UConn women’s 100-game win streak on the line tonight

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Bianca Cuevas-Moore will come off the bench for South Carolina tonight.

Tonight’s match-up that pits #6 South Carolina against #1 UConn may turn on how successfully the Gamecocks can withstand the Huskies’ pressure defense. UConn is looking to win its 100th game in a row, so you can be sure that the defensive jets will be turned all the way up from the opening tipoff. But UConn’s job will be made tougher by South Carolina’s post players, 2016 Wade Award finalists A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates. Together they are pulling down 18 rebounds a game and scoring 21 points per game on  shooting percentages of 58 and 67% respectively.  If South Carolina’s threesome of guards, freshman Tyasha Harris, Kaela Davis, and Bianca Cuevas-Moore can limit their turnovers and get the ball inside to Wilson and Coates, fans could be in for an entertaining game of basketball. (which ESPN2 will carry live at 9 p.m.)

Last week, UConn coach Geno Auriemma admitted to the Hartford Courant that “their two big guys are a problem to play against,” and he adds that his team is “not where I want us to be” at this point in the season. But that kind of talk is probably just Geno being Geno. In sophomore Katie Samuelson, Auriemma has a player who is averaging 21 points per game and who reminds ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo of Elena Delle Donne. Along with sophomore Napheesa Collier and juniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, Geno has four players with as much ice water in their veins as last year’s big three did (seniors Brianna Stewart, Morgan Tuck, and Moriah Jefferson). No one expected last year’s streak to continue this season, but last year’s “bench” has stepped up in a big way to get the Huskies to this historic milestone.

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Allisha Gray, who transferred from North Carolina last year, and A’ja Wilson may be keys to tonight’s game.

ESPN analyst Doris Burke says South Carolina, 21-2 so far this year, needs to be “rock solid” against UConn’s pressure. She also thinks the game might turn on the play of junior Allisha Gray, a shooting guard who has also played point guard and power forward this season. She’s leading the team in steals, is second in assists and third in rebounds.  “They have the pieces and the depth…”  Burke said during LaChina Robinson’s  Around the Rim podcast on ESPN. “They need game plan discipline.”

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South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has a game plan she hopes will counter UConn’s pressure defense.

As for that game plan, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says she’s devised a plan that she hopes will limit turnovers and take the Huskies out of their own game plan. “We’ve got some things in place that we can go to if they take our first and second options away,” she told USC’s “The State” last week. “We need to stay in character, stay organized, and communicate.”

Whoever wins, women’s basketball fans are hoping for a competitive contest. To that end, South Carolina should fare better than it did against the Huskies last year. In that game, won by UConn 66-54, Breanna Stewart scored 25 points and A’ja Wilson left with an injury in the second quarter. By the time she returned late in the third quarter, UConn was on cruise control.

1956-57-flying-queensbwIn the not-so-fast department: If UConn does make it to 100 tonight, they’ll still have to win 32 more in a row to be proclaimed the most dominant women’s collegiate basketball team of all time. The Wayland Baptist Flying Queens of Plainview, Texas hold the all-time collegiate record for the longest winning streak at 131 games from 1950-1957. College basketball wasn’t as competitive back then—and the NCAA certainly doesn’t acknowledge its existence—but the Flying Queens traveled across the country and down to Mexico during the ’50s to play the most dominant company teams and collegiate programs of the era.  As detailed in “On the Road” a chapter from Finding a Way to Play, the Flying Queens  won four national championships during those years.

 

 

 

 

March Madness a good time for book talks and signings

lanninlibinsta     Women’s basketball takes center stage in March, as postseason tournaments that will lead to women’s basketball championships in Divisions I, II, and III in early April get underway. Over the next couple of months, I will be holding discussions about Finding A Way To Play in various locations. First up is a talk at my hometown library in Rockland, Mass. on Feb. 21.  I’ll also be speaking at the Yarmouth public library and at a retirement community in Orono in early April. If you are part of a community group that would like to schedule an event coinciding with Women’s History Month or March Madness, you can contact me at jolannin@maine.rr.com.

Another silver medal for Finding A Way to Play!

Finding A Way to Play: The Pioneering Spirit of Women in Basketball  earned second place in the narrative nonfiction category of the Independent Publishers of New England’s (IPNE)  book awards, announced at its annual conference this past weekend!

Earlier this year, the book was a silver award winner in the sports category of the Forward Reviews/INDIEFAB awards contest for independently published books in 2015.

More information about Finding a Way To Play can be found here. The book is available on this website, at local independent bookstores in Maine and New Hampshire, and via Amazon.com. It is also available at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame gift shop in Knoxville, TN. It will soon be available at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA. It also will soon be listed on Baker and Taylor, as well as on the Barnes and Noble website. Plans are in the works for a second edition, which will include a chapter on women who have played internationally. The e-book version of Finding a Way to Play is scheduled for publication in 2017.

