NCAA Tournament lessons, unforgettable people and poignant moments

Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale reacts after her buzzer-beater shot falls at the end of the national championship game. Photo by Joe Maiorana, USA Today Sports.
Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale reacts after her buzzer-beater shot falls at the end of the national championship game. Photo by Joe Maiorana, USA Today Sports.

“That’s the end?”

Janet Jackson’s “Miss you much” end phrase echoed through my mind as the confetti rained down on Notre Dame Sunday, moments after Arike Ogunbowale iced the championship for them with her dagger shot.

I didn’t want the season to end, much less the NCAA Tournament. For the last three years, regular-season play and the big Dance have been getting better and better, with 2017-2018 the best one yet on both counts. Growing parity has become a fact of life, upsets fairly common, and no team taking another for granted is the norm. March Madness this year was truly mad, and it’s about time. No wonder many of us haven’t quite yet come back down to earth.

There were several facets of the Final Four, and the entire Tournament, that stood out. Let’s walk through them.

Notre Dame’s pursuit forward

After every player lost to an ACL tear, we waited for the wheels to fall off of the Notre Dame bus. When Louisville drubbed the Irish mid-January, we thought: they’re getting tired now. They responded by not losing again until almost two months later, in the ACC Tournament title game, by only two points. Now they are national champions.

How did Notre Dame do that, with only six players? Coach Muffet McGraw explained it in a press conference the day before the championship.

“We actually didn’t really talk about (the injuries) at all,” she said. “We just constantly focus on what we have, what we can do, who’s going to step up, how are the roles changing? What do you need to do now?”

“We never even talked about where we could be or what we should be thinking. We just kept focusing them on the future.”

That’s some evolved thinking right there – not just for sports, but for life in general. Why waste time mourning the past and what could have been, or complaining about how circumstances have changed things? Just go forward and embrace the new journey.

Spiritual wisdom at its best.

Mississippi State point guard takes a moment after her team's loss to the Irish. Photo by Aaron Doster, USA Today Sports.
Mississippi State point guard takes a moment after her team’s loss to the Irish. Photo by Aaron Doster, USA Today Sports.

Mississippi State = heart-stealers

The underdog Bulldogs stole many hearts last season, as they spent their first two months on the road redeeming themselves from a 60-point pounding by UConn in the previous spring’s Sweet 16. Morgan William, their 5-5 point guard, cemented the team’s legendary status by acing a buzzer-beater against those same Huskies in the national semifinal to send Mississippi State to their first title game appearance.

This year the Dawgs were no underdogs. William, Victoria Vivians, Blair Schaefer, Roshunda Johnson and newly-beastly Teaira McCowan ran through the powerful SEC like bulls in a china shop. They suffered only one regular-season loss, to South Carolina, in the conference tournament.

And somewhere along the way, they swept up any remaining hearts that they didn’t thief last season.

It happened somewhere between the swagger of William and Vivians; the work ethic of “don’t show me any favors because I’m the coach’s daughter” Schaefer; the incredible evolution of McCowan as a player; and the quiet force of Johnson.

Coach Vic Schaefer is just as lovable. His deep caring about his players is apparent in the way he interacts with them and speaks about them, and he considers his coaching staff like family. Hearing him end his last press conference of the season with his customary “praise the Lord, go Dawgs,” was a sad moment indeed.

Schaefer made it clear before the championship game that, win or lose, his seniors had revolutionized the program.

“I think their legacy is pretty well set,” he said. “If we win, to me it just adds another line to what they’ve brought. Because what they’ve done for Mississippi State and for women’s basketball, in particular, really has more to do with off the court than on. The impact they’ve had in our community, on our fan base, on our university, the pride that they have instilled in so many people across the country.”

New era for UConn?

In the 2015-2016 season, we began to see more parity across Division I. Two Pac-12 teams made it to the Final Four, but UConn routed Syracuse in the final for their fourth straight title. There was grumbling that “even though teams are getting better, the Huskies are still so far ahead.”

Cue last year’s semifinal upset. And despite their dominance this season, UConn fell in NCAA tourney round five for the second straight time. Azura Stevens declared for the WNBA draft Monday, and in ESPN’s “way too early” top 25 rankings for 2018-2019 yesterday, the Huskies are fourth.

Experts say it will be a rebuilding year for the team. Coach Geno Auriemma hinted at retirement two years ago, and last week he was quoted as saying that “winning national championships is exhausting.” He looks visibly tired, and who can fault him? Dealing with the pressure he has for two decades has got to be taxing.

But whatever happens, one thing is clear: the quality and level of play across Division I is accelerating. The game is truly growing. And the likelihood of any program dominating for a spell, like Tennessee and UConn did, is not that high anymore.

Welcome to the new world of women’s basketball.

New stars take the stage

There were plenty of programs that made their first appearance in the Tournament this year: Mercer, Buffalo, Northern Colorado and Seattle U, just to name a few. Some key juniors also emerged, to let us know that the future of the game is in good hands, including McCowan and the electric Asia Durr from Louisville.

Brightness ahead.

The game is full of exceptional women

In the Elite 8 at the Kansas City regional, Mississippi State outlasted my beat team, UCLA, for the right to advance to the Final Four. The buzzer sounded, the handshake line happened, and players began to walk off the court. I had just watched the legendary Bruin seniors play their last collegiate game, and I felt a lump in my throat.

Then I saw Kelli Hayes consoling freshman Lauryn Miller, who was in tears. And five feet away from her, Jordin Canada had her arm around junior Japreece Dean, also visibly upset.

The tears that were forming in my tear ducts dried up.

The women’s basketball community is pretty small, and many players have ties that cut across teams, conferences and other barriers. Athletes might have played against each other in club ball situations, they could know one another from USA Basketball teams, or a number of other scenarios. For the most part, players generally support one another.

I heard of more than a few instances of players from one team consoling those on a team they just beat, giving them reassuring words about the future; or those on a losing team congratulating their friends who had just beat them.

It’s things like that which restore my faith in the human race.

212 days until college season

As my father used to say, “it’s been fun at your party,” NCAA. Can’t wait to see what has grown and blossomed next year. What a time to be alive.

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