After arriving in chilly Connecticut Thursday evening, Vanderbilt's women's basketball team got its first look at Gampel Pavilion - site of first and second round NCAA Tournament games - Friday with the annual press conference and practice day which precedes the start of play at every men's and women's NCAA Tournament site.
Because the Commodores are the No. 8 seed and play the first game of the day Saturday against St. Joseph's (10:05 a.m. CT), they were the first team at the press conference podium and the first team to practice at the arena. The game following Vanderbilt's is between top-seeded UConn and 16th-seeded Idaho. The winner of the two games will meet in the second round on Monday.
As is standard protocol with all NCAA Tournament locations, representatives from the four schools playing at Gampel Pavilion gathered for a sports information meeting, which was followed by an administrative meeting, Friday morning in Storrs, Conn.
The administrative meeting includes the head coaches from each school as well as members of the support staff, representatives from ESPN and those with the tournament host site. The meeting allows members of each school to meet key tournament personnel and ensures all four teams are on the same page in understanding what can be expected at each site. The differences from a procedural standpoint between a regular season game and an NCAA Tournament game are significant, but we won't bore you with the minutiae.
Immediately after the administrative meeting, Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb headed to the podium for her press conference. She was joined by senior Tiffany Clarke and junior Jasmine Lister. The players rode the team bus to the gym, which is approximately 25 minutes from where the team is staying in Hartford.
After the press conference, Balcomb and the Commodores took the practice floor at 11:30 a.m. for Friday's Practice Day" target="_blank">their 90-minute practice session in the arena. The team went through a number of drills, working on shooting, setting screens, running the floor and going over plays for Saturday's game.
The NCAA Tournament brings a certain energy to most every program participating, and that can definitely be said for the Commodores, who had an extra hop in their step Friday. It's March Madness and the excitement is not only felt by the fans, but also the players.
About Gampel Pavilion
Built in 1990, Gampel Pavilion has been home to arguably the most successful combination of men's and women's basketball programs during the last 20 years. The men's team has won three national titles since 1999 and the women have claimed seven national championships since 1995.
The dome-shaped arena sits near the center of UConn's campus and is regarded as one of the best college basketball venues in the country.
Given the success of both programs, the building oozes with history and even the most novice basketball fan would quickly learn UConn is no ordinary program just by taking a few steps into the arena. Huge banners and commemorative signs hang from either side of the arena, recognizing the past successes of the two programs.
The names of some of the best college basketball players of all-time adorn the walls of the arena. On one side of the arena are names such as Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and many more. On the other side are the names of Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker and others.
The building has a capacity of 10,167 and is filled nearly every night for men's and women's basketball games.
Balcomb's Fondly Remembers Previous Trip to Gampel Pavilion
It remains one of the most famous games of Head Coach Melanie Balcomb's career, and the memory of the game will never go away. In 1999, Balcomb's fourth season as the head coach at Xavier, she earned the No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament in Storrs, Conn. After defeating Florida International to open the tournament, Balcomb and Xavier faced off against top-seeded UConn in one of the most competitive NCAA Tournament games ever played at Gampel Pavilion.
Xavier led for the majority of the game and had the heavily favored Huskies on the ropes. With 34 seconds to play, Xavier point guard Nikki Kremer went to the free-throw line in a tie game. Kremer missed both free throws and UConn went down to the other end, was fouled, and made two free throws to win the game, 86-84. It remains the second-closest NCAA Tournament game UConn has ever won at Gampel Pavilion.
On Friday, Balcomb returned to the building for the first time since that heartbreaking loss 14 years ago.
"Obviously, there are signature wins in your career and signature losses," Balcomb said Friday. "That was one of my signature losses. I reflect back on it a lot and I didn't have to walk back into the arena, but when I did (this morning), that was the first thing I thought of was that game and being in here. You see the Pavilion on TV all of the time, but it doesn't look like it looked to me in here."
Despite the devastating loss, Balcomb remembers the overall experience fondly, and she developed a lot of respect for UConn's program because of what occurred after the final horn sounded.
"What I remember is how we were treated by UConn's fans," she said. "It is very similar to going to Tennessee in that they are great women's basketball fans, period. They bleed UConn blue. My point guard (Kremer), who missed the shots was on the floor crying and Shea Ralph picked her up, and I looked up and as we walked off, people cheered for us. UConn fans stood up and cheered for us. That's the last memory that I have and that will always be in my mind.
"We had every opportunity to win that game and we lost it, but we were appreciated by those fans and I got hundreds of emails from fans saying it was one of the best games that was ever played here. It was a devastating moment for me, how I felt for that player and that program, but also very rewarding to be appreciated by a fan base that appreciates quality women's basketball."
Although it was a difficult loss to get over, Balcomb believes the loss helped get her program on the map and set the tone for her team's run to the Elite 8 two years later in 2001.
"It put my program on the map and we lost," Balcomb added. "We didn't become the Cinderella team, but it put our team on the map. We got attention, exposure and got talked about in more respectable places that we hadn't before."
Blogging with Gabby
Vanderbilt senior guard Gabby Smith took some time to write a blog about the "little things" that make an NCAA Tournament trip special for the players.
Among the under-the-radar items that Smith and her teammates greatly appreciate are the NCAA credential lanyards, locker room snacks, NCAA jersey patches and new water bottles. Read More
Mattos Interviews Clarke
Vanderbilt play-by-play announcer Charlie Mattos interviewed Tiffany Clarke as part of his pregame show Saturday. Get a sneak peak at what you will hear before Saturday's game. Watch