OKLAHOMA CITY---So here I was last night, making my broadcast preparations to call Tuesday night's national radio broadcast on the Dial Global/NCAA Radio Network, and I was certain that I would be broadcasting the game between the Baylor Lady Bears and the Tennessee Lady Vols. It would be a comfortable fit, since I've already called two Texas women's games vs. Baylor earlier this season and one vs. Tennessee. Easy, right ? Could do this one in my sleep.
What a wake-up call. Tennessee took care of business, beating Oklahoma, 74-59 in front of a partisan Sooner crowd at the Chesapeake Energy Arena--but Louisville obviously had other plans. The Cardinals shocked overall #1 seed and defending national champion Baylor, 82-81, just hours after the Louisville men's team defeated Duke to go to the Final Four. It was an emotional Cardinal men's team, which lost talented guard Kevin Ware to a horrifically-broken leg (trust me--if you haven't seen the video of the injury, don't watch it), and the Louisville women also garnered an emotional boost from the men's journey to win the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis.
The Cardinal women rode some white-hot three-point shooting (16-of-25 beyond the arc) to build a 19-point lead on the Lady Bears before Baylor made the type of run that all great teams do, erasing the deficit and taking a one-point lead with nine seconds to play. But this self-styled "team of destiny" (they all watched the 30-for-30 documentary on Jim Valvano's 1983 North Carolina State national champions) got a drive to the hoop from Monique Reed, who in turn was fouled by Baylor's all-world center, Brittney Griner. Reed, who had missed the front end of a one-and-one just seconds earlier, allowing Baylor to take its first lead of the game, calmly made both foul shots, and when Baylor's desperation half-court heave was both off the mark and after the buzzer, Louisville had pulled off what Cardinals' head coach Jeff Walz today referred to as "the greatest upset in women's college basketball history."
Was it ? Isn't the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament the one where you have one instance of a #16-seed beating a #1-seed (Harvard over Stanford, at Stanford in 1998) ? This was, after all, the Sweet 16, right ? And Louisville, which plays in the rugged Big East, was a #5-seed, which is hardly the type of pariing you'd call a matchup of David vs. Goliath.
But look a little closer, and you can see Walz' point. Baylor was a 25-point favorite; the Lady Bears had won each of their first two NCAA Tournament games by an average margin of 40 points. As the defending national champions sporting a 32-game winning streak and 74 of the last 75 in the win column, the Lady Bears were virtually everyone's pick to repeat as champs. Plus, Baylor had the best player in all of women's basketball in Griner, who had looked as completely unstoppable as the Lady Bears themselves. But the Cardinals supplemented their hot shooting with what they called a "Claw-and-1" physical defensive job on Griner, and never backed down.
Whether it's the greatest upset in women's college basketball is subject to debate. But Louisville's win over Baylor here last night was definitely one of the biggest. And if the Cardinals find a way to beat the perennial national power in Tennessee here tomorrow night, it will only add to the legend.
I know, I know. The main reason most Americans who don't like soccer don't like it is because there is not enough scoring. Americans like their points. Just take a look at all of the rules changes in the NFL, supposedly designed to protect players, when it actually protects offensive players, thereby enhancing the playmaking abilities of the skill position players and boosting scoring. Those who watch basketball and the majority of those who like the game like it because of the way it's now played--above the rim (there are a few of us who still appreciate effective defense and creative ball movement, but we're definitely in the minority). We were all acquainted the phrase "Chicks did the long ball" in the 90s when baseball's ruling class turned a blind eye to the steroid problem in order to have more run production; in effect, a more exciting game. (Again, there are those of us who really appreciate a great 2-1 pitchers' duel, but we get shouted down all the time by those who crave the high-scoring homer-infested slugging contests.)
But believe me, tonight's 0-0 draw with Mexico at Estadio Azteca was exciting, not only because of the importance of the draw, but because of the way it was played. The U.S. played the match much like some of the top teams in Europe and South America play--solid defense to set up offensive opportunities. True, the offensive opportunities were very few and very far between--the U.S. was outshot 17-1 by Mexico--but this was expected to be a mismatch. Given the problems the U.S. and coach Jurgen Klinsmann have had to deal with over the past few months, last weekend's snow-capped win over Costa Rica followed by this tie, only the second time in history the U.S. has been able to earn as much as a draw on the road in Mexico, seems to put the Americans back on track and headed for World Cup qualification. Tough defense made a difference. And it was exciting--no goals notwithstanding.
Despite my partner from The Sports Buffet, Rod Babers' claim that "Cinderella is a gold-digging skank", I'm really no different from other NCAA Basketball Tournament fans in saying I love it when the underdog teams pull off those shocking upsets during the first weekend of tournament play. Of course, if you're a fan (or a broadcaster) of one of those favored teams that are beaten at the start of the tournament, March Madness means something totally different--you're mad that your team lost to a supposedly inferior opponent.
But that's what makes the NCAA Tournament the crazy fan attaction it has become. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, it has opened the door to the major upsets we have seen throughout the years, and when we watch a current upset in progress, CBS and its partner networks have done an excellent job of reminding us of major tournament shockers like Richmond over Syracuse in 1991 and Hampton beating Iowa State in 2001. Both of those upsets involved 15th-seeded teams knocking off #2 seeds, and we saw it happen twice more last season with Norfolk State's stunner of Missouri and Lehigh's win over Duke. But in all prior cases of a 15-seed beating a #2 seed, it ended after that--until last night.
Florida Gulf Coast's win over second-seeded Georgetown was followed by a win last night over San Diego State. It was the first time in NCAA Tournament history that a #15 seed had advanced to the Sweet 16. Add to FGCU's surprising run to Cowboys Stadium (that's where the Eagles will face Florida on Friday night in the Sweet 16) the advance of 13th-seeded LaSalle to the West Region Semifinals on Thursday night (against #9 seed Wichita State, not exactly a major player on the college hoop scene), and you have a Cinderella's dream. There is even another double-digit seed still dancing, the Oregon Ducks, although the general perception there is that the Ducks were greatly underseeded at the start of the tournament and have since gone about the business of proving the tournament committee wrong.
History teaches us that Cinderellas usually become wallflowers once the first weekend has come and gone. But Butler in 2010 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 have demonstrated that it can happen even late in the tournament, and this tournament has already shown it has gone where no tournament has gone before.