Giving Stewart and her teammates their due

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Breanna Stewart has her eye on the ball as she prepares to grab one of her 14 rebounds.

When sophomore Gabby Williams front-rimmed a foul shot in the third quarter of the UConn-Mississppi State regional semifinal Saturday, the crowd gasped. It was an indication of just how perfect the Huskies had been that an errant free throw would seem so out of place. On Saturday, UConn could do no wrong in its regional semifinal game in Bridgeport. Every time Mississippi State tried to take it to the hoop, Breanna Stewart had been there to block or alter the shot. Time after time, Moriah Jefferson and her Huskies teammates had tipped  Mississippi dribble drives and converted them into fast-break points. At the half, the Huskies were up by an amazing, 61-12. At the end of three (after we’d seen the last of the UConn starters), the score was 84-20.

No one doubted that UConn would beat Mississippi State. But the Bulldogs had the stingiest defense in DI women’s basketball this year. Only one team had scored 70 points against them all season (and the Bulldogs had won that game by six points). But Mississippi State seemed powerless to stop the Huskies. In the post-game press conference, Vic Schaefer, the Mississippi State coach, said his team had played horribly, and yet he praised them for their courage in continuing to play their hearts out in such a lopsided affair. “It felt like we were playing a WNBA team,” said Schaefer. “You’ve got to give them their due.”

The 2016 Huskies have won 72 in a row and the margin of victory has averaged more than 30 points. Only one team has held them to less than 70 points — South Carolina, which lost to Syracuse Friday night.  Only one team has scored more than 70 points against them — Notre Dame, which lost to Stanford Friday.

In answer to a question about the Huskies’ place in history, Schaefer said their record — if they four-peat in Indianapolis next weekend — would easily make them the best team in history because of the increased parity in the women’s game. “When John Wooden’s teams were winning all those games, there wasn’t the parity there is today,” he said.

Schaefer’s remarks run counter to the grudging respect most women’s basketball fans pay the Huskies.  (Not to mention the misogynistic naysayers who declare that UConn is ruining the game). Many women’s basketball fans bemoan the team’s incredible dominance and the lopsided nature of the games they play. Even the biggest UConn fans at the game, the season-ticket holders all decked out in their Husky navy blue, admit that they wish the games were more competitive. “I feel sorry for the other teams,” said Sara Foster, who was there with her family from nearby Trumbull, CT.

But to be in Bridgeport and to watch how a Huskies’ win unfolds  is to come away with a newfound appreciation for the artistry this team displays and the incredible confidence they have in themselves and each other.  Time after time after time, mistakes against UConn turned into fast-break baskets at the other end. And those fast breaks were textbook things of beauty — usually ending with the wing being rewarded with the ball after two passes down the court found her open and in position for the easy score. Mississippi State is a young team and it didn’t take long for them to get that deer in the headlights look when they brought the ball up the court.

“They are like piranhas at a roast,” said Schaefer. “You can’t get that bone out of there fast enough.”

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Stewart and the Huskies do everything with intensity

Occasionally this season, the Huskies have come out of the gate a little more slowly, feeling their way, which sometimes allowed the other team to gain a little momentum and actually hang around — scorewise — until halftime. But Breanna Stewart admitted that the team was determined to start strong and keep the pedal on the floor the whole way Saturday. They’d watched South Carolina and Notre Dame, the number one seeds on the other side of the bracket, be upset by lower seeds the night before.

“We weren’t going to let that happen to us,” Stewart said.

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Stewart checks back in for a brief second half appearance Saturday.

Stewart made sure of that. She started the scoring with a long three and ended up with 22 points on 80 percent shooting. She controlled the defensive boards with 14 rebounds and five blocked shots and a steal in just 25 minutes of play.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Schaefer. “It’s a challenge. That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams have.”

