#Hailstate!! (and giving Stewie her due again)

It was late in the third quarter and it looked like Connecticut may have righted the ship against Mississippi State. Its defensive intensity had picked up and the Huskies’ zone defense was forcing the Bulldogs to hang onto the ball too long, unable to get an open look from the outside, or to get the ball inside to their 6-7 center, Teaira McCowan. The predominantly Huskies crowd — that had watched UConn go down by 16 in the first quarter but then outscore Mississippi State in the third –was hopeful.

ESPN video capture

But then Mississippi State’s unflappable point guard Morgan William found the equally unflappable Victoria Vivians in the corner as the shot clock wound down. The money ball went into the net and restored the Bulldogs’ slim lead. The ESPN camera cut to UConn grads Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck in the stands and caught

Stewart slapping her knees in frustration and looking around as if to say, “This shouldn’t be happening.” But it was happening — and there was nothing Stewie could do about it.

You know by now that the game went into OT, where William hit the shot heard round the basketball world to win the game as the buzzer went off. Pundits are calling it the biggest win in women’s basketball ever! And certainly, the revenge was sweet. Having lost last year to UConn by 60 in the Bridgeport regional Sweet Sixteen game, Mississippi State  provided the unequivocally perfect end to UConn’s 111-game win streak.

After last year’s humiliating loss, Mississippi coach Vic Schaefer had said of UConn, “They are like piranhas at a roast. You can’t get that bone out of there fast enough.” But it was principally Breanna Stewart he was talking about.

Breanna Stewart has her eye on the ball in last year’s rout of Mississippi State

“It’s a nightmare,” Schaefer said about trying to stop Stewart. “It’s a challenge. That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams have.”

Breanna Stewart ended her Huskies career last April by leading UConn to its fourth championship in a row. She was the Final Four MVP in each of her four years at Connecticut. She finished her Huskies run on a 75-game winning streak, but even before her college career ended, Geno Auriemma began contemplating the end of UConn’s streak.

“Right now at this point in time, everything that she does, it hits me a little bit harder because I know I’m never going to see this again,” he said after the rout of Mississippi State last March.

That Connecticut won 36 more games without Stewart is a testament to Auriemma’s ability to get the most out of a young, mostly untested team that he admitted didn’t really have an identity.

To their credit, UConn rallied from a 16-point deficit, its biggest during its NCAA record streak, to take a 59-56 lead in the fourth quarter. And yes, UConn junior Gabby Williams came up big, with a (Stewie-esque) block with the score tied to send the game into overtime. But she and her teammates fumbled and stumbled, missed key free throws, and made bad decisions with the ball as the clock wound down, especially in overtime. They were ripe for this upset because they were, in many ways, rudderless.

When William (aka”itty bitty”) hit her shot to win the game for Mississippi 66-64, all Geno could do was smile. I half expected him to look up into the stands to catch Stewart’s eye.

I’m not saying the Huskies can’t win any more championships. The UConn players will be watching the tape of this game a few times before next season starts, I’m sure.  Duke’s 6-6 center, Azura Stevens, who sat out this year after transferring to UConn, (and would have been a big help last night) also will be on the court next year. By all accounts they have one of the best recruiting classes they’ve had, well, since they recruited Stewart.

South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson, left, will be going up against Mississippi State’s 6-7 center on Sunday night for the national championship.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State will be hoping to knock off their third number one seed Sunday night in the National Championship game against South Carolina. It’s a rematch between two powerful Southeastern Conference teams. Though South Carolina won their two meetings during the regular season, the outcome is by no means assured. I’m guessing  lots of people will tune in just to see who the first winner of the post-UConn-juggernaut-era will be.  I know some fans (including me) who didn’t go to Dallas this year because they couldn’t see spending that much money to watch another blowout.  Now that the sea has parted, (or until UConn figures out how to replace Stewie), it’s going to be fun to see what parity might mean for the women’s game.

RIP Eckie Jordan

Eckie, on the right, was a sure-shot and a playmaker. She also played hard-nosed defense.

When 5-2 Eckie Jordan walked in for her tryout with Hanes Hosiery’s women’s basketball team, back in 1948, the coaches were a bit underwhelmed. But once she started playing, they realized why she’d come so highly recommended. Yes, she was short, but she was quick, and tough, and a sure shot from the outside.

In the next five years, Eckie was the playmaker for the Hanes Hosiery Mills Girls Team. In that time, they won three AAU national titles, which included a 102-game win streak. She was a perennial all-star and team MVP, despite the presence of other talented (and taller) players on the team.

Eckie Jordan, right, with her best friend and teammate, Eunies Futch.


Jordan passed away last Saturday at the age of 91 after several years of failing health. At a service held in her honor Tuesday  morning in her home town of Pelzer, South Carolina, her family displayed many of the photographs, programs, medals, and trophies she’d earned during her playing days.  Included in the collection were the uniform she wore and the medals she won at the Pan Am Games in Mexico City in 1955. It was the first time women had been allowed to play basketball at this international tournament and Eckie was one of the AAU amateur all-stars selected to play on the team.(Her best friend and teammate, Eunies Futch, was also selected.

Back in 1999, when I interviewed Eckie for my first basketball book, she described how thrilled she was to march into the stadium, a representative of the country she loved and the sport that had been her passion since she was a little girl. The U.S. won that round-robin tournament with a record of  8-0. After two close games against Brazil and Mexico, the U.S. team found its footing and won the rest of its game by margins of 20 or more.

The U.S. team that competed in the Pan Am Games in 1955. That’s Eckie on the right, in the front row.

Hanes had disbanded its company team the year before (breaking the hearts of Eckie and the other women who lived and worked to play), so that made the Pan Am Games the capstone of Eckie’s long and storied basketball career.

“It still gives me the chills,” Eckie recalled in 1999. “There were 100,000 people cheering in the stands. It was a wonderful feeling to know you were representing your country.”


I called Eckie two years ago in hopes of interviewing her again for my most recent book. Sadly, she wasn’t well enough to come to the phone, but she did give me permission to use the family photos you see here.

While I’m sorry I never got to meet Eckie in person, I’m glad I got to know her story. She truly was the epitome of the women of her era who endured much and traveled long distances to “find a way to play.”



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.





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


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.


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.”


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