Early in the 1981-1982 college basketball season, my father began taking me to Oregon women’s basketball games. He was trying to find a way to encourage and inspire me.
A short time before that, one of my 14-year-old classmates had shot herself to death in a phone booth one night about a half mile from our school. To say that it rocked the student body, the city, and myself, is a grave understatement. I don’t know how my dad got the idea to attend Duck games, but he knew me well, and he must have known on some level that this would be the remedy.
Women’s basketball was still in its infancy, but in sport-crazy Eugene, it was already big time. The same kind of men’s hoops crowds that earned the name “deranged idiots” from sportscasters in the 1970’s showed up in the late 70’s-early 80’s to cheer on Bev Smith and Alison Lang – two Canadian ballers who came to the University and became superstars.
Lang was a tall, lanky center whose long arms would reach up and grab rebound after rebound. Smith was an electric forward who seemed to find endless ways to score. Both were a formidable duo for opponents, and in 1981-82, they set courts on fire.
Every home game in Mac Court that year was packed full of noisy fans, who had watched their team go 20-3 by the time the regular season ended. I hung on to every play, every post move by Lang and every slashing cut by Smith. In every game, they showed me what I’d always wanted to see: what a strong, athletic woman looked like. I was in ball player love.
Senior day for Smith was insane. Her teammates had all made banners with well wishes for her, which hung from the ceiling. Lang, a junior, signed hers “love, Big Al.” The crowd’s screams were at a fever pitch, and I remember looking around in wonder – and joy – at this spectacle. It was the first time I’d seen an arena go nuts for a woman.
The Ducks were selected as one of 32 teams to participate in the first NCAA Tournament for women that spring. Their first round game was at home, against Missouri, on Saturday, March 13, 1982.
The Tigers were seeded slightly higher, but everyone knew the game would be pretty even – and it was. Missouri barely pulled it out, 59-53. Smith was pictured in the paper the next morning on the bench, her head in her hands. And although I was sad the season was over, something had taken root within me.
That Sunday I went running. The same week, I started messing around with weights again, to get stronger. I watched the Tournament all the way to the end, and sat hypnotized during the Championship game as this woman with the long braid for Louisiana Tech led the charge in dismantling Cheyney State, 76-62.
And so, the hoopaholism began. (As did my own personal athleticism, which continues to this day). The basketball addiction has never stopped.
Before he passed, I was happy to tell my dad what a difference he made in my life, and thanked him for taking me to those games. I have thanked Bev Smith. And whenever I get a chance, I tell the parents of girls to take their daughter to a game. You never know the impact it might have…..or the writing careers it might create.
So here’s to (at least) another 37 years of hoopaholism. Looking forward to seeing what the game will look like in 2056.
The Atlanta Tip-off Club announced the ten semifinalists for the Naismith Player of the Year award last week. The committee will cut the field to four finalists on March 22, the first day of NCAA Tournament play. The winner will be chosen between the days of the Final Four.
WomensHoopsWorld presents a statistical comparison of the players. A brief consideration of those numbers shows why this year’s Naismith, like this year’s Tournament, is a wide-open contest. The candidates, alphabetically, are:
Kristine Anigwe, 6-4 senior C/F, University of California, Pac-12
Anigwe completed her 30th consecutive double-double last week by scoring 32 points and grabbing 30 rebounds in a win over Washington State. It was the first 30-30 game since 2002. The athletic Anigwe is an active center, resembling Candace Parker rather than Ruth Riley. She may be the least known member of this group, largely because her Cal Bears, at 18-11 on the year, are not ranked. Anigwe leads the nation in rebounds per game with 16.4. She is second among the ten semifinalists in points per game at 23.1. She was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year this week.
Brown is a presence in the paint that propels Baylor to be the best defense among ranked teams this year. While not a major shot-blocker like Alanna Smith or Teaira McCowan, she is a prolific shot-changer, and the backbone of the Bear defense. Her offensive stats are down from her first-team All-American year in 2018, in both scoring (20.1 to 15.4) and rebounding (10.2 to 8.1), but that is partly because her teammates are so much improved over last season. She is a two-time WBCA All-American, and was named to the Big-12 All-Defensive Team in 2017.
Napheesa Collier, 6-2 senior F, University of Connecticut, AAC
Collier is the consistent rock for UConn’s offense. Her lowest point total on the year was 12 (twice) and she has had 10 or more rebounds in sixteen games. She plays quicker than most big post players, and moves extremely well without the ball. She ranks among the centers on our list of ten in blocks, and has by far the most steals (43) of the shot-blockers. Her consistent excellence and quiet demeanor has kept her out of the spotlight, though she is the best player on her team. She lacks the killer instinct that elevates several of the players on our list, and might have made the difference in the last two Final Fours. She is a 2017 AP and WBCA All-American.
