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How Memphis women's basketball WNIT run is fueled by renewed support from athletic department

The scene after Memphis women's basketball's second-round WNIT victory over Ball State was a release of joy. Joy that went beyond the program's first Super 16 appearance since 1999.

Leading scorer and senior Jamirah Shutes danced as her teammates surrounded her and Memphis’ band played the Tigers’ fight song. Coach Katrina Merriweather, usually stoic on the sidelines, smiled as she was bearhugged by assistant coach Abby Jump.

A near-sellout crowd at Elma Roane Fieldhouse, something unimaginable in recent years, cheered them on for what could be the last home game of the season. The Tigers travel to Bowling Green on Thursday (5 p.m., ESPN3) but the celebration wasn't just about continuing the team's best season since 2012.

It was seeing how investment in a once-overlooked program paid off faster than few could’ve imagined.

“We just had a period of time that women’s basketball wasn’t prioritized and I think that obviously has been well documented and demonstrated,” Memphis associate athletic director and senior woman administrator Lauren Ashman said. “But this was our chance to change that because our program deserved it just like the rest of our programs here on the women’s side do.”

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A three-year increase in support continued in February, as Ashman and her team submitted a proposal to the WNIT to host games. Ashman said it cost at least $6,500 to host the first round and $7,500 for the second round and required disclosing average attendance figures, ticket prices, and expectations for net revenue.

But the money was worth it to show the program – along with renovations to Elma Roane Fieldhouse – on a bigger stage.

Elma Roane Fieldhouse was sold out for the first time since 2014 for the Memphis-Jackson State WNIT first-round game.
Elma Roane Fieldhouse was sold out for the first time since 2014 for the Memphis-Jackson State WNIT first-round game.

“It’s important and it goes a long way with our student-athletes and our coaches,” Ashman said. “It’s one thing to say you’re committed, it’s another thing to show that you are and that’s one thing I think that we’ve been really good at is meaning what we say.”

The Tigers’ first-round game against Jackson State, with 1,821 fans, was the program’s first home sellout since 2014. The crowd advantage likely helped Memphis go wire-to-wire winning both games. Monday’s game also saw men’s basketball coach Penny Hardaway in attendance along with members of the women’s soccer and football teams.

For Shutes, who almost transferred after the 2019-20 season, it made what could be her last home games even more special. She knew what it was like to see the program underappreciated. Now, it’s a 180-degree turn with support that’s fueled the team to consecutive winning seasons.

Memphis' Madison Griggs celebrates with a fan after they won against Jackson State 79-68 in the first round of the WNIT.
Memphis' Madison Griggs celebrates with a fan after they won against Jackson State 79-68 in the first round of the WNIT.

“I’m thankful for what we have; I’ll say we’re very privileged because a lot of schools with women’s basketball, it’s not like this,” Shutes said. “So we’re just trying to seize the moment.”

Prior to Memphis, Ashman spent five years in a similar role at Bowling Green where she laid a similar foundation invigorating the women’s programs. So Thursday’s game will be personal as a sign of progress.

For Ashman, the season is another stepping stone. Wins, sellout crowds and a WNIT run have been great but it’s just the start of what's possible both on the court and off it as women’s basketball becomes a priority for the athletic department.

“We’re setting a new standard but we’re not going to be satisfied and we’re going to continue to see a lot of great growth,” Ashman said.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis women's basketball WNIT run pays back renewed support from school