Nov. 23, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
HOUSTON – So, ummmm, about last night…. and, goodness, where to begin?
While it was a tremendous professional accomplishment by the support staff for the No. 1 Notre Dame women’s basketball team to successfully (for 17:22 of game action) pull off a miniature version of a football Shamrock Series game, that’s not at all why the Irish made national headlines late Tuesday night.
There was the power outage, a two-hour and 35-minute delay, relocation of the contest 21 miles away to a gym where it was nearly played to begin with and the coordination that went into everything related to the game. Turns out that moving the game was just the start of a very long, bizarre night that required a frantic effort to get a 33-member travel party 925 air miles home on the day before Thanksgiving.
Two full-time members of Notre Dame’s athletic staff became ball “kids”. A post-game meal was consumed during the second quarter. ESPN requested video footage of a 40-point win after which two teams who had never played before were posing at center court for a joint team photo at 11:04 p.m. CT. The Associated Press office in New York pushed the tale of a game attended by just 767 people (combined over two venues) on its national wire after multiple half-incredulous fact-confirming correspondences with the team’s publicist and a free-lance writer on site.
There were so many odd scenes along the way. At 12:45 a.m., Wednesday morning, as the Irish were scheduled to be arriving in South Bend, Houston Homecoming centerpiece and All-American Brianna Turner was sitting on the floor of a hotel lobby near Bush Intercontinental Airport, still wearing her game uniform shorts, cutting the athletic tape off of her ankles with scissors borrowed from the check-in desk.
The 91-51 Irish win over Louisiana-Lafayette was not unexpected. The rest of the night, however, was anything but typical.
THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN TEXAS
Notre Dame looked very much like the top-ranked team in America as the Irish mounted a 17-0 run encompassing most of the second quarter to extend its lead to 36-15. The Ragin’ Cajuns snapped the skid, but Kathryn Westbeld answered right back. The junior drove down the right side of the lane for a smooth lay-in and a 38-17 Irish edge. Notre Dame had proverbially shot the lights out. As UL-Lafayette inbounded the ball at 7:36 p.m. CT after Westbeld’s basket, only God knew that the lights were literally about to go out.
A fuse blew on a main pole, knocking out power to both the Campbell Center and an area just north of the arena. Emergency lighting shortly gave the venue a soft glow. The candle-lit effect of the emergency lights, combined with the small glowing specks from cell phones and flashlights, provided just enough light to clearly see a few feet in front of you. The Irish marketing staff joked about how they should have brought the green glow sticks that make Notre Dame’s pregame introductions at Purcell Pavilion such a wondrous sight. Occasionally the main arena lights would pop loudly as attempts were made to revive the house lights but they failed and a quiet peaceful malaise settled in over the arena.
A return to full-power at the Campbell Center would not be ruled out for some time, but the indicators were clearly pointing in another direction. Diligently under the direction of facility manager Kenneth Winfrey II in steady communication with Notre Dame game management director Chad DeWeese, crews worked on the arena’s electrical system, while a decision had to be made whether to cancel the game, postpone it until the morning, or make alternate plans to continue playing that night.
Both teams wanted to play the game so cancelling it was a last resort. The Cajuns had taken a bus to Houston so their departure time was flexible. The Irish planned to have a chartered jet awaiting at near-by Bush Intercontinental Airport and Notre Dame did not have classes on Wednesday so, unlike trying to catch a commercial flight or returning urgently to academia, there was also some wiggle-room in the Irish itinerary. Or so people thought. The truth was, there was a vast amount of available time in Notre Dame’s itinerary.
Enter Notre Dame director of basketball operations Katie Capps to peel away another layer of the oddness onion. Shortly after the blackout struck, she had received a “bad news” phone call. The charter flight home had officially been cancelled due to pilot fatigue. The Irish were most likely going to be stranded in Houston overnight.
In addition to finding a proper venue for the game to be resumed as soon as possible, transporting the teams and officials there, Capps also had to get the team home on perhaps the busiest travel day in America and (unless a charter plane and crew could be located somewhere in America available to fly the Irish from Houston to South Bend on just a few hours’ notice) find accommodations for the extended travel party filled with additional staff needed to help manage Tuesday’s “home” game in Houston.
Thankfully with a full-charge on her cell phone, Capps paced the darkened court looking for answers to these many unexpected and crucial matters.
Also conveniently in possession of a fully-charged cell phone, senior associate athletics director Jill Bodensteiner tore through copies of the NCAA and ACC operational manuals to ensure that proper procedures governing disrupted games were being followed. One challenge was finding the proper administrative authority for UL-Lafayette as the Cajuns did not have a sport administrator in their travel party. The ACC’s Nora Lynn Finch was consulted about the situation over the phone as the “home” conference’s women’s basketball administrator.
The University of Houston did not have a game that night and many of their courtside officials were working at the game for the Irish, prepared to go wherever the game took them. Rice had a home women’s game that night against Grand Canyon University. Bodensteiner contacted high school friend Todd Smith, director of athletics at the University of St. Thomas, about their facility. High school gyms could not be options because the courts are not lined with the collegiate 3-point arc or restricted area under the basket.
Ultimately, of all groups, even the Football Writers Association of America played a small role as Notre Dame’s communications director had their directory in his bag, used it to get the cell phone for an old friend and colleague at Rice, Chuck Pool, who got Rice associate AD for facilities Ryan Bucher’s info to Capps. Capps then got to the Owls’ director of facilities Elias Canales who was happy to accommodate the Irish and Cajuns by keeping Tudor Fieldhouse open after the conclusion of their game.