For more information, contact the author, Joanne Lannin, at jolannin@maine.rr.com

 

Closing the circle on Summitt’s legacy

corneliuscomp I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of Final Season, the story of Pat Summitt’s 38th and final year as the University of Tennessee Lady Vols coach in 2012. After reading it (in just a couple of sittings), I interviewed the author, Maria Cornelius, who has covered the Lady Vols since 1998 and written for Inside Tennessee since 2004. To say that Maria has had a front-row seat through the best of times and the worst of times in Lady Vols history is an understatement. She brings the perspective of a seasoned journalist and a long-time observer to this incredibly detailed, heartfelt account. The following is an edited transcript of our interview.

What made you decide to write this book?

It started with Sally Jenkins. Sally is a friend of mine, and she sent me a copy of Sum it Up (the book she co-authored with Pat Summitt after Summitt revealed her Alzheimer’s diagnosis) and asked me if I would review it for my column. It was the definitive book on Pat, but I noted that Pat’s final season (2011-2102) was just one chapter because the book was published in March 2013 and had to get into production quickly. Sally read my review and sent me a text message. She said, ‘You’re right. I wasn’t there. You were there. You write it.’… It wasn’t a thought until she sent me the text message.

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The author, Maria Cornelius

Pat Summitt touched so many lives. Once you chose a publisher and signed a contract, how did you decide whom to interview?

I signed the contract in early Oct. 2013.   We decided it would be best to interview the (current) coaches and players when the season ended. So I started reaching out to former players. Angie Bjorkland (a 2011 grad) was one of the first. She was on the transition team and saw Pat at her finest in 2008 and then was there for the earliest indications of the decline. She saw Pat when the slippage was beginning to show. Even Angie said I would never have dreamed that it was as serious as it was. It was apparent that some things were just off with Pat.

What were you hoping to accomplish through your efforts? Was it hard to balance the day to day chronology, which you capture in great detail, with the larger issues you were trying to explore?  

It’s unprecedented in sports to announce you have dementia and then stay on the sidelines. (Pat) grew to be the public face of a disease. And I wanted basically a permanent record of how that season went, so there’s a lot of game coverage, a lot of fresh interviews. It serves the purpose for the Lady Vols fan who wants to relive that season and for somebody who may not want to know (all the details) but wants to know how that team dealt with such a devastating disease. I have so much respect for that team even though they ran into the juggernaut known as Baylor that year. That team persevered through what 18-22 year-olds are not usually asked to persevere through outside of combat. They hung in there through tremendous bad news, through wanting to fight for Pat. I hope the book captures how much that team meant to Pat and how much they fought for Pat.

After finding out in 2014 that your own mother has Alzheimer’s, how difficult, personally, was it to continue to write?

It became more personal for me. I specified that a portion of every sale go to the Pat Summitt Foundation. We’ve got to find a cure for this. It’s crushing families. Pat Summitt being taken from us at the age of 64 is crushing. She should still be coaching.

What were the hardest things about writing the book?

The interviews were tough.  The toughest part was the emotion. They all cried. They are so used to interviews and they would be doing great, but you’d get them talking about Pat and the anguish in their voices was tough to hear. This was two years before she died. It was raw still for them, jolting to their lives, and it was tough to listen to them. A lot of the interviews were over the phone because they were all over the country. Some were playing overseas …. After Pat died (on June 28),  I had to pull the manuscript back. We were revising it in July, which is unheard of. We wanted a tribute page. One of the hardest things I had to do was change the verbs to past tense.

Although she did turn many duties over to her assistants during that season, you also recount many examples of how Pat was still very much in control during her last season. I’m wondering if you think she could have coached another year?

I’ve been asked that quite a bit and I could actually argue that both ways. She definitely was in decline. The assistants were doing much more. But that press conference she held right before the team left for Chicago (the opening round of the NCAA tournament), after she had been told (by the athletic director) that this would be her last season, that was feisty Pat. That gleam in her eye was back. As I said in the book: she deserved to go out on her own terms. As I said, I don’t know why that decision couldn’t have waited until the end of the season: let’s let Pat talk to her family, talk to the administration. I understand why the decision would have come to that point, but I think Pat could have been treated much better.

Why do you think the decision was made before the season ended?

It was odd because the narrative the whole time had been: let’s talk about it at the end of the season. Let’s let the players focus on the day to day. I think if that decision was going to be made they should have talked to the players and that clearly didn’t happen. I do not necessarily think it was the wrong decision for Pat to step down, but I do not think it was handled well, and that was upsetting because Pat deserved better than that.

You mention in the book the scandal surrounding Tyler’s (Pat’s son’s) short-lived tenure as a  Division I coach. Why did you include his story?

