Arena to host NCAA women's tournament

The Arena at Gwinnett Center's basketball resume got even stronger on Thursday when the Duluth facility was selected as a first- and second-round site for the 2009 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championships.

The University of Georgia was named as the event's host school, but chose to hold the games at the Gwinnett venue, which opened in 2003 and is 39 years younger than Athens' Stegeman Coliseum. Stegeman has hosted NCAA early-round games 17 times, most recently in 2003, but Gwinnett was attractive for a variety of reasons, including locker room space and proximity to metro Atlanta.

While it has secured SEC level events, the Arena had not been chosen for an NCAA championship event until Thursday.

"The Arena at Gwinnett is simply a great venue for basketball," Georgia head women's basketball coach Andy Landers said. "It has all the amenities that tournament sites should have."

In its short history, the Arena has hosted plenty of basketball, including the annual high school state semifinals and finals and regular-season men's games featuring Georgia and Georgia State. The SEC Women's Basketball Championships are slated for Gwinnett in 2007, as is the annual Russell Athletic Shootout featuring women's college basketball teams.

Landers' team has played in the Russell Athletic event the past two seasons. He was pleased about a return to Gwinnett, which will host the 2009 games either on Saturday, March 21 and Monday, March 23 or Sunday, March 22 and Tuesday, March 24.

"This is very exciting for Georgia basketball," Landers said. "Traditionally when I say Georgia basketball, I mean the University. However in this instance I think it's extremely exciting for the entire state of Georgia. It's a tremendous opportunity for us to help bring part of the NCAA tournament to an area that embraces women's basketball."

The partnership between the Athens school and the Gwinnett facility brings a premiere women's basketball event to an area known for its prominence in that sport. Gwinnett high school teams have won 12 girls basketball state titles since 2001 and two of Georgia's most recent WNBA products, Christi Thomas (Buford) and Sherill Baker (Greater Atlanta Christian) are from the county.

The event also is important because it could put the Arena in line for future NCAA championship events.

"One of our goals and objectives when we began the planning for The Arena at Gwinnett Center was to host an NCAA event," said Preston Williams, general manager of Gwinnett Center.