VANCOUVER — Our city has to think back an awful long time to remember the last time in which the absolute toast of the NCAA Div. 1 basketball world came here in their prime of their news cycle.
Are you wracking your brain?
If you’re starting to become a part of the vast majority that is too young to remember when it actually did happen, we’ll let you off the hook and tell you that it all took place on Dec. 1 of 1990.
B.C. Place Stadium was only seven years old when head coach Jerry Tarkanian’s defending NCAA Div. 1 men’s national champion and No. 1-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels, featuring future NBAers Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon and Greg Anthony came to town and beat up on Alabama Birmingham 109-68 in something called Hoopfest ’90.
Some 28 years later, on a much wider-reaching the scale, the Vancouver Showcase comes calling.
And when the women’s portion of the week-long event tips off under the sails at the Vancouver Convention Centre at noon on Nov. 22, it will indeed be the toast of the women’s college basketball world holding court when the No. 1-ranked, defending national champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and its transcendent star Arike Ogunbowale, clash against a Gonzaga Bulldogs team featuring former Langley-Brookswood star guard Louise Forsyth.
Of course, the plus here is that the Vancouver Showcase is not a one-off game, but a 12-game early-season invitational tournament on the women’s side.
The men’s portion of the tournament, which kicks off its own four-day run beginning Nov. 18, features Washington, Minnesota, Santa Clara and Texas A&M playing a total of five pre-set games.
And when Notre Dame head women’s coach Muffet McGraw was asked about the blue-chip level of the Vancouver Showcase’s eight-team draw — which features not only her No. 1 ranked Irish, but No. 8 Oregon State and No. 10 South Carolina — the only thing she could compare it to was something only the best teams in the U.S.will encounter if they are good enough to punch their tickets to March Madness.
“This is a mini-NCAA tournament right here,” said McGraw. “I mean, it’s going to be great basketball.”
And, as every coach in the field will tell, you so perfectly timed in terms of a November gut check on the way to March.
Although it wasn’t on the same scale as this season’s Vancouver Showcase, McGraw did reference that fact that Notre Dame got a lot of focus early last season on its run to the national title by playing in the Gulf Showcase Tournament in Florida, right around this time last season.
“We played South Florida in the second round and they gave us a great game, a really close game,” began McGraw whose team then went on to record a 92-85 come-from-behind victory in the tournament final against South Carolina, who at the time were the defending national champs.
Of course, the Gamecocks are in the Vancouver Showcase field, as are the Pac 12’s Oregon State Beavers, who back in 2016 made a magical run to the Final Four while being led in the front court by Houston, B.C. native Ruth Hamblin.
“I don’t think there’s any other (in-season tournament) in the country (U.S.) that you are going to see this kind of talent,” continued McGraw, who over her 30 seasons in South Bend has led Notre Dame to 800 wins, eight Final Fours and two national titles.
“I think in the women’s game we do like to play a really tough schedule, we do like to challenge ourselves and play outside the conference and see what the best teams look like,” she continued of getting outside of the ACC early, “because you don’t want to wait until the NCAA tournament.”
Clearly, McGraw has built the kind of program that the game’s best coaches love.
Included in that group is Allison McNeill, the former associate head coach at Oregon, who was also the head coach of both Simon Fraser and the Canadian senior national team.
McNeill, currently coaching the fast-rising, uber-talented Semiahmoo Totems senior varsity girls, very quickly put herself back in both her national team and NCAA coaching days when asked about McGraw and the Irish.
“Vancouver fans who come out to watch should note one thing, and that is to watch the way this team plays with such joy,” said McNeill.
“I remember once, when (Canadian national team player and former Irish star) Natalie Achonwa was there, we got snowed in at South Bend. The Notre Dame staff was so welcoming, and I can remember Muffet sitting with me to talk. They drive hard to win, but they play with joy, and so when I watched them win it all last season, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever watched.”
McNeill, of course, is talking about the Irish’s back-to-back, beyond-drama victories at the Final Four in which Ogunbowale hitting the game-winning shots against both UConn in the semifinals and Mississippi State in the final.
Vancouver’s hard-core NCAA Div. 1 basketball fans can remember back to 1990, the last time a defending national champion came to this city.
The star quota that day was unmistakable, including, in Anthony, a guy who would don the expansion sweater of the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995-96.
Yet few remember or even know that Alabama-Birmingham played a game the night before in their home state, and arrived at 5:30 a.m. the day of that game, meaning they were literally asleep at the opening tip.
Almost two decades later, the most high-profile women’s basketball event in B.C. history arrives, and it comes at a time when the women’s college game sits at an all-time high.
“There are so many good teams these days,” says McNeill. “The parity really, has been unbelievable. So to make a Final Four and then to go on and win in the style that they did? They will look back on that forever in Notre Dame lore because things like that, they just don’t happen.”
And when the school in question boasts what is very likely the most tradition-laden athletics program in all of college sports, that is saying a lot.
Yet even McGraw, with an entire off-season to digest last March’s twin miracles says: “I think the two shots were something that you are never going to see in a sporting event, from the NBA, down to any level… WNBA, men’s and women’s college. That was just unprecedented to see someone make those two incredible shots.”
THURSDAY, NOV. 22
12 p.m. — No. 1 Notre Dame vs. Gonzaga
2:30 p.m. — Rutgers vs. Drake
6 p.m. — No. 10 South Carolina vs. East Tennessee State
8:30 p.m. – No. 8 Oregon State vs. Western Kentucky
FRIDAY, NOV. 23
12 p.m., 2:30 p.m.
6 p.m., 8:30 p.m.
SATURDAY, Nov. 24
11 a.m., 1:30 p.m.
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