Tyler’s coaching career was announced at the very same press conference as his mother’s retirement. So now the news is conjoined. When what happened at Marquette and Louisiana Tech came to light, I couldn’t pretend it didn’t happen. It became an author credibility issue. Had he never been in the book, it may not have been an issue. He was a big part of that last season. He’s a wonderful young man. Too much too soon was given to him. Too much too soon was expected of him. His mother was deteriorating in front of his eyes, an only child. When someone does what he did, that’s almost sabotage of a career…. Tyler is an incredibly bright young man. He’s the type of person who could own things, run things. But in terms of an author writing a credible account, I felt that I had to tell the whole story.

Was his resignation shielded from Pat?

Maybe she was aware, but would that stay with her? No. Conversations with someone with Alzheimer’s are literally like Groundhog Day.

What are some things that people will learn about Pat Summitt that they didn’t know?

I think the national narrative is of Pat the proper Southern woman and that was fine, but she had a biting wit and she enjoyed the media. She’d come over and talk to us. She was so engaging. So warm. She really cared about people. I remember a longtime beat writer had to have surgery for colon cancer and the team was at Stanford. She called from Palo Alto to reach him to see how the surgery went. She couldn’t get him in his room, so she called the nurses’ station and said ‘This is Pat Summitt. One of our reporters has had surgery and I can’t reach him. I want to know what’s wrong.’ This is the day before they went out and played Stanford, and she wanted to know if one of their reporters was OK. That’s her. I don’t know of many coaches who would be checking up on a reporter the night before a game with Stanford. She was just so warm and funny.

Her relationship with (UConn coach) Geno Auriemma was of a different stripe. What do you think happened there?

It was a fun, competitive series and also a respectful one. It started deteriorating in 2000 in Philly. There were pointed remarks about Pat by Geno that people said were Geno being Geno, but it went deeper than that, and Pat knew it. A lot of things got back to her. That’s not real bright. She knew the series was good for the game, but she had finally had enough. She did not feel the playing field was level. People begged her to bring the series back, but once she made up her mind, she was not going to change it. Pat respected him as a coach. That’s why the recruiting shenanigans bothered her so much. She knew lesser talented coaches cheated. She knew it. That’s the only way they could get recruits. But she didn’t expect it from a peer. She expected a level recruiting field from someone at his level, and she didn’t get it.

One of the biggest disappointments of Pat’s final season was the failure to make it to the 2012 Final Four. Were people surprised that Baylor and Tennessee ended up in the same bracket (and had to face each other in the Elite Eight)?

Baylor was a juggernaut. Nobody was going to beat Baylor that year. I don’t know if Tennessee would have made it in another bracket, but if you wanted to guarantee in 2012 that a team would not get into the Final Four, put them in Baylor’s bracket.  I think it was tone deaf (on the selection committee’s part). More incompetent than intentional.

When all is said and done, what do you want people to take away from this book?

Maybe a better understanding of Pat. Why she did some of the things she did, why she coached the way she did. Of course, number one is to keep driving the research and funding for Alzheimer’s. With our aging population, this is a public health crisis, and it’s not being addressed at any level. So I hope it brings attention to that. It’s hard to tell anything new about Pat. But I hope it gives people a view of Pat that they haven’t seen. That chapter when she was crying on the phone (after the season ended)…. A lot of people have never seen her vulnerable. That was a tough conversation to have, to hear her voice so small and sad. Also an appreciation for her final team. I know they fell short of what they wanted. They wanted a Final Four for Pat, but the way that team endured, I hope the book shows how much they loved Pat, how much they fought for Pat.

The Final Season is available now from the publisher for $29.95. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Pat Summitt Foundation.

 

Time to get on board the WNBA train

The USA Women’s basketball team’s sweep through the Olympics for its sixth straight gold medal was predictable but still a lot of fun to watch. With Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore leading the way (with 15.6 and 12.0 points per game respectively), the American women averaged 102 points per game and held opponents to 64 points.

But as the WNBA  season resumes, and teams play their final 10 games between now and September 18, the games will be a lot less predictable and the margins of victory much slimmer on the way to a WNBA playoff  berth.

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The L.A. Sparks have already clinched a WNBA playoff spot

The two key players to watch down the stretch are not named Taurasi and Moore, by the way. They are Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks, who failed to make it onto the Olympic team (much to the consternation of their fans and lots of women’s basketball pundits).  At any rate, that oversight has given Ogwumike and Parker a month to rest up, practice with their team, and work on their individual games as they prepare for the home stretch of the WNBA season. The month also may have given Parker time to come to terms with the death of Pat Summitt, her long-time mentor, on June 28.

