NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints were playing a home game in Baton Rouge. The New Orleans Hornets were preparing to play a home game in Oklahoma City.
But on Sunday afternoon, a team from New Orleans finally got the go-ahead to play a game in the Crescent City -- the Tulane women's basketball team defeated Central Connecticut State 72-60.
It was the first collegiate or professional sporting event held in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina tore through the city Aug. 29. More than 800 fans took advantage of free admission to watch the Green Wave, which improved to 4-1. Central Connecticut State dropped to 2-6.
"This is a symbol of a return to normalcy and good times and a link to the past," said Tulane alumnus Reuben Friedman, who has been attending games in Fogelman Arena since the late 1950s. "Hopefully it's also a bridge to a bright future."
The Tulane women have played in Lubbock, Texas, and Arizona this season. The Green Wave spent the fall semester enrolled at Texas Tech and only arrived back on campus Thursday afternoon. But on Sunday, it looked like they had been playing at Fogelman Arena all along. Shooting 62.5 percent for the first half, Tulane built a 37-33 halftime lead.
Central Connecticut tied the score at 42 with 15:41 to play, but the Green Wave took the lead for good with a 15-4 run over the next six minutes. The Blue Devils, who shot 37.5 percent from the field in the game, got no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
Tulane, which hit 15 of its 24 first-half field goal attempts, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range, scored the first nine points of the game. The Green Wave cooled off in the second half to finish 25-for-51 (49 percent) from the field.
Sophomore Nikki Luckhurst and freshman Ashley Langford each had 15 points to lead Tulane. Langford added a career-best 11 assists. Sophomore Dominique Philpots chipped in with 10 points off the bench. Junior Jami Montagnino's career-high 10 boards helped Tulane outrebound CCSU 40-34.
Central Connecticut junior Gabriella Guegbelet recorded her sixth straight double-double, leading the Blue Devils with 23 points and 10 rebounds. She went 9-for-15 from the field and 5-of-6 at the free-throw line. Senior Samantha Williams added a career-high nine assists.
After the game, Stockton grabbed a microphone, thanked the crowd for its support, and had her players mingle with the fans before going to the locker room.
The men's basketball team will play its first true home game Dec. 27 and the university will resume classes Jan. 17. So far, the program's return to New Orleans is off to a good start, although the Tulane women had a few bumps Thursday. The bus driver bringing them to the arena for their first home practice passed the gym and had difficulty negotiating the narrow streets to turn around. He clipped a street sign before arriving 15 minutes late.
"That just totally fit in," said Montagnino, a guard from Baton Rouge. "This will be an experience that we'll look back on and know we made it through the toughest time ever and were still standing."
The basketball programs were two of eight athletic teams spared when Tulane cut its programs in half as part of massive university-wide budget cuts announced two weeks ago.
"We knew that life was really going to change, but having all those athletes and coaches not be a part of our program anymore was really sad," Tulane women's coach Lisa Stockton said. "All the changes to the university were pretty devastating."
Cindy Leissinger, a professor of medicine, was one of the two-thirds of faculty at Tulane Medical Center to survive the budget cuts.
"Anything that boosts the morale of the university is really important right now," Leissinger said. "This is symbolic and hopefully it's a sign of things to come."
Sophomore forward/center Alendra Brown is the only Green Wave player from New Orleans. Her family's Ninth Ward home was ruined when nine feet of water poured into it and her family has since moved to New York City, but she said she never considered not returning.
"Tulane is my school," Brown said. "I'm comfortable here. I'm going to stay here until I graduate. The hurricane hit New Orleans and it's a disaster, but there's still sunshine beyond the rain."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.