Schaefer had seen plenty of film of Stewart. But watching her on film or on TV gives viewers but a glimpse of her many talents. Seeing her up close, and watching her away from the ball, reminded me of the first time I saw Bobby Orr play in person at the old Boston Garden. Being quick, being smart, and being strong leads to being in the right place time after time.

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Geno Auriemma muses about life after Stewart.

Stewart’s hardly doing it alone. While she will be far and away the top pick in the WNBA draft this spring,  teammates Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck (if Tuck, a red-shirted junior, decides to declare for the draft) will also be selected early in the first round of the draft. Still, Stewart is making a strong case for being the best Husky ever. Geno Auriemma gets a little choked up when he talks about his 6-4 forward. She has three games left in her college career “knock on wood,” Geno says, and he is making sure to appreciate every moment.

“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 in the postgame press conference. “Now, again, I said that when Diana graduated, when Maya graduated, but I don’t see anybody like Stewie coming along anywhere in the near future….”

The “knock on wood” part starts Monday  in the Bridgeport final against Texas, which staged a strong comeback after being down by 10 to defeat UCLA in the second regional semifinal Saturday. Led by 6-7 senior Imani Boyette, Texas is tall and capable of dominating the glass. Geno Auriemma says he approaches every game with the same fear: “What if the shots don’t go in today.”

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Jefferson and Stewart rode the bench most of the second half, and the Huskies still beat Mississippi State by 60.

For a team on a 72-game win streak, the end has to come sometime. But with Breanna Stewart leading the way, no one’s betting on anyone stopping the UConn  juggernaut this season.

“I know I shouldn’t do this, ” Geno said. “But every time she plays the way she played today, there’s a point in time during the game when I go, ‘Wow, man, this ain’t going to happen next year.  All these shots that are getting blocked, they’re going in next year. All these buckets that we’re making, they’re not going to happen next year…So, I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to appreciate it. I’m appreciating it right now as it happens.”

 

 

 

 

An upset that (in retrospect) made perfect sense

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Coach Doug Bruno on the sidelines during a Big East game. Chicago Tribune photo.

When sixth-seed DePaul defeated third-seed Louisville Sunday afternoon in Louisville, the win was dubbed an upset because the Cardinals were the home team (and the higher seed). The fact that the Blue Demons had to hang on for the one-point win (after seeing its 9-point third-quarter lead dissipate in the last quarter)  added to the feeling that what DePaul accomplished was somewhat of a miracle.

But if you dig a little deeper, you find that DePaul is a team that knows how to win on the road. They’ve won 11 straight road games this season and very well could  have been seeded higher by virtue of their performance against three number-one seeds this year.  Though they lost to Connecticut, Baylor, and Notre Dame, the average margin of victory was only 11 points, and DePaul averaged 77 points against those three stingy teams. Coach Doug Bruno put together what he termed a “murderer’s row schedule” to help prepare for tournament time, and it is paying dividends.

The Blue Demons are a high-octane offense that scores points in bunches. Their defense isn’t shabby either. On Sunday, DePaul kept ahead of Louisville and held off the Cardinals’ inevitable run by showing lots of poise and confidence on the offensive end, and by grabbing defensive rebounds when they counted.

“We have a system that knows how to slice and dice good defensive teams,” said DePaul coach Dough Bruno earlier in the season. “But you have to keep the ball moving.”

Junior guard Jessica January scored 18 of her season-high 25 points in the first half. (She averaged 13.6 points per game during the regular season). Her final point on the second of two free throws with less than 15 seconds to play was the margin of victory.  The 5-7 junior guard also had five assists and a team-high eight rebounds.

“I thought she was the difference in the ball game, especially in the first half,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz. “She’s the one that really put pressure on us, and she made some tough shots.”

January is the kind of player Bruno loves to coach. He has won more than 600 games with DePaul in the last 30 years and hasn’t changed his style of coaching a whole lot in that time. He explains that DePaul doesn’t get a lot of “high-powered post players” so he continues to recruit guards that can shoot the 3, dribble-drive, and dish the ball.  His guards and forwards are relentless in spacing the floor, working the give and go, and finding the open player.