Asia Durr, 5-10 senior G, University of Louisville, ACC
Durr has taken nearly twice as many shots as any of her teammates, though she also plays the most minutes on the team. Durr can be counted on to want the ball for crucial shots, and has the skills to take over a game when her team needs that. She cannot be guarded one-on-one, and can score from anywhere on the court. Her 44 steals are second on our list of players. She was a 2018 unanimous All-American, and repeated as ACC Player of the Year.
Megan Gustafson, 6-3 senior C, University of Iowa, Big Ten
Gustafson has led the nation the last two years in points per game and field goal percentage. She is the prototypical back-to-the-basket center, with dominant strength and positioning in the block, and an ability to score from all angles. She once scored 35 points without dribbling the ball once. She has missed a double-double just twice this season, and has averaged a double-double since sophomore year. She was named Big Ten Player of the Year.
Sabrina Ionescu, 5-11 junior G, University of Oregon, Pac-12
Ionescu is best known for crushing the NCAA triple-double record, now at 17. The only junior on this list, she won the Nancy Lieberman Award for best point guard in 2018 as a sophomore, and was a unanimous first team All-American as well. The unquestioned leader of a surging Oregon team, Ionescu’s court awareness may be the best in the nation. Her ability to score nearly 20 points while averaging 8.1 assists (third nationally) attests to her versatility. She repeated as Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Teaira McCowan, 6-7 senior C, Mississippi State University, SEC
McCowan has a rare combination of size and agility that has made her into a force at both ends of the floor. She stands out in this group for her defense, as much as the double-double she has averaged on offense the last two years. She won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award in 2018 and was a WBCA All-American. McCowan won both SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Arike Ogunbowale, 5-9 senior G, University of Notre Dame, ACC
Ogunbowale became the face of women’s basketball by sinking two buzzer-beating shots in last year’s Final Four, shots which beat UConn and Mississippi State for Notre Dame’s second national championship. She leads her team in scoring, and has improved her defense significantly this season. Her extreme confidence and ability to score from anywhere allows her to take over a game when necessary. She has taken 175 more shots than the closest of her fellow starters, all of whom score at rates between 54 and 175 percentage points higher than hers. She is a 2018 WBCA All-American.
Katie Lou Samuelson, 6-3 senior G, University of Connecticut, AAC
Samuelson, long known as a three-point shooter, has diversified her game this year, more than doubling her career rebound average, and taking on – somewhat reluctantly at times – primary leadership for the Huskies. With a post-player’s height and a guard’s skills, she is essential to UConn’s offensive and defensive flow. Her shooting, however, has been “off” for much of the latter half of the season, and she is averaging 100 points lower than last season’s nation-leading three-point percentage. She is a two-time WBCA and AP first-team All-American.
Stanford’s first-ever international player, from Tazmania, Australia, Smith has improved in every aspect of her game to become the most versatile player on her team, and perhaps on this list. She shoots over 50 percent, scoring nearly 20 points a game while grabbing 8.2 boards, and matching McCowan with 71 blocks on the season. At the same time, she shoots .399 from beyond the arc, on 163 attempts. She was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Uncasville, Conn. – Connecticut won its sixth AAC Tournament Championship and 120th AAC contest Monday with a 66-45 win over first-time finalist UCF.
Napheesa Collier led the way for the Huskies with 25 points and 14 rebounds, while Christyn Williams added 13 points and Crystal Dangerfield had 12 – all from three-point shots. Star forward Katie Lou Samuelson had to sit out the tourney with a back injury.
Although the basketball world expected UConn to win, coach Geno Auriemma emphasized that every championship matters, even when a lot have come before.
“Obviously, winning championships is why you start the season,” he said. “That’s what everyone aspires to do.”
This year’s Husky squad is younger than in past years.
“A lot of our young guys have not been in this situation before. I’m really proud of the way they responded,” Auriemma said. “Pheesa and Crystal were great leaders this weekend. And the team really stepped up and covered for Lou, and I just think this was one of the more satisfying championships that I’ve been a part of.”
Nine Knights scored, but only Lawriell Wilson reached double figures, with 12 points. Sophomore Masseny Kaba contributed nine points and eight rebounds.
The team speed and unpredictability of UCF’s offense presented a very different defensive challenge for the defending champs. Their new-found defensive intensity was on display again, however, and they made scoring difficult for the Knights.
UCF’s quickness did gain them open shots early, but they missed most of them in the first 20 minutes, and dug a hole out of which they could not climb, despite shooting 50 percent in the second half.
On the other side of the ball, the Knight’s defensive intensity made things difficult for UConn throughout the game. The Huskies’ dominance of the boards in the first half, however, gained them enough extra shots to lead 17-9 after ten minutes.
