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All eyes will be on Louisville vs. Baylor in Sweet Sixteen rematch

Shoni Schimmel led Louisville to the upset win against Baylor four years ago.

On Friday night, all eyes will be on the Oklahoma City Region matchup between #4 Louisville and #1 Baylor. The Lady Bears will be seeking revenge for their loss to Louisville in their Sweet Sixteen game in the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball tournament in 2013.

It was Britney Griner’s senior year and, if anyone could beat the juggernaut that was (and still is) UConn,  people were betting on Baylor. Baylor had routed most of the teams it faced in 2013, losing only to Stanford by two early in the season. The Lady Bears had a 33-1 record coming into the Sweet Sixteen game against Louisville in the Oklahoma City regional and were looking ahead to a match-up with Tennessee.

But Baylor hadn’t counted on Shoni Schimmel, the Cardinals gutsy Native American guard, who grew up playin Rez ball on the reservation of the  Confederated Tribes of Umatilla in Oregon. Shimmel was the first from her tribe to earn an athletic scholarship, and she fit right in with the run-and-gun style Coach Jeff Walz liked to play.

But it was her three-point shooting that helped Louisville take a 10-point lead at the half (along with their dogged double teams on Griner). Schimmel helped increase the lead to 19 points in the second half with another three-pointer and a highlight-reel drive from one end of the court to the other. The drive featured a behind the back dribble at halfcourt and a no-look, leaping, lay-up with her back turned to the basket and with Griner’s hand swatting at air. Schimmel fell to the floor but popped back up to face Griner underneath the basket. Teammates intervened and Schimmel made her free throw to make it 64-48.

Just how vital Schimmel was to the victory became apparent when she fouled out at the four-minute mark — after scoring 22 points. Baylor came clawing back and actually went ahead with nine seconds left. But two foul shots by Louisville sealed the one-point victory.

Louisville went on to beat Tennessee and California to set up its meeting with Connecticut in the championship game at the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Final Four in New Orleans. That the magic ended for the Cardinals that night (Connecticut won by 33), doesn’t diminish what the team accomplished.

Asia Durr led Louisville past the Lady Vols

Jeff Walz is in his 10th year with the Cardinals


This is Louisville Coach Jeff Walz’ seventh Sweet Sixteen in the 10 years he’s been coaching Louisville. It would be his team’s fourth trip to the Elite Eight if the Cardinals knocked off Baylor. Can they do it again? It might depend on the exploits of Louisville’s  5-10, sophomore guard Asia Durr, who writes with her right hand and shoots with her left. Durr, who had Baylor on her short list of schools to consider two years ago before choosing the Cardinals, is leading the team in scoring with 19 points a game. As tough to guard as Schimmel was, she can explode to the hoop off the dribble or pull up  beyond the arc where she’s shooting 40 percent on three-point shots. Ice cold in the first half against Tennessee, she heated up in the fourth quarter to lead Louisville to their 75-64 win in the round of 32. Durr ended up with 23 points.

Louisville’s Mariya Moore was a big factor against Tennessee

Louisville’s 6-0 junior Mariya Moore picked up the slack against Tennessee before Durr heated up. With Louisville trailing 47-46 entering the fourth, Moore scored eight points to get Louisville a lead that would last. She ended up with 19 points, seven more than her season average.

Meanwhile, Baylor’s potent offense has four players who routinely score in double figures:  Kristy Wallace , Alexis Prince, Nina Davis and 6-7 sophomore post Kalani Brown. Wallace and Prince scored 16 points each, leading Baylor to the Sweet 16 for the ninth year in a row after an 86-46 win over California on Monday night.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey is likely spending the week getting ready to defend Louisville’s rain of threes.  Three-pointers did the Lady Bears in two weeks ago against West Virginia in the Big-12 Championship game. The loss snapped the Lady Bears’ seven-game winning streak, but it might have been the wake-up call the Bears need to withstand another upset-minded Louisville team.

