasn’t just an attraction for fans in Wichita. Fans of the Huskies from around the region made a trek to Koch Arena in the middle of the week to see their favorite team in person.
Becca Garner, a junior broadcast journalism major at Hastings College in Nebraska, made the four-hour drive on Tuesday afternoon to watch her childhood favorite team. She estimated she has seen UConn play in eight or nine games and started watching the Huskies when former star Breanna Stewart was just taking off.
Garner came decked out in UConn gear and even had a sign that caught the attention of the UConn coaches before the game.
“I’ve grown up playing basketball, so I’ve always liked them because they were the best and most fun team to watch,” Garner said. “They’re a legendary program and they produce the WNBA players and they produce national titles. It’s amazing to watch them play in person. Everybody hates them because they’re so good, but they can’t help that.”
The Hawes family from Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City, also made the three-hour drive to see UConn play. The whole family was wearing UConn shirts and the youngest daughter, Reagan, held up a hand-made sign supporting Katie Lou Samuelson. She even had her hair in a bun, just like Samuelson when she plays.
“Sometimes I can almost make a three, so I always watch her make threes,” Reagan said about why Samuelson is her favorite player. “I can make a three basically, but I just have to take a step in.”
During the game, there was generous applause for when UConn would make a spectacular play, but the loudest cheers were saved for the Shockers whenever they made a basket.
Even though the Hawes family was rooting for UConn (they never miss a game online, mother Kay says), they could also recognize the potential benefits of the Huskies coming to Wichita.
“Our family is a big basketball family. I coach. Me and my husband both played, our daughters played,” Kay Hawes said. “I think there are a lot of families out there like that. We’re just huge fans of women’s basketball and what UConn has done for women’s basketball. We’re Kansans, so of course we love Wichita State. But when UConn comes, it’s like having the king come to town.”