While the support staff cranked away problem solving, the coaching staff, led by Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women’s Basketball Coach Muffet McGraw, huddled up mapping out strategy as a short delay morphed into a significant delay and then a long delay. At one point the staff called for updated game statistics but the stat crew’s printer was inoperable without power. A laptop was brought to the locker room tuned to the online stat updates that had long-since been frozen in place with 2:38 left in the second quarter and the Irish on top by 21.
The Notre Dame team inside that same dimly-lit locker room? They spent an hour and a half sitting in a circle around their plain space waiting as patiently as they could. The room was mostly quiet interrupted occasionally by fits of light-hearted banter. Notre Dame legend Skylar Diggins, in town from Dallas to see her alma mater in action, talked to the team in the locker room about life and basketball.
One thing was for certain, every single time the locker room door opened, the entire Irish squad immediately looked in that direction hoping that the entrant bore news of a resolution to the predicament.
About an hour-and-a-half after the Campbell Center went dark, the Rice news came. Within minutes the Irish were packed up and boarding their bus. There was, however, one person who got to the bus just ahead of the team — the delivery driver from Italiano’s, showing up right on time shortly before 9 p.m. with Notre Dame’s postgame meal. Team managers met her and helped sort through the various orders. She asked if the team had won. The response to what is typically a simple question? “Um, well…”
The 30 minute bus ride provided an opportunity for Capps, Bodensteiner, DeWeese and others to make sure an operational plan was in place for resuming the game at Rice. Coach McGraw and Irish senior captain Lindsay Allen received necessary updates on the bus, which was otherwise in “pre-game quiet” mode as it rode south to continue the game.
FINDING A WAY HOME
Capps went to work on the travel complications in earnest after arriving at Rice where she barely saw a single possession of the 22:38 played there. There was not a charter available to take the Irish home that could leave from either of Houston’s two major airports before early-afternoon on Wednesday. Conveniently, Notre Dame’s partners at Anthony Travel could get the team on three closely-timed commercial flights to Chicago early Wednesday morning. In the meantime, Capps had reserved blocks of hotel rooms near both Bush Intercontinental and Hobby in the event the Irish would be utilizing those respective airports for their departure.
The Irish ordered 14 pizzas for a second post-game meal in place of their partially-eaten and now-cold original post-game meal.
The game ended at 11:02 p.m., just over four hours of elapsed time and 30 minutes of driving time from where Turner had controlled the opening tip and put back the rebound of a Westbeld miss just six-seconds into the game. After shaking hands, McGraw gathered both teams at center court for a dual-team picture commemorating a special night made possible by UL-Lafayette’s willingness to play her team in Houston when many local teams would not and made memorable by an extraordinary set of circumstances.
At that point, however, McGraw only knew of the complications relative to the actual game. She congratulated her team in the locker room with a post-game speech in her typical style. She commended the team’s focus in the second segment of the game after the delay and praised the work of several individual players, including Turner for her double-double (16 points and 12 rebounds) and Marina Mabrey for her career-high 27 points.
The huddle broke. Capps broke the news. Getting home for Thanksgiving just got tougher for the travel party, but at least several of them could be thankful for having the foresight to pack extra socks.
McGraw and Turner tried to put it all into words for a contingent of Houston-based writers in Rice’s postgame interview room. The Olde English R on the table skirt and blue backdrop behind the pair were a glaring visual reminder of just how quickly and dramatically this evening had changed. Then the team got back on the bus and back on another highway in the sprawling metropolis to a recently-booked hotel which was not quite ready to handle the 19-room travel party arriving by bus.
Preparing to walk right onto a chartered jet the night before, Notre Dame had to reconfigure its traveling equipment load (larger than normal due to being the “home” team for the contest) for commercial flight.
After a few hours of sleep for some, and no sleep for others, the first group left the hotel at 3:30 a.m. to head to the airport. Items were combined into larger bags to save on United’s baggage fees. Items like tubes of toothpaste went from carry-on bags to checked ones. A quick step to the private jet became the more-arduous process of passing through standard airport security.
The Irish landed not to their cars parked conveniently at South Bend International Airport and/or the Joyce Center, but rather to the bustle of Chicago’s massive O’Hare International Airport. A pair of busses, also arranged at the last minute by Capps, ferried the groups through Chicago pre-Thanksgiving traffic and alas, back home.
LOOKING BACKWARDS THROUGH GLASSES
Wednesday morning, the third and final group of the Irish women’s basketball travel party gathered for breakfast at Real Foods near gate C-42 in the United Terminal in Houston as it passed a couple of hours until its flight. For the stresses of the night before and lack of sleep, it was a remarkably jovial time. Fun ideas for the team’s social media accounts were tossed around over coffee and breakfast burritos. Laughs and smiles were shared as stories were recounted for the first of what will assuredly be countless times over many years.
Senior manager Lizzy Moulton slipped away from the table and went into the gift shop next door. She returned with a fitting trinket culled from the dusty bottom shelf of the vast collection of cheap touristy Houston collectables. It was a glass in the shape of a light bulb with a pun about the city of Houston. Soon, the entire breakfast club owned one.
The cashier was incredulous. An item that likely had not sold any units recently was flying off of the ankle-high shelf. She eventually seemed to comprehend how all of these people in matching warmup suits would be 1,000 miles away in South Bend at that moment were it not for light bulbs that would not light up.
The entire saga required some time to explain to the cashier and even to fellow customers. The ultimate message came through, however. The No. 1 Notre Dame women’s basketball team lit up two scoreboards in the same night in this city with an energy-driven economy. The Campbell Center had gone dark. Diverging from the original plan, the morning sun and not moonlight lit the sky as the Irish waited for their flights home. And, the memories, assuredly jolted back occasionally to some by a $6.99 glass light bulb memento on a shelf, will burn brightly in the 33-member travel party forever.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications associate director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame’s women’s basketball and men’s golf teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.