By: Sarah Funk
Sponsored by Marriott
For years I heard about the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Four® Championship games but never imagined that I would be able to attend. The next thing I know, an opportunity pops up to experience the games like a VIP with Marriott Bonvoy Moments ™. This program gives its members the opportunity to use their points to bid on exclusive moments such as the Men’s and Women’s Final Four® games. Thank you Marriott Bonvoy Moments™, for providing me with game tickets, unique experiences, and a wonderful hotel stay during my time in Tampa. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience this monumental event.
The NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball championship games were played in Tampa this year. Since I was able to secure highly sought-after tickets, thanks to Marriott Bonvoy Moments™, I decided to create a mini-vacation out of it. After all, I am an avid traveler and had never been to Tampa. Watch my Tampa travel guide below.
Tampa is known for its known for its’ beautiful Gulf Coast beaches, world-class theme parks, three major pro sports teams, and tropical weather. As a city that loves sports, hosting the NCAA Women’s Final Four here seemed a natural choice. From my beautiful balcony at the Tampa Marriott Water Street I could see the massive Amalie Arena. It was decorated in orange Final Four banners in preparation for the games.
The Tampa Marriot Water Street is a beautiful waterfront hotel that is conveniently located steps from the Tampa Riverwalk, Florida Aquarium, the evolving Sparkman Wharf, and Amalie Arena. The rooms have spacious layouts, indulgent bedding, mini-refrigerators, ample workstations and balconies with water or skyline views.
They also have a gorgeous rooftop pool, state-of-the-art fitness center, and a brand new gastropub; Garrison Tavern, which is the first food and beverage concept from renowned chef and restaurateur, Richard Sandoval in the Tampa Bay area. It was the perfect place to stay, and watch the NCAA basketball championship games. To get the top restaurant and bar suggestions in Tampa, watch my video below.
With the NCAA Women’s Final Four championship game tickets from Marriott Bonvoy Moments™, came a few other exclusive experiences, such as special event access, behind-the scenes venue tour, and meet & greets with basketball icons. The whole program made me feel very special.
Upon arrival, we were invited to the NCAA Women’s Final Four Welcome Reception at the Le Meridien hotel, which is part of the National Register of Historic Places. It is a century-old Historic Federal Courthouse that has been transformed into a luxury hotel with stunning architecture. The hotel is honored with the only 4 Diamond designation in downtown Tampa.
They are home to an international restaurant, Bizou Brasserie, that serves American Classic cuisine, fresh seafood and a variety of delicious comfort food offerings. At the welcome reception they served their signature chocolate and vanilla eclairs at a “make-your-own” éclair bar with a variety of toppings. I’m not one to normally finish desserts, but I ate the whole thing!
My favorite experience from Marriott Bonvoy rewards was the behind the scenes tour of Amalie Arena. During the tour, we saw the locker rooms, the press room, the gym, and the media area. We even got to go on the court and shoot some hoops. It was a lot of fun, and a blast being where all the action takes place. I felt special being guided through the massive space with an NCAA insider.
On the morning of the championship game, Marriott Bonvoy set up a special coach’s brunch for us, where we got to meet three women’s basketball icons. The brunch was hosted at the historic Le Meridien Tampa hotel, which was the ideal place to host a sophisticated brunch. The high-end cuisine and elegant atmosphere were thoroughly enjoyable.
The basketball icons at the brunch were Dru Hancock, Ceal Barry, and Theresa Grentz. Dru Hamcock was named the 2018 women’s basketball coaches association administrator of the year and played college basketball at Ohio State University. Ceal Barry was a coach of the Colorado Buffaloes women’s basketball team from 1983 – 2005. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. Theresa Grentz was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014, was the former Head Basketball Coach at Saint Joseph’s in Rutgers (IL), and is a bronze medalist winner as the Olympic Head Coach at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
During the Q&A, they spoke about how far women’s basketball has come over the years, college basketball as a whole, and the teams playing in the NCAA championship game. It was fascinating to learn about their backstory as players and coaches. One of my favorite stories was when Theresa was talking about how her underdog college basketball team won the championships in 1972.
Theresa went to a Catholic all-girls school and the nuns only bought flight tickets for the team to get to the first game of tournament because there were so few people that believed they could win a single game. However, they ended up winning the championship. Hearing this was surprising to me because today women athletes get access to the same resources as men. Our backstage tour at Amalie Arena was a prime example of this. The NCAA provided the student athletes with exceptional facilities and services. It is satisfying to see how far women’s sports has come in the last 50 years.
That evening was the championship game between Notre Dame and Baylor. The energy was positively electric throughout the stadium. The 20,500 seats in Amalie Arena were sold out and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Marriott Bonvoy had reserved the best seats in the house for us. We had center court floor seats!
In the first half of the game, Baylor was leading by about 10-15 points consistently. However, in the last minute it got heated. Notre Dame and Baylor were tied, and when one team made a shot the other team would balance it out and make a basket oo. What was once a somewhat predictable game became completely unpredictable and the stadium went wild. Finally, in the last second (literally) Baylor made a basket and won! It was thrilling!
When I got back to my room that night, Marriott had left a basketball themed chocolate fudge cake on my table. It was the great way to close out an epic night of NCAA women’s basketball.
Spending a week in Tampa was an absolute blast. Tampa has so much more to offer than what meets the eye. It is home to one of the best steakhouses in country, has a fascinating historic area called Ybor City, and provides fabulous adventure sports like paddle boarding on the river. For a full Tampa guide, watch my YouTube video for Tampa. This is one Florida city I know I’ll be visiting again.