The following is an excerpt from a story that originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.

This year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament made history and Tiara “T” Cruse ’06 was part of it as one of 11 game officials — all women, for the first time — chosen to work the Final Four in Dallas. A former William & Mary basketball player, Cruse is a frequent presence at high-visibility NCAA and WNBA games. She is also an advocate for equal treatment of women in collegiate and professional sports, and a role model for current student-athletes.

“It’s so special for our young ladies to connect with people who stood in their shoes and wore their jerseys,” says W&M women’s basketball head coach Erin Dickerson Davis. She met Cruse in September when the alumna was on campus to participate in a William & Mary Women’s Weekend panel discussion on “Women, Sports and Social Change” and later invited her to speak with the team in a virtual session on financial awareness and financial literacy.

WNBA official Tiara Cruse during the game between the Connecticut Sun and Indiana Fever June 24, 2018, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN. The Indiana Fever defeated the Atlanta Dream 96-64.
Cruse watches the court during a 2018 WNBA game between the Sun and the Indiana Fever in Indianapolis. (© Jeffrey Brown/Icon SMI via Zuma Press.)

“T Cruse is a big name in women’s basketball,” Dickerson Davis says. “To see her, to be able to engage with her, is important for our athletes.”

Televised on ABC and multiple ESPN platforms, the April 2 championship in which LSU defeated Iowa 102-85 was the most-watched NCAA women’s basketball game on record, with viewership peaking at 12.6 million and averaging 9.9 million, according to ESPN. Combined, the Tigers and Hawkeyes set a record for the most points in title game history, and LSU set a record for points by a team in the final.

Cruse was on standby for both the Iowa-South Carolina semifinal and the championship, meaning she was courtside in uniform throughout the game, ready to step in at a moment’s notice. In the broadcast of the Tigers-Hawkeyes matchup, she can be seen standing behind Iowa coach Lisa Bluder during the national anthem and chatting with fellow referee Lisa Jones on the sidelines before the game.

Despite the heightened attention on the Final Four games, Cruse says she remained focused and on task: “I was there watching as another referee from the sideline and staying tuned in to support my colleagues. But it was also fun to see the growth of the game firsthand and to see the arena sold out.”

For Cruse, one of the highlights of this year’s NCAA tournament was the Ohio State-University vs. University of Connecticut game in Seattle on March 25 that aired on ABC and broke a Sweet 16 record with 2.4 million television viewers. The matchup was also notable because Ohio State’s Buckeyes ended the UConn Huskies’ streak of reaching the Final Four 14 consecutive times. Overall viewership for the Sweet 16 was up 73% over last year, according to ESPN.

“It was exciting to know that I was officiating a game that’s part of this record-breaking historical growth,” Cruse says.

Looking ahead to the WNBA season beginning May 19, she says, “I hope the synergy of the women’s college game can connect to the energy the WNBA has already captured the past few seasons and show that women can not only compete but excel as part of a global product, and advertisers and sponsors and TV networks can truly buy into it.”

‘The perfect fit’

Cruse’s passion for basketball developed long before she became a referee.

“As a younger kid, I wanted to do everything my older brother did,” she says. “He played football, so I played flag football. When he started to play basketball, I wanted to play basketball. I also played soccer — all the sports young kids do.”

The daughter of Navy veterans who both worked in health care, Cruse first visited William & Mary when her family was living in Virginia Beach in the early 1990s.

“I remember quite vividly being a little kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, and driving by the campus and looking out the window and thinking, ‘I’m going to go there someday,’” she says. “I always excelled athletically and academically, so it was the perfect fit that I ended up at William & Mary playing sports.”

Basketball took her in a different direction at first, however. While attending James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, she was recruited by both William & Mary and Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. She spent her freshman and sophomore years at SMU, but when she learned there was an opening on the W&M team, she took the opportunity to move closer to home.

Thinking she might follow her parents’ career path, Cruse majored in kinesiology.

“At the time, William & Mary had one of the very few undergraduate programs that involved working on an actual cadaver as part of an anatomy course, and I spent one of my summers at William & Mary taking that class,” she says. “It was very hard. I’m proud to say I passed with an A-minus.”

Although she ultimately didn’t pursue health care as a profession, Cruse says her studies at William & Mary have helped her as a basketball player and as a referee.

“It gave a foundational understanding of how the body works,” she says. “As an athlete, an actor or dancer, you’re really attuned to your body, and the way it speaks to you. So, having a foundation of kinesiology connects the intuitive sense with the informational.”

After transferring from SMU, Cruse was required to sit out for her sophomore year, but she continued to practice with the William & Mary team. A knee ligament injury limited her ability to play during her junior year.

“I did play my senior year,” she says. “It was a little bittersweet in terms of just a short window to play.”

At William & Mary, she formed close friendships with teammates and other fellow athletes that have continued since they graduated. As someone with a multiracial background — her mother is from Kingston, Jamaica, while her California-native father has English and Scottish roots — Cruse also found camaraderie in a William & Mary group for students with Caribbean ties.

One of her good friends from her time as a student is former Tribe tennis player Megan Moulton-Levy ’07, who shares her Jamaican heritage and went on to play tennis professionally. Both alumnae were speakers in the same William & Mary Women’s Weekend panel discussion.

“The athletics community was just a really close-knit, family-based program,” Cruse says. “Running into teammates now speaks to how true that is — you might not see somebody for years and then the moment you see them, it’s nothing but love, happiness and reconnection.”

Read the full story on the W&M Alumni Magazine website.