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Superfan hopes women's hoops catch on

LOUISVILLE — If enthusiasm were a super power, Rachael Howard would be on the comic book team the Justice League.

Dubbed "Superfan" at the Southeastern Conference women's basketball tournament, the recent University of Kentucky graduate represented a minority in the otherwise healthy turnout at the UK women's first-round NCAA Tournament game: the under-30 crowd.

"Even all the other schools' coaches were coming up and telling me they dubbed me 'Superfan.' I was up in the front going nuts," Howard said.

The Wildcats drew a crowd of 3,560 people for their record-setting 26th win this season. (Final score, UK 83, Liberty 77 in Louisville's Freedom Hall.) Most fans hailed from Lexington and Louisville, but several came from as far away as Henderson County, Glasgow, Morehead and Hamilton, Ohio.

Only one demographic was all but missing: the die-hard, body-painted crowd, otherwise known as students.

Howard said it's been her goal all season to draw that group. She and Danielle Porche, another recent UK graduate decked out in temporary tattoos, blue wigs and shiny pants, formed a dynamic duo of team devotion in an effort to draw the attention of the ESPN cameramen.

"If they can see me getting hyped on the TV, maybe that'll bring more students out, and they'll be like 'OK, this girl looks pretty cool, I think I'll go scream with her," Howard said.

Her plan may be working.

"I got a couple text messages that said the cameras had caught us down there screaming," she said.

One reason for the small number of students may have been that many are away for spring break.

Attendance was down compared with the 5,624 average for 17 home games this season, but there was no lack of enthusiasm from the vocal mob, beginning as early as two hours before tip-off.

At a pep rally at the Crowne Plaza hotel at Louisville Airport, where the UK women's team waited for a charter bus to take them on a short ride to Freedom Hall, nearly 200 fans crowded outside the lobby entrance to catch a glimpse of the team.

The UK pep band and cheerleaders were there, too, pumping up the crowd (and agitating dozens of dogs whose had come to Louisville for an all-breed dog show at the Kentucky Exposition Center).

Members of the UK cheer team called the pep rally's turnout "incredible" for a women's tournament.

"The pep rally was probably the biggest I've seen since I've been here," said UK cheer team member Nick Roten.

Many fans who noted the relatively low turnout to the game attributed it to basketball overload caused by men's NCAA games being broadcast throughout the day and high school tournament games being held in Lexington.

Murray State graduates and former Lexington residents Ron and Betty Newcomer relied on technology to make sure they got their hoops fix.

"I've started recording on DVR the Murray game this afternoon. We're also UK graduates and alums, and we'll also record that and watch it," Ron Newcomer said.

Attendees seemed split down the middle over whether they were satisfied with the turnout, the consensus being it was a good crowd for a UK women's away game, but an underwhelming one for an NCAA tournament game.

"I'd really hoped there would be a much bigger attendance here, but the people who are here really love the girls," said Lexington resident Frances Goodfriend.

The crowd still outnumbered opponent Liberty University's fans by at least 20-1.

Todd Gray, father of UK women's player Rebecca Gray, said seeing a cheering sea of blue in the lower-level stands may have helped the Wildcats come back from a rough first half.

"It's like the sixth man on the floor. When you've got that much support, I feel like it pulls on the emotions of these players and helps them over the rough spots like a bad call or a turnover," Gray said.

All fans agreed that the farther the team progresses in the tournament, the higher the turnout would become.

"Winning produces more and more of a fan base," Gray said.