Teams brace for thin air to reach hoops summit

By Pat Graham

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 30 2012 2:42 p.m. MDT

DENVER — The rust-colored sign in the arena's loading dock serves as both a welcome and a warning for players when they step off the team bus.

The greeting part — "Pepsi Center Welcomes You ..." — hardly registers. But the other portion of the message is designed to catch your attention, maybe even making the pulse race a little bit more: "... to the Mile High City. Elevation 5,280 feet."

Purely a mind game, though. A ploy to plant elevation as a seed of doubt when visiting teams arrive.

Although this version of the women's Final Four really is up in the air, the higher altitude shouldn't bother Baylor, Stanford, Notre Dame or Connecticut on the court 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. It should not affect their game."

Getting players to buy into that concept, though, is a little more tricky. Because feeling the burn in the lungs is believing.

"It definitely is a real thing," said Irish senior guard Natalie Novosel, whose team faces Big East rival Connecticut on Sunday. "Honestly, at that point, we're going to have to suck it up and play through it because it's the biggest stage and we can't let climate and altitude get in the way."

UConn coach Geno Auriemma thought he had a solution to the altitude situation, only to have his idea quickly quashed by the team doctor.

"I suggested turning the oxygen off in the plane on the way over there for about an hour and get them used to sucking for breath," Auriemma said. "But he advised us not to do that.

"So, I guess we'll have to deal with it when we get there."

And hopefully not this: headaches, nausea, dizziness and lethargy. Those are all symptoms of acute mountain sickness. But don't worry, Drum insisted, those signs typically only manifest at 8,000 feet and above.

Typically.

"If players eat on a regular schedule and drink water, they'll be fine," Drum said. "They need to deliberately stay well fed and hydrated."

That could be the secret to reaching college basketball's mountain top come Tuesday night's title game.

Oh, and minimize distractions. No sightseeing excursions since a well-rested team could be the difference in the championship game.

"Everybody is on the same level playing field," Drum said. "They're all well trained already, but nobody is well acclimated."

For Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, the altitude presents a different predicament. She was recently diagnosed with Bell's palsy, a form of facial paralysis.

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