BOSTON -- It didn't take long for Shay Doron and the University of Maryland women's basketball team to realize that tomorrow's national semifinal against North Carolina wasn't going to be just any old basketball game.
"Oh, my God, it's been amazing," said Doron, a junior and UM's third-leading scorer. "Our host hotel had a welcoming party for us. Everybody was out there cheering. ... I've never been pampered and treated like this before in my life. We had a police escort."
Usually staid Beantown, which typically goes crazy only for the Red Sox or the Patriots, is the capital of women's basketball for this weekend.
It's the farthest north the NCAA women's Final Four has been in its 25 years, and a sign of how much has changed in the sport since the last time Maryland played for a national title, 17 years ago.
Millions of girls play the game at the youth recreational league, high school and collegiate levels. Where it was once next to impossible to find a women's basketball game on television, ESPN now carries a weekly slate of games and airs all 63 NCAA tournament games.
The boom in college basketball and the success of the U.S. Olympic team, which has won three straight gold medals, led to the creation of the WNBA, a professional league founded and supported by the NBA.
The WNBA will mark its 10th anniversary this year, making it the longest continuously running major women's pro sports league in U.S. history. The league is staging its collegiate draft here next week in conjunction with the Final Four.
In 1989, when the Terps met Tennessee in the national semifinals in Tacoma, Wash., the game was played at the 10,000-seat Tacoma Dome, which was half-filled when the teams took the floor.
Tomorrow's semifinals will mark the 14th straight year the Final Four has sold out, in NBA arenas such as the 19,000-seat TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, and in stadiums such as the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, where 29,619 fans watched Connecticut beat Oklahoma in 2002.
Many credit the success of the 1995 Connecticut team, which won the championship with an undefeated season, for opening the eyes of the Northeast news media to a sport that had largely been marginalized as a game with only Southern appeal.
"When Tennessee and Texas were at the top of the game, there was nowhere near the interest of what happened when Connecticut took its first title and making the cover of Sports Illustrated," said Donna Lopiano, chief executive officer of the Women's Sports Foundation. "If you can break into the Northeast corridor media, that's the name of the game."
With the boom has come money. Debbie Yow was one of nine full-time women's basketball coaches in the late 1970s at Kentucky, before going to Florida, where she earned $30,000 in 1984-1985.
Today, as Maryland's athletic director, Yow pays fourth-year head coach Brenda Frese more than $300,000 in salary. The women's basketball team's overall operating budget is nearly $1.9 million, $50,000 of which goes just to recruiting, nearly triple the $18,000 Yow had for recruiting at Florida.
"What folks realized ... was you get what you pay for, that the keys to the kingdom was who you hire as a coach," said Lopiano, formerly the Texas women's athletic director.
"And when [athletic directors] started to be willing to pay substantial salaries to women's basketball coaches, you really had some great young talent coming into the coaching profession. That really made a difference, and that continues to this day."
Maryland men's coach Gary Williams, who guided the school to its only national basketball championship in 2002, earned somewhere from $1.3 million to $1.6 million this year in salary, and he is hardly alone among men's coaches.
By contrast, only one women's basketball coach, Tennessee's Pat Summitt - who has won more games than any coach in college history (913) and more championships (six) than any other active coach - receives more than $1 million annually.
The gap in salaries between men's and women's coaches at UM is pretty universal across the NCAA.
At Louisiana State, for example, the women's coach, Dana "Pokey" Chatman, who will take the Lady Tigers to their third straight Final Four this weekend, earns the same $250,000 base salary as her male counterpart, John Brady.
But Brady, who will take the LSU men's team to its first Final Four appearance in 20 years tonight, gets $330,000 more in ancillary revenues, such as radio and television appearances and shoe contracts, than Chatman does, according to the Daily Reveille, the LSU student newspaper.
Women's basketball also lags far behind its male counterpart in interest.
The Maryland men's team, for instance, sold out all of its home regular-season games at 17,950-seat Comcast Center this season, despite a disappointing 19-13 mark and a first-round exit from the National Invitation Tournament.