UConn found offensive rhythm in the second quarter, first relying on Collier (six quick points) and then Williams (six more on drives into the paint). A pair of threes by Dangerfield opened up a lead the Huskies did not surrender.
UCF, on the other hand, found UConn players face-guarding them on every move, and were forced to throw up contested jumpers over and over. The Knights managed just two field goals and six points, in the second period.
The Huskies shot 60 percent in that second quarter to put the game away. By halftime, Collier had 16 points, Dangerfield nine, and Williams eight. Although seven UCF players scored, none had more than one field goal and the team shot just 19.2 percent for the half.
Knight senior Nyala Shuler acknowledged that it took too long for her team to settle into the game.
“In the first half were a little uncomfortable,” she said. “we weren’t really playing our style of basketball.”
“So we went into the locker room and regrouped. And then I think we came out with a lot more energy, we got a lot more comfortable, and then we and really started playing more our game and had some success.”
Down 24 at the half, UCF roared into the third period with added intensity. They forced several UConn turnovers and converted the jump shots they had missed during the first half. The Huskies had trouble penetrating the Knight zone, and their contested jumpers began to fall short. Despite the change in fortunes, however, UCF closed the gap by only five points in the period, which ended with a still commanding 48-29 UConn lead going into the final period.
Both teams maintained the intensity to the end. The Knights showed the first signs of running a structured offense, and were successful driving and dishing to the short corner on successive plays. The Huskies seemed unable to run any standard offense against the 3-2 zone, and short-armed a series of eight footers when they did get into the paint.
But they eventually got organized, posted up Collier for successive baskets, and forced two consecutive turnovers. Dangerfield’s fourth three was enough to close out the game with a comfortable 66-45 victory.
UCF outscored UConn 30-27 and out rebounded them 17-12 in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the first two quarters.
Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson admitted that she never expected to win the game. Her team had already lost twice, by a combined 73 points, to the Huskies this year.
“This game wasn’t ever about them,” she said. “It was about us, and just enjoying the situation, and enjoying being in the conference championship.”
“They’re one of the best teams in the country, and it’s going to be impossible to come into this environment and win. That’s what I said. That’s what I told my team at halftime. ‘You need to have some fun. Don’t get so stressed out about the situation.’ Then they finally loosened up and started playing better UCF basketball.”
Samuelson is the fifth-leading scorer in UConn history, and is the on-court leader of the team. Playing without her, and especially winning without her, should benefit the team as it moves on in the post-season. Collier, a player of the year candidate, saw the advantages of adjusting to play without her.
“As hard as it is to play without Lou, I thought we did a really great job,” she said. “I thought we had a lot of different people step up, especially our younger players”.
“And you know, whenever you have someone go down, whoever it is, you have to someone step up. The show has to go on. It gave Olivia [Nelson-Ododa] a chance to prove herself, and I think she did that this weekend. She did everything we needed her to. And Christyn did the same. As hard as it is, it gave them good minutes, and when Lou’s back, they’ll be even more ready.”
Nelson-Ododa, a 6-4 freshman, was at times dominant in the paint. At other times, she looked clueless, as is the case for many freshman. But “we’re a different team defensively when Liv is in the game,” Auriemma said.
Her length and rebounding skills were on display during much of the tournament. She had 21 rebounds and seven blocks in three games. She also tallied 20 points on 9-13 shooting, and averaged 30 minutes per game.
The championship secures the Huskies a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, clearly in the Albany Region. UCF, at 26-6 has also earned a place in the Tournament, possibly as high as a No. 9 seed.
The victory was the 31st on the season for UConn. Sunday’s semifinal victory marked Auriemma’s 14th consecutive 30-win season, and 23rd in the 25 years since 1994. Baylor and Notre Dame each also won their 30th game of the year on Sunday, and share second place with nine in a row.
Auriemma had no idea that the team had a winning streak of that kind. Winning seasons have become expected of only this program, and therefore are rarely mentioned during the season or in the locker room. The reminder of such sustained excellence caused him to pause.
“You know, when it becomes routine, you start to think only about the bad things the team does,” he said. “It’s important sometimes to accept what a remarkable thing it is to win so many games. I need to keep that in mind, and enjoy it. Thank you.”
UCF prevailed over Cincinnati, 66-58 in the second AAC semifinal in a game that reflected the similarity of the two teams. The match up featured eight lead changes and six ties, and neither team led by more than five points until late in the fourth quarter.
Both the Knights and the Bearcats are guard-oriented, penetrating, athletic squads who play physical defense. The tallest starter on each team is 6-0. Both teams played zone defense in this game almost exclusively, but both harass the ball-handler deep in the backcourt. Each team has just two players averaging double-digit scoring, and no dominant rebounder.
As a result, the game was tied at 34 after one half, and UCF led by just three, 46-43 after three periods.
