History will be made tonight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis – when top-seeded UConn faces No. 4 seed Syracuse – in the women’s basketball National Championship game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m.). The Huskies will be vying for their fourth-straight championship (11th overall) and the Orange women look to become the lowest-seed team to win the women’s title (and the program’s first ever).
Pregame coverage begins with an hour-long preview special from inside the Fieldhouse, hosted by Kevin Negandhi, Kara Lawson and Rebecca Lobo, as well as Coaches Corner segments from Andy Landers and Stephanie White, at 7:30 p.m.
Front Row caught up with a man who has had the best seat in the house for the event for years, producer Phil Dean. The ESPN veteran has produced the last 15 NCAA Women’s Final Four events, including the last three of UConn’s historic run.
How many years overall have you been a part of the Women’s Final Four?
I will be working my 17th NCAA Women’s Final Four, including the last 15 as the game producer, and for that I am very fortunate. The first year, in 2002, I saw UConn win over Oklahoma, and since then, the Huskies have gone on to win eight total titles, including the last three. Critics can say what they want about women’s basketball, but to win at that level year after year is an incredible achievement, and it is one that we will celebrate should they win for an unpredicted fourth time in a row … But if No. 4 seed Syracuse is be able to pull off the historic upset, the Orange will be the first team lower than a No. 3 seed to win; we’ll be ready to document that history as well.
How have you kept the telecast fresh with the same team in it year after year?
It can be challenging, but with such a terrific collection of announcers and production staff, they continue to dig a little deeper to add new perspective on the dynasty. With UConn, Geno [Auriemma] is such a charismatic, engaging coach who shares many of his personal stories and opens his program and players for us.
What differences have you seen with UConn over the years?
Our favorite part of the Final Four is always the pregame meetings with coaches and players. The thing that’s different about women’s basketball compared to the men’s game are the players stay around for four years and you see them grow on-and-off the court. What has been fun this year is meeting three new teams and hearing all their amazing stories. We have shared Washington’s Katie Collier’s fight through a rare case of Leukemia, as well as Syracuse’s Brittney Sykes’ personal story of having two ACL tears in a 10-month period.
Do you have a favorite Women’s Final Four moment?
Over the course of the last 15 years, there have been so many. Nothing is better than seeing the senior star exit the game for the last time and embrace their head coach. UConn is 10-0 in title games and seeing Geno embrace a star like Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore or Stefanie Dolson never gets old.
A couple of plays that stand out are: the 2006 Championship game when Maryland’s Kristi Toliver hit a huge 3-pointer at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime against Duke or the 2011 National Semifinal when Texas A&M beat Stanford on a full-court drive and pass. But nothing tops observing [former Tennessee head coach] Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma embrace at an open practice, and the emotion and hush in the building was pretty incredible moment that I’ll never forget.
Do you have any memories of working on other historic moments ESPN has captured over the years?
Working on the College Football Playoff the last two years has been a blast; and a few other personal favorites would be very long overtimes games: 2001 Arkansas versus Ole Miss college football game (seven overtimes) and 2013 Louisville versus Notre Dame college basketball game (five overtimes).
Rachel Siegal contributed to this post.