This is Bruno’s fourth Sweet Sixteen in his 30-year career as DePaul’s coach, the third since 2011. To get to each of those recent Sweet Sixteens, DePaul defeated the higher seed on that team’s home court in the second round.

Bruno has never won in the round of 16. DePaul lost to LSU in 2006, Duke in 2011, and Texas A&M in 2014. This year’s opponent will be second-seeded Oregon State, which has had a pretty easy road to the Dallas regional. But Oregon State will be playing a team of road warriors when they face off next weekend. And this time, the crowd might be cheering for the underdogs.

 

 

 

A match made in matchmaker heaven

Jennifer Azzi, right, congratulated her old coach, Tara VanDerveer on the occasion of VanDerveer’s 800th career win in 2010. San Jose Mercury News photo.

It’s a match-up that the women’s basketball gods couldn’t resist. When the University of San Francisco made it to their first NCAA tournament by shocking Brigham Young University in the West Coast Conference championship game last week 60-58, the chance to pit Coach Jennifer Azzi’s Dons against Stanford became possible. San Francisco will face off against Stanford University Saturday night at Stanford, and Azzi, who graduated from Stanford in 1990, will be looking to upset her former coach and mentor, Tara VanDerveer.

The Cardinal comes into the tournament seeded fourth in the Lexington Region by virtue of its third place finish in the Pac-12 this year and an overall record of 24-7. San Francisco, meanwhile, has had its best year yet in Azzi’s sixth year at the helm. Despite the team’s 21-11 record, its impressive run in the WCC tournament, where the Dons knocked off the third, second, and first-place regular season finishers, earned it a 13th seed in the Lexington Region.

VanDerveer isn’t surprised that her former point guard, who led Stanford to its first-ever national championship in 1990, has rebuilt the moribund San Francisco program into a winner. “She’s fearless. And she always has been,” VanDerveer told ESPN.com in 2012. “She knows what it takes to build a program from the ground up because we did it here when she came to Stanford.”

Azzi’s career at Stanford was everything VanDerveer had hoped it would be when she practically stole the Oak Ridge, Tennessee high school star out from under Pat Summitt’s nose in 1986.  At the time, Stanford was a losing program and Tennessee was on its way to winning its first NCAA championship. VanDerveer convinced Azzi to come to the West Coast and buy into her vision for building a winner. It was a vision based more on recruiting the best, team-oriented players with talent, as opposed to recruiting talented players with the hope of molding them into a team.

A four-year starter at Stanford from 1987-90, Azzi became the first Cardinal women’s basketball player to earn the Wade Trophy, the James Naismith Player of the Year award, and the Honda-Broderick National Player of the Year honor. She was Stanford’s first WBCA/Kodak All-American as a junior in 1989, and she earned the award a second time as a senior in 1990. She finished her career at Stanford with 1,634 career points (eighth), 13.4 points per game (tied for ninth), 191 3-pointers made (seventh) and departed as the Cardinal’s all-time leader in career assists (751) and steals (271). In the 1990 National championship game against Auburn, played in Knoxville, Azzi was held scoreless in the first half but took over after halftime to lead Stanford to a 9-point win. Azzi was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

Azzi played for VanDerveer again and earned a gold medal as a member of the 1996 Olympic team (which will be honored at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony this June). She was a founding member of the American Basketball League’s San Jose Lasers team in 1996 and she also played four seasons in the WNBA.

As a coach, Azzi is committed to creating the kind of vision for her players that she bought into as a Cardinal 30 years ago. Katy Steding, who played with Azzi at Stanford and now coaches at Boston University, (after two years as Azzi’s assistant) believes Azzi is a successful coach because she looks for “kids who work as hard as she did….And she’s finding them.”

