Women's tourney begins at Gwinnett Arena

DULUTH - Fans were lined up in the rain when the doors opened Thursday for the first session of the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"The Orange Nation is here," said loyal Tennessee supporter Joan Jennings of Hillsville, Va.

The Volunteers, winners of six national titles and ranked No. 2 this season, don't play until today, but their fans couldn't wait to get started.

Tennessee is the biggest draw in women's college basketball and orange will definitely be the predominant color this weekend as the four-year-old arena hosts one of its biggest events.

It's estimated that upward of $7 million in spending will be generated for Gwinnett County by the four-day event and much of the green will be spent by people wearing orange. Lots and lots of orange.

This is the fifth consecutive tournament for Nathan and Pat Wade, who had made a trip of more than 500 miles from Martin in western Tennessee and were some of the first to enter the arena.

"It doesn't matter where the tournament is," Nathan said. "The crowd is always at least 60 to 70 percent Tennessee fans."

The Orange crush will only build today, when Tennessee plays its first game at 1 p.m. against South Carolina.

Although Georgia will play Kentucky in the second game of the afternoon session, red and black won't be the dominant color.

"Lady Vols fans travel," John Peterson said.

Peterson and his wife, Frances, are certainly examples of that. They have Tennessee season tickets despite living in Birmingham.

The Petersons wore hats with the autographs of Tennessee players. "We're definitely real fans," Frances said.

Volunteer fans will do about anything to get good seats.

Despite his devotion to Tennessee women's basketball, Nathan Wade is actually a University of Mississippi graduate. So he orders his tournament tickets through Ole Miss.

"Maybe I shouldn't have admitted that," Wade said. "But Ole Miss doesn't have as many fans, so you can get better tickets."

The Gwinnett Arena was far from full for the games Thursday, with the top four teams in the SEC regular-season standings - Tennessee, Georgia, Vanderbilt and LSU - getting first-round byes.

Large crowds, however, are expected this weekend, with sellouts possible for the semifinals Saturday night and championship game Sunday evening.

The tournament's record attendance came at North Little Rock, Ark., in 2003, when 43,642 watched the six sessions. This year's tourney could rival that. Capacity at the arena is 10,970 for the tournament.

"I think we're going to have big crowds this weekend," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said.

Slive had nothing but praise for the facility, which previously hosted two SEC Gymnastics Championships and will be the site of early round games in the 2009 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament.

"This is a beautiful place," Slive said. "It's first class for our teams and very fan friendly. I'm impressed."

The Georgia Dome in Atlanta is hosting the SEC Men's Tournament again this year and Gwinnett County may become part of a rotation for the women's event.

The SEC is committed to Nashville for next year. Sites past that will be determined at the SEC's spring meeting.

"This arena is a nice size for the women's event and the location is very convenient," Slive said.

Gwinnett County will get national exposure from the championship game, which will be carried by ESPN2 on Sunday night.

Two players from Collins Hill High School will try to see that favored Tennessee doesn't make it even to the semifinals. Stacy Booker and Shannel Harris, both seniors, play for South Carolina.

"Tennessee will have all their fans," said Booker, who sparked South Carolina's comeback victory over Auburn in the first game Thursday. "But our family and friends will be here rooting for us."

Needless to say, though, they will be badly outnumbered. When it comes to SEC women's basketball, orange always rules. At least in the stands.