STILLWATER — After every Oklahoma State WNIT victory, public address announcer Larry Reece has informed the home crowd that the next game will also be at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The Cowgirl fans, as expected, immediately erupt with cheers. But the players and coaches, who are also hearing this news for the first time, are also beaming because it gives them another chance to play in front of those supporters.
“That's my favorite part,” forward Liz Donohoe says with a smile. “To come out and see everyone standing and cheering.”
Win or lose, the WNIT championship game against James Madison on Saturday afternoon will mark the end of an emotional season for the Cowgirls. The way they have embraced this tournament, which is often viewed as a consolation prize, as an opportunity to get better and keep playing has been well-documented. Just look at the way Toni Young (set a season-high in points in two of five WNIT games), Liz Donohoe (four consecutive double-doubles) and Tiffany Bias (averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 assists) have been playing during this run and the way OSU has been rolling its competition on its way to the finals as evidence.
But the entire athletic department is clearly behind these Cowgirls by keeping them playing at Gallagher-Iba Arena for the entire duration of the WNIT.
“We are very appreciative of the fact that they've made big concessions to make sure that we stay at home,” OSU coach Jim Littell said. “It's helped us.”
Jason Lewis, OSU's Associate Athletic Director for Business and Finance and the “glue guy” for bidding to host these tournament games, said when he budgets for the WNIT, he ultimately expects to lose money.
But the hope is the school is investing long-term by growing the fan base for a particular sport during important postseason contests. And with the cost of travel on short notice, especially later in the tournament as game sites usually get further and further away, it's usually only slightly more expensive to host the game. And, of course, OSU's goal is to give a competitive advantage to its teams whenever possible.
Lewis said that's even more the case with these Cowgirls, who experienced the early season tragedy of the plane crash that killed coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna.
“We've just embraced this team,” he said. “We want them to have every advantage they can get, from what they endured this year, and have them play at home. Six straight games? That's awesome.”
And through this WNIT run, that support has continued grow within the athletic department — and the OSU community.
On Thursday, men's basketball coach Travis Ford and his wife, Heather, bought 400 student tickets for the championship game. Two anonymous donors followed that up Friday by buying 200 more student tickets. Associate athletic director for media relations Kevin Klintworth said he has friends who attended their first Cowgirl game during the WNIT.
Wednesday night's crowd of 3,484 was the third-largest of the season for OSU and created an atmosphere that “is going to be tough,” for JMU to beat OSU in, San Diego coach Cindy Fisher said following Wednesday's semifinal.
“Anytime you play with that much emotion and that much energy in a gym, it's definitely a factor,” Fisher said. “Especially when you're not fresh and you're maybe not 100 percent sharp. I thought the crowd was phenomenal (Wednesday).
“It was hard for them to hear my calls and hard for them to hear (point guard Dominique Conners') calls. They missed assignments a few times.”
And the expected turnout for the championship game is already rivaling Wednesday's total. As of Friday afternoon, about 3,000 tickets had been sold for Saturday's contest.
Littell said his team is playing with confidence and a sense of purpose right now and that the Cowgirls won't be satisfied unless they finish off the season with a win Saturday.
This season has been about paying honor. That includes those who have given so much to the Cowgirls along the way, especially during this postseason run.
“We play for a bigger reason than ourselves,” point guard Tiffany Bias said. “We play for the name on our jersey, and we play for a lot of people in the stands and our friends and family.
“I think it's bigger than just us. It's just our whole community that surrounds us.”