Parker, who sat out the first half of the WNBA season last year because of fatigue from playing overseas (Taurasi sat out the whole 2015 season),  is averaging 16 points a game, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. Parker, a two-time Olympian, had to have been stunned (like the rest of us) when she found out that she wouldn’t be going to Rio with the Olympic team. But the Tennessee grad, who led the Lady Vols to the last two NCAA championships in the Pat Summitt era in 2007 and 2008, will be using that slight to motivate herself and her team in the next month.

Ogwmike is leading the league in field goal percentage at a Wilt Chamberlain-esque 71 percent. She’s scoring 19 points per game and pulling down 9 rebounds. The Stanford grad was the WNBA co-player of the month in July (sharing the honor with the Liberty’s Tina Charles). In June, she made 23 consecutive field goals over a three-game stretch to help the Sparks start the season 10-0.

The Sparks record is 21-3, while the Minnesota Lynx are just a half game behind at 21-4. The only other team with a solid winning record is the New York Liberty, which sits at 18-8. The next four teams (Chicago, Atlanta, Indiana, and Phoenix) are hovering around .500, while Seattle, Dallas, Washington, Connecticut and San Antonio will likely be vying to snag the last playoff spot. Lots of UConn fans wearing Breanna Stewart or Sue Bird jerseys are rooting for Seattle to get that last spot, but Washington and Connecticut, who have both beaten the Lynx this season, might be better bets.

The Sparks and the Lynx have already clinched playoff spots and will both be getting byes into the semifinals in the new playoff format adopted this year. The third and fourth place teams will get byes into the second round, which like the first round, will be single elimination. The semifinals and finals will be best of five series with the fifth game (if necessary) going to the higher seed.

Home court advantage isn’t likely to be much of a factor down the stretch or in the playoffs. The Sparks blew out the Lynx at Target Center in Minneapolis, 94-76, while the Lynx pulled out a win in Los Angeles, 72-69 earlier this season. The Lynx also lost a home game to the New York Liberty during a three-game losing streak in June. The Lynx and the Sparks will meet on Sept. 6 in Minnesota in an ESPN2-televised game that may well determine who gets the number one seed for the WNBA Finals come Sept. 18. All I can say is, bring it on!

 

Rest in Peace, Pat

UPDATED JUNE 28

As I walked around the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville two weekends ago, one video exhibit caught my eye. By pressing a button, you could choose to watch a legendary coach give a locker room talk. Some of the choices were Geno Auriemma, Van Chancellor, Jody Conradt, and Pat Summitt.

It was an easy pick.  I  was in Knoxville to do a book signing in conjunction with the WBHOF Induction weekend, and Summitt figures prominently in my book, as well she should. I wrote about how her father moved the family to another town in Tennessee so that Pat would have a chance to play high school ball. I wrote about how she worked her rear end off to come back from an ACL tear in time to make the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. I wrote about how she was the first U.S. Olympian to win a medal as both a player and a coach after she coached the 1984 team to victory in Los Angeles. And, of course, I wrote about those 8 national championships, along with some of the athletes she groomed for coaching jobs of their own and for starring roles in the WNBA.

As I watched Pat go through her extensive pregame list of things for her players to remember,  I thought back to the times I was fortunate enough to interview her at several Final Fours in the late 90s and early 2000s. In 1997, I was seated right behind the bench in Cincinnati when Tennessee played Old Dominion for the NCAA National Championship. I’ll never forget that steely-eyed stare and those tough-as-nails talks.

summitt1If you talk to any local people, as I did during the Induction weekend, they’ll tell you stories about meeting her and about seeing her at Lady Vols games, and they’ll make it clear in just the way they talk about her how much they miss her presence. That is the curse of Alzheimer’s Disease for those who have a loved one in its throes. It’s like you’re stuck in a stage of grief and know you could be for a long, long time.

Pat’s condition worsened soon after the WBHOF induction weekend, and she passed away on June 28, surrounded by those who loved her most. We’ll all miss her terribly now that she is gone. Still, as Pat herself has said, “You can’t always control what happens, but you can control how you react to it.”  That’s why she started a foundation to find a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. You can find information about Summitt’s Foundation here.

Pat Summitt has left behind a legacy of dedication and devotion to women’s basketball for those of us who follow and care deeply about the women’s game.  So rest in peace, Pat. Your spirit will always pervade women’s basketball.

WBHOF Induction Weekend June10-11

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The hall was all decked out for the Induction Weekend

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Members of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team who were honored as Trailblazers of the Game.

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Sherri Coale, Oklahoma coach, gave a wonderful induction speech that thanked an incredible number of people!

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Basketball official June Courteau also thanked bunches of people, including her 92-year-old aunt, Auntie Zero!

I was invited to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction weekend to do a book signing  and to attend the Induction ceremony. These are a few photos from the event. You can read more about the people who were inducted here