The women's team, meanwhile, ranked third in the nation averaged just over 4,800 fans per game this year, including a crowd of more than 16,000 for its January game against Duke. The women's average was just slightly above the 4,761 the men got for an NIT game against Manhattan last month.
Whatever buzz is attached to the Maryland women's team's success isn't approaching the wave felt in College Park four years ago, when the men's team made its second consecutive trip to the Final Four and eventually won the national championship. Only one restaurant on U.S. Route 1 had a sign cheering the women on, and few banners or signs are hanging from campus buildings.
But interest in the team appears to be building.
Natalia Ciccone, a Maryland assistant sports information director, said the school has sold the 800-ticket allotment it received from the NCAA for the Final Four.
And on campus, Patrick McGuire, assistant manager of the Terrapin Team Shop on the concourse of the Comcast Center, said sales of women's basketball paraphernalia went "very well" yesterday.
McGuire said T-shirts with the team's jersey numbers, as well as replicas of the T-shirts worn in the locker room after their regional win over Utah on Monday, and hats are the big sellers.
On Thursday, the school held a brief, impromptu pep rally at the basketball arena to see the team off to Boston. Roughly 300 people attended, including members of the news media.
"Most students don't really know [about the women's team]," said Adam Boorstein, 21, a senior history major from Gaithersburg. "They know about it now. But before, they had no idea. Nobody cares, and it's a real shame. You'll sit outside and say, 'Hey, I'm going to the women's game.' 'The women's game? Why?'"
As with other schools, the students at Maryland have typically been among the most indifferent toward the women's team. Tickets for both men's and women's games are free to students, though getting seats for men's games involves a lottery, while students need only show up at Comcast with identification to get into women's games. Still, many more students go to men's games.
"It's like there are niche groups," said Kelly Lamont, 21, a junior kinesiology major from Towson, in an online interview. "I've watched women's games on TV with a bunch of guys. The people who do watch or go are definitely consistent fans. There really doesn't seem to be an in-between, but it's not like the non-fans have any ill will to the women's game, especially this season."
Lamont said she attended all the men's games her first two years on campus, but only two this season. That's still two more men's games than women's games she has ever attended.
"Even if you aren't a hardcore fan that goes to games, we are proud that someone is doing well this season," she said.
In addition, women's basketball is a loss leader at most colleges. At Maryland, the school brought in $200,000 in women's basketball revenues, mostly from ticket sales, meaning the program operated at a $1.6 million deficit.
"We're not [making money]. Do we hope it grows into something? Of course," said Yow. "We're 100 percent privately funded, and we have a $50 million budget that we have to pay for every single year without any state support. Absolutely, it [making money on women's basketball] would be delightful. The more of the budget that can be covered via revenues, the better.
"But is that why we do it? No. It's no different than why we do what we need to do to keep Sasho Cirovski here as our soccer coach, why we renegotiate with Missy Meharg, who has won three national championships in field hockey, why we do what we need to do to keep Andrew Valmon, who recently had an offer from Harvard to come and take over the track program. I'm competitive. We're the Terps. We're going to have the best coaches in all 27 sports."
For the Terps, who began the season ranked No. 14 but moved steadily up the polls to No. 3, this weekend might be the first of many Final Four trips, given that their starting lineup has two freshmen, two sophomores and one junior, Doron.
Doron, an Israeli native, has been telling anyone who will listen that the Terps (32-4) might revel in the sweet treatment they're getting in Boston for now, but they have a goal in mind.
"We're happy to be here, but we have a lot of basketball to play," said Doron. "We didn't just come here to enjoy the festivities and go home satisfied with being third or fourth in the country.
"We came here to win a championship, and everything surrounding this is just going to boost up the experience, but bringing home the championship would be the ultimate experience.
"It's what you play for every day as a basketball player. To come out here and leave without one would be an extreme disappointment. We're going to enjoy this, but we're here to win and play basketball.
"This is a business trip, a high-class business trip, but it is business and we're here to win basketball games."