Whether those hard-working kids can pull an upset against Stanford remains to be seen. But for Azzi, it’s  another rung on the ladder in the process of building a winning program. And in showing her kids how much fun winning can be.

 

 

 

Black Bears on the brink of an NCAA bid?

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UMaine’s Sigi Koizar drives against Albany during a regular season game.

The University of Maine Black Bear women haven’t been to the NCAA Division I tournament since Cindy Blodgett and Jamie Cassidy were roaming the court for Maine in the late 1990s. But Maine has a great shot at getting an automatic bid by virtue of its stellar play in America East this year. The Black Bears’ only conference loss this year came at the hands of the University of Albany, with which Maine shares the America East regular season conference title. Overall, the Black Bears are 26-7 and are riding a 14-game win streak after they hung on for a 51-48 win against Stony Brook in the conference tournament semifinals on Sunday.

Of course there is one more obstacle to overcome before the Black Bears can earn that NCAA bid: a rubber match with the University of Albany next weekend in the America East conference championship game.

Against Albany, Maine lost the first meeting Jan. 16, 64-59, as Albany 6-1 senior Shareesha Richards scored 34 points to single-handedly beat the Black Bears. The second time they met, in Maine on Feb. 14, the Black Bears’ stingy defense held Richards to 8 points, as Maine prevailed 65-53. To put this turn-around in perspective, Richards, who grew up playing netball in her native Jamaica, has been considered the best player in the entire America East conference since she was a sophomore and is projected to be selected late in the first round or early in the second round of the WNBA draft.

Meanwhile, offensive rebounding and lock-down defense have carried Maine to this America East tournament final. They’ve held opponents to under 50 points per game, which is 4th in the NCAA this year.

A case in point was the past weekend’s quarterfinal win over the University of New Hampshire Lady Wildcats, 58-47. New Hampshire was 16-20 this year and has a team made up mainly of underclassmen. But Maine and New Hampshire are neighboring states and the two teams are arch rivals. Games between the two are often hard-fought affairs settled by single-digit margins, no matter the overall records of the teams.

UNH senior star Elizabeth Belanger kept the Wildcats within 3 to 6 points of Maine for most of the game (with 24 points off an assortment of pull-up jumpers and off-balance leaner’s). But time after time Maine’s defense limited the Wildcats to a single shot – and on several occasions those single shots were desperation throws with the shot clock winding down.

As for its offense, Maine’s super-senior Liz Wood, an America East all conference second team selection, added a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. She also added 4 steals to her regular season total of 78, which is 21st in the nation this year.

Maine’s junior guard, Sigi Koizar, an America East all conference first team selection, offset Belanger’s scoring with 23 points on 50 percent shooting. She also dished out 4 assists.

Koizar is to this Maine team what Cindy Blodgett was to her NCAA-bound teams in the 1990s: the go-to player that can make things happen with an outside shot or a drive and dish to an open teammate. A native of Vienna, Austria, Koizar is one of eight international students on the UMaine team. Coach Richard Barron made the decision to rebuild the team with overseas talent when he took over for Coach Cindy Blodgett after she was fired as Maine’s head coach in 2011. Only two of this year’s team members hail from Maine. The European countries represented on the squad this year are Austria, England, Serbia, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Italy, and Germany.

Out of necessity, the Black Bears have learned how to communicate both on and off the court. The team took a trip to Italy last offseason, a bonding experience that has obviously paid off. They’d love to take at least one more trip together this season – this time to one of the sites of the NCAA Division I regional opening rounds on March 18.

 

 

 

Rachel Banham opening lots of eyes

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You can watch Rachel Banham play against Maryland Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. on ESPN2.

Rachel Banham is the University of Minnesota super senior who has been raining three-pointers down on her opponents from way beyond the arc all season long. She’s been averaging 27.5 points a game this season, but didn’t really catch the women’s basketball world’s attention until her 60-point performance in double overtime keyed Minnesota’s 112-106 win over Northwestern Feb. 7. She followed that up with a 52-point game (in a losing effort) against Michigan State a few days later. This week, her 35 points helped the Gophers upset no. 5 Ohio State in overtime, though she fouled out before the overtime.

