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'This was the atmosphere we should've been playing in all along'

KU women's basketball players share appreciation & pride for signs of growth in the game they love

6 min read
The Kansas women's basketball team high-fives fans as they take the floor for the start of a Big 12 tournament game at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Missouri. [Chance Parker photo]

You don’t have to look long or hard to see signs of growth in women’s college basketball, but there was a fairly significant moment in that area involving Kansas in the past week.

During a season in which Iowa star Cailtin Clark and her rewriting of the record books has been the story in all of college basketball — men and women — the KU women’s team participated in the first Big 12 tournament ever played at T-Mobile Center, formerly known as Sprint Center.

The women’s tourney concludes tonight, with 2nd-seeded Texas taking on No. 4 Iowa State at 8 p.m. in the title game, and that will be the featured, primetime event on the same day that four Big 12 men’s teams play their opening game of the conference tournament.

How’s that for progress?

The KU women went 1-1 at T-Mobile Center last week, beating BYU and falling to Texas. But the scores, final stat sheets and highlights paled in comparison to the joy of simply playing in that building, instead of being an afterthought down the street at Municipal Auditorium.

“Nothing against Municipal, but I think this was the atmosphere we should’ve been playing in all along,” super-senior Zakiyah Franklin told R1S1 Sports after the win over BYU. “I think, us as women, we deserve to be in this type of atmosphere and our fans do, too.”

KU coach Brandon Schneider, a 26-year veteran of the women’s game, recently called moving the women’s tourney to T-Mobile Center the Big 12 “doing the right thing,” and he noted that the glaring inequalities between men’s and women’s college basketball that really surfaced during the 2021 COVID tournament have improved of late.

“I think both the NCAA and conferences are making every effort to remedy some of those things,” Schneider said. “I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think there’s greater effort being made.”

And that effort has been felt throughout the KU roster.

Seniors Holly Kersgieter and Ryan Cobbins said it hit them long before they even took the floor at T-Mobile Center last week.

“It’s when we’re pulling up to the gym, getting the police escort, getting off the bus, seeing the arena with all the fans in it; the fact that we get to kind of share the floor with the men’s tourney is super-cool,” Cobbins said. “I think that’s a statement about where women’s basketball is going and where we are now.”

Added Kersgieter: “Even the moment we walked into the locker room was great. The locker room was nicer. Even the moment we got on the bus was great. Shoot-around was great. The energy was great. We were just excited to be here.”

It’s worth noting that those words and that joy came from a player who spent her entire KU career saying that she didn’t really worry too much about how many people were in the stands or what the atmosphere was like, as long as she got to play the game she loves.

While that has remained true and been a key part of Kersgieter’s existence, she admitted that seeing her team treated so well on a stage like this was extremely gratifying.

“I’m here because I want to play and I love sports,” she said. “But, at the same time, I advocate for women and women’s sports and to get an opportunity to play here is big not just for me but and our team, but for everybody. It’s great for the Big 12. It’s great for girls everywhere.”

Not only that, but a handful of women’s games at T-Mobile Center had attendance numbers that exceeded or rivaled what the men’s tournament gets for its early-round games.

KU freshman S’Mya Nichols, who is catching the wave at the right time for the rest of her career, agreed with her teammates in that the vibe surrounding this year’s tournament made the whole experience that much more special.

“The best part was that it looks so good,” she said. “It feels so good, and it’s just the beginning. There’s just so much more to come and look at it right now.”

This group, which features a few of KU's all-time greats, may not be remembered for this feat quite the same way that former KU legends Lynette Woodard and Marian Washington were, but they’ll always be remembered as a part of the team that made history.

In that way, these Jayhawks are pioneers in their own right much like Woodard and Washington before them.

“You mention our name with them, that doesn’t sink in at all,” Franklin said. “We’re so grateful for them and they were pioneers for us. Just to be able to play in this building means a lot, and hopefully it’ll mean even more to the people who come behind us.”

Franklin remembers, as a young athlete, watching from afar as the men’s tournaments shined. She thought to herself then, ‘That would be cool.’

“So, to be here in this moment right now, it’s just surreal,” she said. “We’re a part of it and it means a lot.”

KU point guard Wyvette Mayberry agreed and said being a part of paving the way for future generations is not something she takes lightly.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Mayberry said. “It’s all about who comes after us and setting the stage so they won’t have to go through the same inequality. Just to see the game evolve is special, and I’m just so proud of us as women and all that we’ve accomplished. All in all, it was just a wonderful experience. Everything was perfect.”

Added Schneider: “Young people remember the games, but they're going to remember a lot of the other things too when it comes to the experiences they have. … It's terrific that our young women (got) to have this experience.”

And like Franklin, those other Jayhawks really seemed to be-lieve that this milestone was as much about the future as the present.

“That’s why you do it,” Kersgieter said. “For people who paved the way for you and for everyone who comes after you. Baby steps. We’re getting there. It’s great.”

Added Cobbins: “To kind of see the growth of women’s basketball along my journey has been super-special. I don’t think it matters where we play, we just want equal opportunity, and the fact that we have that now is significant and it shows the growth of women’s basketball.”

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