History is made seemingly every year the NCAA Tournament tips off. This year, however, arguably the most historic and groundbreaking moment of the tournament occurred just outside of the boundary of the 94 by 50-foot hardwood court in Memphis, Tennessee.
That’s where longtime broadcaster Debbie Antonelli sat as she became the first woman to call a men’s NCAA Tournament since 1995, when Ann Meyers Drysdale called a game.
CBS Local Sports caught up with Antonelli to discuss calling that game and all of the madness to come in both the men and women’s tournaments.
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CBS Local Sports: Obviously I have to start with the most important question: How’s your bracket looking right now?
Debbie Antonelli: (Laughing) Bad. My bracket’s looking bad. Not what I thought. My women’s bracket stinks too, so I’m not doing so well over there either.
CBS LS: I was going to ask you if there were any selection you made that you’re particularly proud of, but doesn’t sound like that’s the case.
Antonelli: (Laughing) Well, I took North Carolina to win the whole thing, so I’m still hanging on to hope that that might work. Otherwise… I had Butler coming out, and everyone was picking Middle Tennessee, so I guess I’m proud of my Butler pick.
CBS LS: Speaking of Butler, what did it mean to you to get the phone call telling you that you’d be calling the Butler-Winthrop game?
Antonelli: It was shocking and surprising and thrilling at the same time. I was driving in a car when Ross Molloy [Vice President, Talent, Production Planning and Development for CBS Sports] called me, and I immediately put the car in cruise control because I knew I wasn’t going to pay attention to driving on the interstate. I was just surprised and overwhelmed and very excited.
Sunday night after the brackets came out, I didn’t get my region and teams until 8:30 p.m. ET. So I was pretty anxious with the show being at 5:30 p.m. ET and then finding out three hours later where I was going. I wanted to get to work.
CBS LS: Having watched Butler first hand — they’re going into a tough matchup against UNC — so what do you think they have to do to beat them? What are their strengths that UNC might struggle with?
Antonelli: Butler’s greatest strength is attention to detail and their really good basketball habits. To beat North Carolina you have to stay with them on the glass and you have to get them in a quarter-court game. North Carolina is going to try to speed Butler up, but Butler is so good at ball-control offense. Everyone seems to understand good spacing, they take good shots; I don’t even remember them taking more than one or two bad shots [against Winthrop].
But you’re going to have to really reverse the ball and make North Carolina guard you in the quarter court. Slow the game down and not let them play up-tempo, and Butler can do that. They can get the tempo where they want because the guards are so good. And they can stay with them on the glass.
CBS LS: What other Sweet 16 matchup are you most looking forward to watching this week?
Antonelli: I’m really excited about South Carolina-Baylor, because I’ve watched Baylor all year out of the Big 12 from the studio on Tuesday night. It seemed like on ESPN U we had a lot of Big 12 games on Tuesday, and it seemed like Baylor was on almost every Tuesday. So I watched them a lot, and here in the state of South Carolina, we’re all impressed with what coach Frank Martin has done.
That’s the game I’m most excited about seeing. Baylor and their length and athleticism, and their really good point guard play; Manu Lecomte, who’s been one of the best players in the NCAA Tournament so far, vs. Sindarius Thornwell for South Carolina.
CBS LS: Jumping out West, you’ve got Gonzaga looking to make their first Final Four in school history, and Sean Miller looking to take Arizona to their first Final Four since he’s been there. Who gets it done?
Antonelli: I actually have Arizona coming out of the West for the Final Four. I thought that once they got [Allonzo] Trier and Lauri Markkanen — that 7-foot 1-inch kid who can pick and pop, pick and roll — is a matchup nightmare. I know they played earlier this year and Gonzaga won. But that was without Trier, and he gives them another dimension in the back court.
CBS LS: Besides the No. 1s and No. 2s, there are a bunch of lower-seeded teams still left in No. 11 Xavier, No. 7 Michigan and No. 7 South Carolina. Who do you think of those teams has the best chance to find their way into the Final Four?
Antonelli: I like Michigan. I’ve been watching them a lot since the Big Ten tournament, and obviously they are playing with a different mindset. They’ve got a real chance. I like the way they play; they play five out. And that [Moritz] Wagner kid can pick and pop, he’s really shooting it well.
And then Derrick Walton Jr.’s their point guard, and he’s just really good. He can score, he dominates the ball for them. He’s very good in their five-out, ball-screening offense. Michigan looks like they’re on a little bit of a mission too. And the grit, and the gratitude, that definitely plays well in the tournament.
CBS LS: Let’s jump to the women’s side of things for a minute. Who, if anybody, has the best chance of taking down UConn?
Antonelli: First, I have to say, Notre Dame has suffered another significant injury, and this is the second time this has happened to them. In 2014 their center Natalie Achonwa blew out her ACL in the regionals, and this year Brianna Turner — who is arguably their best player and is on every national player-of-the-year list — had an ACL injury in the second-round game against Purdue. So she’s out, and that can significantly change things for them. They won’t have the same size and the production of about 18 points per game and about eight or nine boards.
That is a team that could’ve had a chance to beat UConn. UConn’s quickness on the front line will now be too much for Notre Dame. South Carolina has a chance, and I like Maryland playing them in the regional final.
CBS LS: Prediction time: let’s start with the women’s side. Guessing you’re taking UConn to win it all?
Antonelli: Yeah, I pick UConn until somebody beats them. They execute and play with discipline for 40 minutes. And you have to be able to score with them, because you’re not going to be able to stop them. They’re not going to make back-to-back mistakes. If they make one mistake, they’re not going to do that again. And if you make back-to-back mistakes against them, they’re going on a run. It could be 6-0, it could be 8-0, it could be larger.
There are some teams that have equal or better talent, so some of these teams need to step up and take it from them, because they’re not going to give anything.
CBS LS: And the winner on the men’s side?
Antonelli: I’m sticking with North Carolina, because their athleticism and length is too much. Every national championship team gets a scare, and they just had theirs against Arkansas. Arkansas scared them enough to set them straight.