Eds: Updates with NCA quote. With AP Photos.
NEW YORK (AP) — Dawn Staley and her South Carolina Gamecocks did more than just prepare for their opening-round games in the women’s NCAA Tournament. They did everything they could to make sure people attended.
The team spent an hour Thursday night calling season ticket holders who hadn’t bought tickets yet for the first and second round in Columbia. The goal was for attendance to surpass 10,000.
The move paid off as the Gamecocks had 11,085 people attend their opening-round win over North Carolina A&T and then 10,307 come to the second-round victory over Virginia. Those numbers helped bolster overall attendance at the first two rounds to its highest level in a decade, with an average of 5,067 fans taking in the first 48 games.
“The way the community responded to my challenge was quite incredible,” Staley said. “I don’t know if that many people would’ve come to the game just on us relying on the marketing department. They did a great job with us on executing the challenge. The ticket office and everybody just worked overtime to accommodate so many ticket-buying customers.”
Staley also called on friends like Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard to donate tickets for local kids to use to attend the games.
“They come to a lot of our games, they support us, and I wanted to support them,” Howard told The Associated Press while the Hornets were in New York to play the Knicks. “Hopefully, they can do a really good job this year in the tournament. They had a really close one the other night. I will be watching their games and hope they get some good wins.”
Gamecocks star A’ja Wilson, who grew up in South Carolina, recalled how shocked fans were when she called them.
“Someone I called stopped me and said: ‘Do you know who I’m on the phone with? It’s A’ja,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ Some people didn’t believe it was me. So yeah, it was a lot of fun,” she said.
The Gamecocks player calls accounted for more than 1,000 tickets sold.
Given the 9 p.m. tip on Sunday for the second round, Staley told fans to wear their best pajamas to the game . She even offered an excuse slip for those who came to the game and may have overslept for work or school the next day.
SEC rival Mississippi State was just behind the Gamecocks in attendance, with nearly 10,000 fans checking out the first two rounds.
“I think it’s the new teams, Mississippi State and South Carolina drew really well,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “It’s good to have more teams doing well.”
NCAA basketball officials are hoping for more strong numbers at the regionals this weekend in Albany, New York; Kansas City, Missouri; Spokane, Washington; and Lexington, Kentucky. Albany already has sold nearly 7,600 tickets. It helps having UConn and South Carolina headed there. The surprise is 11th-seeded Buffalo, which reached its first Sweet 16; Bulls fans have only a 4½-hour drive to Albany to see their team play.
“We are so excited to see so many fans come out and support the teams competing in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship and are really seeing a positive impact of the top 16 seeds serving as hosts,” said Rhonda Lundin Bennett, chair of the women’s basketball committee. “We have had some memorable games between some outstanding teams so far, and we look forward to continued great attendance at our four regional sites and the Women’s Final Four.”
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli and AP freelance writer Jeff Bernstein contributed to this report.
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