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San Diego State’s women’s basketball program was legitimate then and now, but it’s laughable to compare the Aztecs serving as the host of an NCAA women’s basketball tournament this year to the teams to last compete at this level in 1994 and 1995.
“Then” was when Beth Burns’ SDSU teams played at Petersen Gym, a bandbox that was out of date the day it opened in 1961. In 1995, SDSU beat Hawaii in the first round and nearly upset Texas A&M in the second round before falling 75-72 in overtime.
“That was a home-court advantage,” said Burns, SDSU’s head coach then and now. “We’ve come a long way since then.”
“Now” is Cox Arena, a 12,000-seat facility that looks as good now as it did when it opened in 1997.
This year’s NCAA women’s sub-regional begins at 5 p.m. Saturday with 10th-seeded SDSU (23-7), the Mountain West Conference regular-season co-champion, facing and seventh-seeded DePaul (23-9), which tied for fourth in the Big East Conference.
In the 7:30 p.m. game, second-seeded Stanford (29-4), the Pac-10 regular season and tournament champion, faces 15th-seeded UC Santa Barbara (22-9), the Big West Conference regular-season and tournament champion.
The winners play Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Cox Arena for the right to advance to the Sweet Sixteen at Cal.
When Burns says “we’ve come a long way,” she’s referring to the game of
women’s basketball as well as her Aztecs.
The NCAA wouldn’t dream of allowing tournament games to be played in a
bandbox such as Petersen Gym. Plus, all the women’s games are televised
on ESPN similar to all the men’s NCAA tournament games broadcast on CBS.
Burns is in the fourth season of her second stint of rebuilding SDSU
basketball after a misguided decision to take the Ohio State job. She
left just before the long-delayed opening of Cox Arena.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to (then-athletic director) Rick
Bay for keeping his heels dug in and saying we needed a 12,000-seat
arena,” Burns said. “He said we want to host big events in San Diego.”
This is the first time and NCAA women’s sub-regional has been played at
Cox Arena, but the NCAA men’s tournament has been played there twice in
2001 and 2006.
Burns also talked about how much more competitive women’s basketball is
now than a decade ago.
“You’re going to see competitive first-round games in the tournament
now,” she said. “It used to be the games didn’t get competitive until
the Sweet Sixteen. There is better competition throughout the game.”
Another case to be made for the growth of the game in San Diego is the presence of SDSU sophomore Paris Johnson on the roster. The 6-foot-4 forward/center from San Diego High was one of the most highly recruited players in the nation, but, unlike other national recruits from San Diego in the past, she chose to stay home.
Johnson was a first-team All-Mountain West Conference pick that averaged 14.5 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.
“It’s a great opportunity for San Diego,” Johnson said. “We haven’t had
an NCAA (women’s) tournament in San Diego, and to have our community
come and support women’s basketball and have an opportunity see DePaul,
the Aztecs, Stanford and Santa Barbara — it’s a great experience for
everyone in San Diego.”
— TOM SHANAHAN