Following up those performances, WNBA star Elena Delle Donna praised Banham for her shooting prowess, (she shoots more than 40 percent from the three-point arc) especially given the fact that she’s not even 6-feet tall.
“I’ve relied on my height many times; when in doubt, I could often elevate and shoot over people,” Delle Donne told ESPN’s Mechell Voepel. “So Rachel has to have a different craftiness to her game to get through double- and triple-teams. That’s what’s really impressive about her.”

Kobe Bryant also weighed in on Banham’s game after she tweeted him on a lark, asking what he thought of her 60-point night. In his congratulatory tweet, he predicted she’d score 60 again. When asked by reporters the next day about his Twitter exchange with Banham, he praised her ability to create her own shot despite defenses keying in on her.

The sad thing is that, as exciting as she is, Banham won’t be able to showcase her game during the NCAA tournament, simply because Minnesota isn’t likely to make the tournament. The Gophers’ RPI ranking, which the NCAA uses to determine which “at-large” teams make it into the round of 64, puts Minnesota at #70 (though their win over the Buckeyes will move them up a few places, and a win against Maryland Sunday would as well). The RPI is calculated based on wins and losses at home and on the road, as well as the strength of a team’s and its opponents’ schedules. The only way Minnesota could assure itself a spot in the tournament is by winning its conference. (That’s why a team like Montana State will get its ticket punched, even though its RPI is 163). But Minnesota is fourth in the Big 10, behind Maryland, Michigan State and Ohio State, so the Gophers appear to be running out of time to earn an automatic bid.

Whether the Gophers make it to the big dance or not, Banham’s accomplishments will likely get a bigger showcase in the WNBA. Because of her recent success, (not to mention the shout-outs from Delle Donna and  Bryant), her stock is rising in the WNBA draft, which takes place on April 14 at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.  One mock draft prognosticator has moved her up to number 3, behind UConn’s Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, and right in front of UConn’s Morgan Tuck. The WNBA’s Connecticut Sun have the third and the fourth picks, and the Sun could certainly use a scorer.

Will Banham make an impact in the WNBA? Or will she be a marginal success like other collegiate super shooters such as Jackie Stiles and Cindy Blodgett? To be fair, Stiles, who scored more than 3,000 points for Missouri State University, was actually the WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2002, but her career was cut short by injury. Blodgett, a UMaine grad, was drafted #6 in 1996, but she had difficulty mixing it up against bigger, taller guards during her four seasons in the WNBA.

Banham is only 5-9, but she may be more of a complete player than most traditional scoring machines. During her junior year, which was cut short by an ACL tear, WNBA scouts were citing her “combo guard skills,” her leadership ability and her assists to turnover stats as evidence that she is far from a one-dimensional player. Bonham did not play last year as she recovered from her ACL tear, but she has come back stronger than ever.

So for now, we’ll have to settle for YouTube highlights and a few appearances on ESPN2 between now and the end of the regular season. But it will be fun to see Banham test her mettle in the WNBA beginning next May.

Reconnecting with Wildcat alumnae

When Allen Lessels was my sports editor at the Portland Press Herald many years ago, he was always challenging me to do stories outside my comfort zone. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have called the Boston Celtics up in 1982 and asked for an interview with Red Auerbach. I certainly wouldn’t have been as persistent about getting Joan Benoit Samuelson to talk to me a week before she left for the Olympic Trials in 1984.

So when Allen emailed me and said, “you’d better bring your sneakers to the UNH Women’s Alumni Day,” I only hesitated for a few minutes before I found myself typing a reply that said:  “OK, I’ll play.”

