- Melanie Jackson, Women's Basketball
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More than 15,000 seats fill Carver-Hawkeye Arena. And in the past 20 seasons, more than 5 million faces have filed in to watch Iowa basketball games.
But for C. Vivian Stringer, one face will always stand out. Because even though Stringer hasn't set foot on the court there for more than 10 years, Carver-Hawkeye invokes images of home and happiness for her, images that include the last time her entire family -- including her husband, Bill, who died in 1992 -- gathered to watch Stringer coach on the sideline.
"Coaching at Iowa was the best time of my life," said Stringer, who coached 12 seasons at Iowa from 1983 to 1995. "The best things about being at Iowa are the memories I have of my family. I remember where my husband and daughter and my mom and sisters and brothers always sat, and that makes me smile."
Though Stringer is coaching Rutgers now, Iowa fans no doubt will smile and cheer her on when her seventh-ranked Scarlet Knights, who are off to a 2-0 start, hit the court this weekend in the Hawkeye Challenge. Rutgers meets San Jose State on Saturday and could face Iowa in Sunday's championship or consolation game.
Stringer largely is regarded as a coaching legend and a master builder of basketball programs. After leading Cheyney State to the first NCAA-sponsored women's Final Four in 1982, Stringer left the next year to take over at Iowa, which had won just seven games the season before she arrived. Within two years, she led the Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament, and before long, Iowa was helping lift women's basketball into a new era as Hawkeyes fans made history with women's basketball's first advance sellout.
Just four months after her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day 1992, Stringer became the first coach in men's or women's history to lead two schools to the Final Four (she has since become the first to lead three programs to the national semifinals, adding Rutgers in 2000). Though Stringer left Iowa two years later, after compiling a 269-84 record (.762 winning percentage), Iowa -- which also made three Elite Eight appearances and won six Big Ten titles under her tutelage -- was well-established as one of the nation's elite programs.
"When I left, we had the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country, we'd been to the Final Four and the Elite Eight," Stringer said, "so without question, it wasn't easy to talk about the Final Four without that road leading somehow through Iowa."
This season, the road to Boston and the Final Four might run through Rutgers, which is led by national player of the year candidate Cappie Pondexter. Last season, Stringer became the third-winningest NCAA Division I women's college basketball coach as Rutgers won its first outright Big East regular-season title. The Scarlet Knights reached the Elite Eight, and Pondexter led all scorers in the NCAA Tournament with 24.0 points per game.
No matter where Stringer has been, each program has brought great memories, on the court and off, with her real family and with her basketball family. New Jersey is home now, though Stringer's two sons "consider themselves Iowans, and they'll be the first to tell you that," she said. And that's fine with Stringer, who always will cherish the fans who embraced her two decades ago.
"When I came in and talked about being a perennial national power and going to the Final Four, there was really no reason to believe it could happen there," she said. "A lot of people laughed, but before the team reached its great heights, I'll never forget the warmth and support the fans gave. I don't think that happens at the vast majority of places in this entire country. Seldom, if ever, do people embrace something before it becomes special. But the fans in Iowa saw that we always gave a great effort and supported us long before we were a perennial power."
71 and done
Since moving to Connecticut six years ago, I've learned two things are as dependable as death and taxes: hours upon hours of leaf-blowing every fall and rabid, loyal UConn women's fans.
But last week, the Huskies failed to sell out their home games at Gampel Pavilion, ending an eight-year streak of 71 consecutive sold-out games.
Coach Geno Auriemma, whose Huskies won three straight NCAA titles before losing eight games last season -- the most since the 1992-93 season -- and losing in the Sweet 16, doesn't blame the fans for UConn's three straight nonsellouts.
"I wouldn't pay a dollar to watch a women's basketball game unless it was played with the energy and enthusiasm and passion of Jen Rizzotti or Swin Cash," Auriemma told The Hartford Courant. "If you play like that, people will fall in love with your team. Did we play like that last year? No. Do we have the ability to play like that this year? Yep."
Auriemma's bunch lived up to that statement in the Preseason WNIT final, in which UConn routed Oklahoma and its all-everything freshman post Courtney Paris, 82-62.
"When it's exciting, people will get excited. Today was exciting," Auriemma said after the Nov. 20 victory. "I got excited today, and I haven't been excited for a while. I got excited watching our guys play."
Still, UConn's next two games likely will be in front of a packed house. The sixth-ranked Huskies play nearby Hartford -- which is coached by Rizzotti -- on Thursday, then host No. 8 North Carolina on Monday. Both games will be played at the Hartford Civic Center.
UConn improved to 5-0 Sunday with another rout, 85-51 over Cleveland State, as Brittany Hunter returned to her home state and picked up her first double-double as a Husky with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Great games on tap
Can Candace Parker and the top-ranked Lady Vols break Texas' spell when the two clash Thursday? The No. 18 Longhorns have notched four straight wins over the Lady Vols, but Tennessee looks to snap the streak when it clashes with Texas at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Texas has a big week ahead, also hosting No. 2 Duke (which is No. 1 in the AP poll) at 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday. That same day, No. 11 Stanford hosts Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. ET and No. 24 Texas Tech looks to right the ship against Penn State at 3 p.m. ET (ESPN2).
On Monday, Ivory Latta and North Carolina clash with Connecticut in a top-10 battle at the Jimmy V Classic (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Other top-25 battles of note are No. 14 DePaul at No. 23 Purdue on Saturday and Monday's contest between No. 19 Oklahoma and UCLA, which -- with 55 votes this week -- keeps falling short of the No. 25 spot in the rankings.
Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail the Dish at Melanie.J.Jackson.-ND@espn3.com.
Ten years have passed, but C. Vivian Stringer finally returns to Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena this weekend.