 

 

 

 

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Maine put on a show in the America East tournament in Portland

With seven rebounds and a block, Maine’s Blanca Millan (22) keyed the Black Bears’ defensive efforts last weekend.

Associate head coach Amy Vachon, a former Black Bears star, came up with the game plan that worked to perfection against UNH.

“Offense wins games…defense wins championships!”

That’s a cliche we’ve all heard, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Last weekend at the Cross Arena in Portland, Maine, women’s basketball fans saw the University of Maine deliver two virtuoso defensive performances in the America East Conference quarter and semifinals. With those victories over Binghamton on Saturday and number-one-seeded UNH on Sunday, the Maine Black Bears earned a trip to Albany this Friday to face the University of Albany. The winner gets an automatic bid to the 2017 Division I NCAA tournament.

Maine, which was seeded fourth, won both games at the Cross Arena by the sheer will of their defensive efforts. UNH had beaten Maine twice in the regular conference season on the strength of their inside game. UNH’s center, America East Player of the Year Carlie Pogue, had scored 19 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in the teams’ most recent meeting Feb. 15 in Bangor.  UNH ended up winning that contest 65-57.

In Portland on Saturday, Pogue continued to display her dominance against Stony Brook. She posted up inside at will and used her athleticism to cash in on a number of off-balance shots and put-backs. Her 23-point effort led UNH to a 58-49 win.

But in the other quarterfinal on Saturday, UMaine gave fans a preview of what smart, well-executed defense can do. The Black Bears shut down Binghamton’s go-to, all-star guard, Imani Watkins, who had been scoring 19 points a game. Maine held her to seven points and forced her into nine turnovers. The Black Bears won the game going away, 57-40.

It was obvious from the outset of Sunday’s semifinal match that UMaine coach Amy Vachon’s strategy would revolve around shutting down another all star. UNH was open from the opening tip-off for 3-point shots. But they could connect on only 6 of 28

UNH’s Carlie Pogue dominated Stony Brook on Saturday but had no open looks like this against UMaine on Sunday.

attempts. Pogue, meanwhile, was held to 11 field goal attempts, and was only successful on 4. Maine’s relentless match-up zone defense, a game plan Vachon had only introduced recently to her young team, thwarted the Wildcats’ efforts to get the ball inside. At least two of Pogue’s four baskets were on rebounds of other players’ outside shots. Only one of her baskets was an open look from inside the paint.

Maine also held UNH to nine assists and forced the Wildcats into 19 turnovers — an amazing feat considering that UNH had the best assist to turnover ratio in the America East Conference this year. (In their Feb. 15 meeting, UNH had 18 assists and 12 turnovers).

“Kudos to Maine. They had a great game plan,” said UNH Coach Maureen Magarity, whose team had only lost one conference game all year.

Can UMaine keep it up? We’ll find out Friday when they face the America East tournament’s second seed, the University of Albany, with which the Black Bears split their conference games this year. It’s a grudge match of sorts since Albany beat Maine last year in the championship game by one point. Albany isn’t the same team it was last year though. The Great Danes lost elite all-star Shereesha Richards to graduation. They hired a new head coach after Katie Abrahamson-Henderson moved on to Central Florida, taking her assistants and starting point guard Zakiya Saunders with her.

Senior guard Imani Tate is leading Albany with 19 points a game, but senior forward Bailey Hixson led the Great Danes in their two-point win over Hartford with a 22-point effort. When the Black Bears beat Albany in January, Imani Tate scored 32 points but the Black Bears pretty much shut down everyone else. A month later, Maine lost to Albany on Feb. 18, even though they held Tate to 8 points.  Four other Great Danes, including Maine native Tiana-Jo Carter, picked up the slack and scored in double figures.

Once again, the game, which is on ESPNU at 4:30 p.m., will likely come down to defensive strategy (and execution). The winner is likely to have to face the UConn Huskies in the opening round of the Bridgeport Regional bracket, but getting there is what it’s all about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!