Allen, who covers UNH sports these days, had heard that I’d declined the invitation to play when assistant UNH coach Kelsey Hogan invited people via email a few weeks earlier. I told Kelsey I’d be there for lunch and would attend the UNH women’s game that afternoon, but that I couldn’t play in the alumnae game that morning. Although I play 3-3 half court basketball twice a week, the last time I ventured south to connect with other basketball alumnae was probably 8-10 years ago. I hadn’t run full court, except for an occasional layup drill with my high school freshmen, for several years. I had visions of me gasping for air after two times down the court. The thought of going up against women who’d graduated from college only 2-3 years ago also seemed a little silly, if not downright dangerous.

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Tip off at the Alumni Day game. It was great to be on the floor of Lundholm Gynmasium again!

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Tip off at the Alumni Day game. It was great to be on the floor of Lundholm Gynmasium again!

 

I ended up more than happy that I played. I connected with some older alumnae from the early ’80s (whom I’d gotten to know the year I taught at UNH). And I guess you could say I held my own in the game (though I was grateful for my help-side defenders on more than one occasion).

The highlight of the day, though, was meeting a woman who played ball at UNH in 1949 (no, she didn’t play in the alumnae game). Phyllis Martin, from Newport, NH, majored in physical education and until a couple of years ago was still skiing down Mt. Sunapee near her hometown. She still rides her bike every day and remembers clearly the games she played at New Hampshire Hall way back when.

According to Kelsey Hogan, this year’s Alumni Day garnered the largest turnout ever (more than 30 women came for some or all of the day). That Phyllis and I were two of them is a testament to the bond that playing basketball creates among women of all ages. It’s a bond that keeps us coming back, even if we need a little  push out of our comfort zones.

 

 

 

PAC-12 proving to be fun to watch

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Junior Sophie Brunner

CbOFlW7UcAAZmUXWhile UConn continues to beat up on East Coast teams, the PAC-12 is proving to be the place where women’s college basketball games are routinely fun to watch.  Case in point was Sunday night’s battle between Arizona State and Stanford. The Sun Devils, ranked 9th overall, won the game in overtime, 63-61, on a buzzer beater by junior Sophie Brunner.

The Sun Devils hung on in the fourth quarter as they saw a 17-point lead evaporate. Their survival is a testament to their toughness inside. With Brunner, the ESPN player of the week in mid-January, anchoring the defense, Arizona State outrebounded Stanford 47-30.

But Stanford is anchored by a great junior class, which seems to be coming of age before our eyes. When the fourth quarter began, the Cardinal was losing by a healthy margin, 49-36. It looked like a repeat of Stanford’s 49-31 loss to Arizona State in early January.

Juniors Erica McCall, Briana Roberson, and Karli Samuelson  apparently missed that memo. McCall is the little sister of Phoenix Mercury starter Dewanna Bonner, and she was heavily recruited by UConn as a high school senior. She scored 18 of her 22 points in the second half and rejected four shots to help Stanford get back into it.  Roberson hit back to back threes late in the fourth quarter when Stanford went on a 13-2 run. The Cardinal got its first lead of the game, 55-54, and closed out regulation with a 3-pointer by Samuelson, who had another one in overtime and four overall.

The overtime went back and forth, where Stanford was hurt by two missed free throws. It came down to the final seconds, and the 6-1 Brunner, who played a lot of center last year, planted herself squarely in the middle of the key, asking for the ball. Somehow, senior point guard Elisha Davis bounced a pass between defenders. Brunner scooped it up, turned, and shot a fade-away jumper as time expired for the win.

“That’s her money shot,” said AZ coach Charlie Turner-Thorne.

“I don’t know how (Elisha) made that pass,” said Brunner after the game. “Kudos to her.”

The win helped Arizona State keep pace with Oregon State, ranked #8, atop the PAC-12 standings. Stanford has four losses in the PAC-12 and likely has no shot at a conference title. But the Cardinal is ranked #13 overall and their comeback proved they are still a team to be reckoned with … and a PAC-12 team that is still a lot of fun to watch.