DENVER — The rust-colored sign in the arena's loading dock serves as a welcome and a warning for players when they step off the team bus: "Pepsi Center Welcomes You to the Mile High City. Elevation 5,280 feet."
Purely a mind game, though. A ploy to plant elevation as a seed of doubt as visiting teams arrive.
In this women's Final Four, the altitude shouldn't bother Baylor, Stanford, Notre Dame or Connecticut over the weekend.
That searing sensation in the lungs after a few trips up and down the floor? Think of it as imaginary. The difficulty of taking a deep breath before a crucial free throw late in the game? Again, just a figment.
Or so research indicates from high altitude performance technicians, who say proper hydration and nutrition are almost bigger obstacles in thin air than the altitude itself.
"If one team is really hung up on elevation — 'Oh my gosh, we're at altitude!' —and loses it mentally, the opposing team who keeps it together mentally can use altitude as a sixth man," said Scott Drum, associate professor of exercise and sport science and director of a high altitude performance lab at Western State College of Colorado in Gunnison, where the elevation is 7,700 feet. "But if they come in and believe in their skills and their readiness, they should be fine."
Notre Dame boasts the highest campus of the four at around 725 feet above sea level. The lowest, Stanford (23 feet) is hardly more than three Brittney Griners (the Bears star who stands 6 feet 8) above sea level.
"When the heat of the game starts going, (altitude's effect) goes away," Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike said. "You're going to push yourself to the limit."
Notre Dame played its region round in Denver on its way to the 2001 national title. Back then, coach Muffet McGraw's approach to altitude was simple: "We really didn't do anything," she said.
And this time?
"I'm not planning to do anything special," McGraw said.
Five ex-UConn stars on U.S. Olympic team
The U.S. team headed to the London Olympics during the summer will have a familiar feel for coach Geno Auriemma. Five of his former Connecticut Huskies — Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash, Maya Moore and Tina Charles — are on the team, announced Friday. Joining them are fellow Olympic gold medalists Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles. Lindsay Whalen and Angel McCoughtry will make their debut. The 12th spot was held open, possibly for Baylor junior Griner.