The Maryland women's basketball program has lived a year of milestones, from last spring's national title to a preseason No. 1 ranking.
But tomorrow night will represent a different kind of marker as the women play North Carolina before the first sellout crowd they've ever drawn at Comcast Center. The full house will be replicated three weeks later against Duke.
"I think it's extremely special because it shows that the program is what we envisioned when we took over," coach Brenda Frese said. "It speaks volumes about the effect this team has had on the local community."
The Terrapins rank seventh nationally in attendance among Division I women's programs with an average of 8,167 a game. That number will rise with the sellouts against Duke and North Carolina.
Both sellout crowds are expected to pass the Atlantic Coast Conference record for attendance at a women's game, set by Maryland with a near-sellout of 17,243 against Duke last season. The crowds also could be the second and third largest for NCAA women's games this season. Tennessee drew 19,092 for a home game against Notre Dame. Comcast's capacity is 17,950.
"They're not just milestones for us," Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said. "So it's certainly a matter of pride."
Senior Shay Doron remembered how, when she was a freshman, the empty red seats at Comcast invariably outnumbered the filled ones by more than a 3-1 ratio. The players never specifically set out to draw bigger crowds, according to the high-scoring guard.
"We just try to play a fast-paced, entertaining style and win games," she said. "But it's nice that more people want to come and see us."
The larger crowds of the past few years aren't the first in program history. Coach Chris Weller's Terps drew a sellout of 14,590 at Cole Field House in 1992 for a showdown with then-archrival Virginia. But when Frese took over in 2002, attendance was in the dumps.
It has increased quickly since. The Terps ranked 53rd in Division I with an average crowd of 2,059 in her first season. Maryland ranked 21st last year with crowds of 4,813 per game but has made by far the largest leap of any top program this season.
A big home crowd offers tangible benefits to the players, Frese added, noting that the Terps were on the other side of that equation when they played before a sold-out Cameron Indoor Stadium two weeks ago.
"Duke talked about it a lot, how when they got tired in the second half, their students and their crowd gave them a boost," she said.
Few women's programs draw regular sellouts. Traditional powers Tennessee and Connecticut lead the pack with Texas Tech, New Mexico and Purdue also ranking as attendance juggernauts. Maryland leads the ACC in women's attendance. Through Monday, Duke ranked 15th in the country at 5,442 a game and North Carolina ranked 21st at 4,474 a game.
Though the athletic department hasn't studied the composition of its women's crowds, Yow said she sees many older fans and many father-daughter pairs.
"That's what it's all about really, giving the next generation an opportunity to dream their own dreams," she said. "Women, a generation ago, didn't have that opportunity."
Despite the rapid attendance growth, players can't understand why their fellow students don't show up in greater force.
"Yeah, that's the one thing," Doron said. "I'm not sure why, really. I guess going to men's games is just more of a tradition."
The Maryland men perennially rank in the top 10 nationally in home attendance.
Doron said she and her teammates are widely recognized around campus, and they were pleased with the student body's support when they won the title in April. But that hasn't translated to raucous student sections at most home games this year.
Andrew Zuckerman, sports editor for the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, said he'd watch the women over the men any day but said that's not the case for most of his peers.
"It's women's basketball overall," he said. "I guess the students think it's not as exciting without the dunks and all. I mean, if you can't get the students out this year, when can you?"
Average women's home attendance through Monday.
1. Tennessee 13,222 2. Connecticut 11,526 3. Texas Tech 10,629 4. Oklahoma 9,994 5. New Mexico 9,040 6. Iowa State 8,368 7. Maryland 8,167 8. Purdue 6,982 9. Michigan State 6,560 10. Notre Dame 6,331
Source: U. of Wisconsin