Thursday, March 20, 2003

Fairfield grad calls shots for women's telecasts

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For the first time in NCAA Tournament history, all 63 women's games will be televised on ESPN and ESPN2 from March 22 to April 8. And it's up to a Cincinnati-area native to oversee its production.

Tina Thornton, a 1989 Fairfield High School graduate, is the coordinating producer in remote production for ESPN. For the second straight year, Thornton is the do-it-all force behind the women's broadcasts, from budgeting and hiring to finding interesting team and player features.

"It's pretty overwhelming, but in a good way," said Thornton, now a resident of Burlington, Conn. "It's been very fulfilling."

Women's basketball growth has paved the way for the comprehensive tournament coverage. ESPN broadcast 31 of last year's 63 games. Eight years ago, only seven games were nationally televised.

Thornton has been preparing for the 2003 tournament since last year, when Connecticut defeated Oklahoma 82-70 for the national title. It was ESPN's most viewed basketball game - men's or women's - watched in 3.5 million homes.

She began assembling a team of studio and game announcers in September. Sixteen teams of play-by-play announcers and analysts will work from predetermined first-round sites, such as Cincinnati. Jerry Punch and Vera Jones will be calling the Shoemaker Center's three games.

"Everything is pretty much laid out at this point in time, but there are always little things that come up," Thornton said.

Like the loss of longtime University of Florida coach Carol Ross, who was days away from making her game-analyst debut when she accepted Ole Miss' head coaching job Tuesday. Active coaches can't be tournament analysts.

Thornton immediately found a replacement in Megan Keating, known for her work with the Atlantic 10.

The NCAA's new pre-selection of 16 first- and second-round women's tournament sites has benefited ESPN, which is sending more than 96 people to 48 games March 22-25. The site selection, in conjunction with the stepped-up TV coverage, allowed Thornton to organize crews' travel and set-up long before Selection Sunday.

"I'm very happy that those site were pre-determined. I'm not saying we couldn't have done it, but it would've been very difficult," Thornton said.

Thornton will be watching the tournament from the ESPN studio, working with a team do determine "whip-around" coverage. With so many first-round games played at once, she'll dictate when to cut away to teams with closer scores and better stories, including upsets.

When the tournament ends, she will turn to other big projects, such as overseeing the Great Outdoor Games and Bass Master's Classic.

Thornton, who occasionally returns to Cincinnati, rekindled local ties several years ago at her 10-year high school reunion. She didn't participate in Fairfield sports, but she did play the baritone in the marching band.

She played tuba for one year at Wake Forest University, where she received a bachelor of arts in communication in 1993.


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