Another state high school basketball tournament will soon call Lexington home.
The KHSAA Board of Control announced Wednesday that the girls’ basketball Sweet Sixteen will be held in Rupp Arena in 2019 and 2020. The state tournament in 2018 will return to BB&T Arena in Highland Heights, where it has been staged the previous two seasons.
A girls’ basketball state tournament has not been held in Lexington since 1932, the last year the sport was sanctioned by the KHSAA before it resumed support of organized girls’ basketball in the 1974-75 season. Every tournament from 1922-1932 was held in the city, the first five at the University of Kentucky Armory and the final six at UK’s Alumni Gym.
Rupp Arena was brought into the fold after the KHSAA heard presentations from Northern Kentucky University (whose home venue is BB&T Arena) and Western Kentucky University, which hosted the girls’ state tournament at Diddle Arena in Bowling Green from 2001-2015.
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“There was a time years ago that there weren’t people fighting over the girls’ tournament and we didn’t have options on where to play the thing,” KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said. “It’s a great position to be in. ... Years ago the debate was about the boys and ‘Let’s find a site for the girls,’ and now they are an event among themselves. The play is so good, the cities are so good, the arenas are so good. So it’s been really good to have that competition.”
Tackett has contended for some time that until the KHSAA tries hosting the girls’ Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena — which has played host to every boys’ Sweet Sixteen since 1995 — “we’re never gonna know how it would do in Lexington.” That was the primary motivating factor behind awarding a two-year deal to the venue.
There is one caveat: If a corporate title sponsor doesn’t step forward by 2020, the KHSAA will re-examine the viability of holding the tournament in Lexington that year.
“You need to tell us you really want this event here,” Tackett said. “Don’t tell us that you want it and then don’t back it up with your support. Come forward. We’ve got a marketing person and she’s more than willing to talk to people.”
St. Elizabeth Healthcare has been the title sponsor each of the last two seasons in Highland Heights and will continue its sponsorship in 2018. Tackett said the “door’s always open” for the company to stay on beyond next season.
As a venue, BB&T Arena could not have been better, Tackett said, but Rupp Arena could be more logistically friendly to parts of the state.
“I mean it’s beautiful,” Tackett said. “It can accommodate anything you want. It’s about the right size. But it’s got a travel impediment to some of our state that a Central Kentucky arena doesn’t.
“At the same time, if you really know much about the backbones and backside of Rupp Arena, it’s not perfect either. But it’s still Rupp. It’s still Rupp, and that’s all you can really say.”
Rupp Arena being the home site of the UK men’s basketball team generates a mystique for players, coaches and fans that Tackett has referenced as a factor in keeping the boys’ basketball state tournament there the past two decades and counting.
Bringing the girls’ tournament to the same venue will give it a chance to not only bask in that same glow, but stand on a more level playing field with the KHSAA’s signature event.
“(We’re) able to take away anyone being able to say, ‘The boys and girls are different’ in this day where we’re preaching equity so much,” Tackett said. “I realize the university here doesn’t play all their games at Rupp, but when they do, it’s a special time. We need to see if capturing that aura does the same thing for the girls it did for the boys when we first brought it back here regularly.”