Cincinnati stayed with the Knights by hitting an uncharacteristic six threes in the first half. One difference in the game was a second half defensive adjustment to deny the outside shot, and the Bearcats were just 2-9 from beyond the arc in the second half.
UCF ultimately won the fourth period by crashing the offensive boards, continuing to shoot with success, and by hitting two Hail-Mary threes that opened a nine-point lead with under a minute left. Cincinnati missed a half-dozen short jumpers in the final four minutes that allowed their opponents to escape with a win.
The Knight’s bench contributed 27 points, to the Bearcat’s 9. Sophomore Masseny Kaba had 13 of those. Kay Kay Wright contributed 21 of UCF’s points, but seven other players scored.
Knights coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has played a deep rotation all year, and attributes the team’s success to depth.
“We’ve been talking about strength in numbers all year,” she said. “And the greatest part of our team is that we’re very selfless. Nobody cares who gets the credit. Our strength in numbers is obviously going to be big obviously for tomorrow, too.”
IImar’I Thomas had 16 points and eight rebounds for Cincinnati, and Sam Rogers contributed 13 points, including three of the Bearcat’s eight threes.
Coach Michelle Clark-Heard was philosophical about the loss.
“It was a close ball game,” she said. “And then in the fourth quarter, they made some tough shots and we didn’t get stops. But we’ve got to grow and learn from this.”
UCF moves to their first tournament final game Monday night at 7 p.m., when they will face No. 1 seed UConn.
“I think the key will be ball movement,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Just being patient. We want to go so quick, and get in transition. That’s what we want to do, is play fast. But you can’t win if you run with UConn. We’ve gotten better over the last four or five games just being patient and getting really good shots, instead of just taking the first quick shot.”
Playing its third game without Katie Lou Samuelson in the American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals Sunday, UConn defeated South Florida, 81-45, behind 24 points from Megan Walker and 23 points and 12 rebounds from Napheesa Collier.
The top-seeded Huskies dominated the game on both ends of the court until coach Geno Auriemma pulled most of his starters early in the fourth quarter with a 75-31 lead.
Freshman Sydni Harvey led USF with 13 points. The Bulls had played well in the first two games of the tournament, reaching the semifinals for the fifth straight season from an unaccustomed fifth seed. But they ran up against an inspired UConn team and lost to them in the tournament for the fifth time. The previous four had all been in the final.
Last Monday, in a regular-season game, USF was within a bucket of the Huskies in the fourth quarter, and had a chance to defeat them for the first time, but lost by 10. In their rematch six days later, the Bulls had no answer for a Husky squad that was suddenly playing at a high level after a month of sub-par performances.
It was clear from the tip-off that UConn team had committed to raising their intensity, and they showed focus and energy immediately, moving the ball crisply from side to side and getting into the gaps in the USF-packed zone.
Defensively, they succeeded in forcing the normally methodical Bulls offense to speed up in part by using a full court press from the first possession.
Collier conceded that the team had been underperforming in recent games.
“We knew we had to come out with a different mindset than especially yesterday and our past couple games,” she said. “I think we were really focused from the beginning, and so we had this success today.”
Auriemma has complained about his team’s poor defense all year, but in this contest, the Huskies blanketed their opponents on every cut and contested every pass, successfully denying any easy looks. Their active and smothering defense held the Bulls to two field goals and 14 percent shooting in the first quarter. UConn led 19-5 after 10 minutes.
The coach grudgingly acknowledged the improved defensive effort.
“Obviously our approach today was a little bit different than last Monday”, he said. ”Our defense kind of set the tone for everything that happened the rest of the game. We were really locked in right from the beginning. And that created a lot of great opportunities for us at the other end.”
Collier led the Huskies in the first half, scoring 18 points, including 2-3 from beyond the arc. She also grabbed 7 rebounds. Megan Walker showed her increasing confidence, shooting short jumpers as well as threes, tallying 10 points in the half. The Huskies shot 60.7 percent in the first half, and went into the locker room leading 41-15.
The second half was more of the same. UConn moved well on offense, finding open shots or completing contested ones, while frustrating the USF offensively, which forced them to speed up their play just as they had in the first half. But this time, they found themselves with a defender in front of them on nearly every move. After three periods, the Huskies led by 38, and the game was effectively over.
Bulls coach Jose Fernandez leads a team that lost its two senior leaders to injury, and which started two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, none of whom were starters on opening day. The loss was disappointing, but hardly a surprise.
“They played at a different pace than we did,” he said. “We didn’t defend that well, and they hit a lot of open shots.”
Auriemma rested his starters in the fourth period, never leaving more than one on the floor at a time.
The Huskies will face UCF in the final tomorrow, at 7 p.m. They have beaten the Knights twice this year, by 36 and 37 points.