UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Come next March, Mohegan Sun Arena will host the first American Athletic Conference women's basketball tournament. Saturday afternoon, it hosted a final salute to the Big East as we knew it.
Sure, Saturday's main event was the WNBA All-Star Game, which saw the Western Conference beat the Eastern Conference, 102-98, behind 23 points from Candace Parker and 21 points from Los Angeles Sparks running mate Kristi Toliver. But the league's midsummer classic was also a reunion for former rivals whose successors will be strangers.
Eight players who took the court in the All-Star Game competed in the Big East in college. Seven of them started Saturday's game.
Only one of those eight players came from a school (Georgetown) that will still be in the Big East when what remains of the conference begins play in November, with Butler and Creighton and without a whole bunch of familiar faces.
"I have no idea who is even in the conference right now, to be perfectly honest with you," former Georgetown star Rebekkah Brunson said. "I'm just confused."
For the record, it's Butler, Creighton, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, Villanova and Xavier.
Brunson sat in front of her locker in the West dressing room as she spoke. Next to her sat former University of Connecticut standout Maya Moore. Fellow Connecticut alum Diana Taurasi stood in a corner opposite them. The picture was much the same in the other locker room, where Connecticut's Tina Charles, Louisville's Angel McCoughtry, Rutgers' Epiphanny Prince and Cappie Pondexter and Pittsburgh's Shavonte Zellous waited to take the court for the East.
Such numbers aren't an anomaly. Of the 134 players listed on the WNBA roster, 26 -- or nearly one-fifth -- played in the Big East. Much of that representation comes courtesy of Connecticut, of course, but DePaul, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse are also represented by at least one player.
Come this fall, those schools will be spread among the ACC, AAC and Big East. That's a shame for college basketball fans, but it's also potentially bad news for the WNBA. The Big East as we knew it delivered pros.
Parker deservedly took MVP honors in Saturday's game, with Toliver the clear second choice, but Brunson was arguably the most consistent presence for the West from start to finish. The 31-year-old forward entered the WNBA in 2004 and has not only stuck around but thrived because of a relentless, physical commitment to defense and rebounding. Those aren't traits that lend themselves to All-Star games, but she finished Saturday with 11 points and 11 rebounds in just 18 minutes. Brunson drew a collective "ooh" from the crowd when she leaped high to grab an offensive rebound, blocked a shot from Sylvia Fowles to kill a fast break and, in perhaps the least exhibition-like play of the game, forced a timeout when she pressured a mishandled ball on the sideline. She couldn't help herself; it's how she plays.
Brunson didn't come out of one of the old Big East's glamour programs. But she saw them up close, game after game, season after season.
"The team that I was on when I was there wasn't the best team, but the blessing of that was that I got to play against Rutgers, I got to play against Connecticut, I got to play against those teams," Brunson said. "I got the experience of playing against notable players on them -- playing against [Taurasi]. That was a privilege of playing in the Big East. I don't know the caliber of the teams that are in the conference right now. I don't know if it's the same. I don't know if it will allow players such as myself that are on teams that aren't as good to still compete and play against the greatest at that level."
Conference realignment might mean more than mere reshuffling for women's basketball. There are good programs in the new Big East, but there are also several programs that have languished for years. Still, without the football money that bolstered the athletic departments of some of their former peers and without the competition those same schools provided, it will only grow more difficult for Georgetown to produce a player like Brunson or DePaul, or a player like the Chicago Sky's Allie Quigley.
And it seems safe to say that at least for the short term, neither the Big East nor the American Athletic Conference will be as competitive as the league from which they largely share common origin.
"When I was there, it was one of the most diverse conferences as far as style of play," Moore said. "By the time you got to the tournament, you were ready for anything, whether it was West Virginia or Villanova or a run-and-gun team like South Florida, Notre Dame. Georgetown was scrappy and pressing. It was really fun. Every day you had a new challenge, and by the time January or February hit, you were in the grind of the Big East.
"It was a bear to get through, as far as the toughness of the teams. They didn't quit; they had fight."
The league was never short on challenges. The Big East tournament, the old one, was a source of some frustration for coaches who annually trekked to Hartford to play on what was anything but a neutral court where Geno Auriemma's team was concerned. But for McCoughtry, both the crowds that made the tournament the best attended in the nation in recent years and the competition from so many top-25 teams made it her favorite part of the Big East experience. And before Louisville made its first run to the Final Four under Jeff Walz, it pulled upsets to reach the Big East championship game in back-to-back seasons.
"It helped the school, the University of Louisville, period," McCoughtry said of the conference. "Our school is on the map. The recruiting has gone up, the facilities have gone up, the money, everything. And me as an individual, it helped me become a tough player to prepare for the WNBA."
The rivalries differed from player to player and mini-era to mini-era. For Charles, it was the matchups with Rutgers when the Scarlet Knights had Prince and Kia Vaughn. For Moore, it was Notre Dame. For Zellous, it was the games against West Virginia, already a season into its new Big 12 existence. What's the same is the shared experience of so many players who were on hand Saturday.
"We still always talk about it," Taurasi said. "We talk trash about it with Cap and Piph and Maya, even [Brunson] at Georgetown. There's a lot of Big East flavor in this game, and there always is because in women's basketball that was the top conference forever."
Fans of the ACC, Big 12 and SEC might grumble at that assessment. They'll have to settle for the last laugh.
Saturday belonged to the Big East. The future does not.