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Mohegan - The inaugural American Athletic Conference Women's Basketball Tournament at Mohegan Sun brought thousands of diehard sports fans into the region Saturday, filling up hotel rooms, creating long lines at casino restaurants and even having a spillover effect for local attractions.
"It's a good atmosphere," said Diane Mackay, who drove all the way from Somerset, N.J., with her family to cheer for Rutgers in its win Saturday against Southern Methodist University.
Mackay, toting children Matthew and Brianna along with husband Bryan to the tournament, was staying overnight at the Microtel Inn & Suites in Uncasville and planned to visit the shops in downtown Mystic before leaving for home. After the game, the family was heading to Season's Buffet and later would eat at Bobby's Burger Palace, both in the casino.
Though the Big East conference had always eschewed playing tournaments at casinos, the Mackays said they saw nothing wrong with the atmosphere, even with children in tow. In fact, the adults were planning to spend some time gambling while the children had fun at one of the Sun's kid-friendly attractions.
"We're from New Jersey, so we go to Atlantic City," Diane said. "But they don't have a place like Kids Quest."
Linda Sonia and Terry Chandler, who flew in from Dallas to cheer for SMU and stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Mystic, were equally impressed with the venue.
"It's a real nice arena," Terry said, wearing the blue-and-red colors of SMU.
The pair had already been to Mystic, Stonington and Newport to do some sightseeing. They had plans to visit an Irish pub at the casino before trying their luck at a little post-game gambling - a pastime that they suspected Linda's son Bobby had already begun pursuing.
Fans like these from Dallas and New Jersey were exactly what Bobby Soper, Mohegan Sun's chief executive, had in mind when he sought to bring the AAC tournament to the region. The casino's arena already hosts popular Connecticut Sun games in the professional Women's National Basketball Association and has hosted a variety of other major sporting events, including Davis Cup tennis, the Harlem Globetrotters and even the Boston Celtics.
Mohegan Sun bid on the tournament last spring after the Big East split up and the AAC was formed, bringing the University of Connecticut Huskies into the fold. The watered-down Big East still plays at the XL Center in Hartford, so the AAC needed a new venue, and Mohegan Sun Arena fit the bill.
"It's the perfect size," Soper said. "It just seemed like a perfect fit."
The casino already was busy Saturday as pleasant weather brought out the crowds, but shop operators said they noticed a definite uptick in sales related to basketball fans at the tournament. Some, such as Andrea Daunice at the watch store Citizen, said it was more foot traffic than sales, but others, such as Jessa Drouin at the sundry shop Everything Under the Sun, were seeing a steady stream of customers - especially for snacks, drinks and cigarettes.
Soper said the Sun expected to sell about 30,000 tickets for the four-day tournament. He was looking forward to a significant volume increase at the casino's more than 40 restaurants and dozens of other retail shops - not to mention a boost in gaming activity.
"We want everyone to feel welcome," Soper said.
Soper said the casino's hotel rooms were 100 percent booked for the weekend. And many of those fans were being exposed to the Mohegan Sun brand for the first time, coming from long distances because the AAC conference covers a wide swath of geography.
TV exposure from the tournament is a big plus as well, Soper said, especially with the hometown favorite UConn Huskies on the prowl for another national championship.
"It's something new for women's basketball," said Chris Sienko, vice president and general manager of the Connecticut Sun. "Having the opportunity to be in a venue that is all-inclusive is exciting."