In an Ancient Conference, Senior Moments
Before I start the post officially, two quick things. First, it was just a few minutes ago that Pat Summitt emerged onto the court at Thompson-Bolling Arena dressed in a Tennessee cheerleader's uniform to lead the crowd in 'Rocky Top' and climb to the top of a human pyramid supported by what I understand were her assistant coaches.
I'm sure you all saw it, and from this corner of Philadelphia I give Summitt all the credit in the world for both wanting to give that performance and having the mentality to really follow through with it -- not to mention the fitness to get up on top of that pyramid! And as a follower of both the men's and women's sides of the game, I am especially pleased that Volunteers men's coach Bruce Pearl is such a vocal and colorful (to put it one way) supporter of the women's team.
Second, you readers out there might not realize that the writers of this blog actually don't get to meet in person all that often, aside from Mel and I who (as he notes above) work a few feet away from each other. I met Erin for the first time on Friday over lunch in Boston, and quite enjoyed hearing her stories of covering Connecticut.
Speaking of UConn, that ties right into the story that starts below...
PHILADELPHIA -- The last time the Penn women's basketball team beat Dartmouth, the Quakers knocked the Big Green out of the title race on their Senior Night.
That game took place when the team's current seniors were freshmen. So a certain circle was completed when Penn repeated the feat on this season's senior night this past Friday in a heart-stopping 56-53 win.
Back in 2004, though, the scene at the Palestra was rather different. What might be the largest crowd the building has ever seen for a Penn women's game brought the decibel level to a place normally reserved for the men's game as the Quakers won the Ivy League for only the second time in program history.
Since then, things have changed. The coach of that team, Kelly Greenberg, left a few months later for Boston University, and her successor, Pat Knapp, now has a team full of players that he recruited. But for the four players left from Greenberg's last team, the memories of that title run are still fresh.
It was a season that culminated in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to eventual champions Connecticut. But while the crowd in Bridgeport that night was overwhelmingly in the Huskies favor, Penn embraced the challenge from the moment they cheered seeing the team's name on TV during the selection show.
Indeed, perhaps the most famous image to emerge from that game was of one of this year's seniors. Though all of Penn's starters from that season are long gone, the picture that remains in the memory is of 5-foot-4 freshman Joey Rhoads defending Diana Taurasi.
(You are free to ignore the byline on that linked story, by the way.)
"Sometimes it seems like a long time, but I still remember some things like it was yesterday," Rhoads said of her freshman year. "I kind of don't feel like I'm a senior, but I am."
A native of the Philadelphia suburbs, and a graduate of the same high school as Penn legend Diana Caramanico, Rhoads been the floor leader of Penn's offense over the last two seasons. She has also often been the first player turned to for perspective on a game. She offered just that on the transition from the coach who recruited her to the coach whose plays she ran over the last three years.
"With new coaches it's obviously a new system, but I think that at Penn we always play with a lot of pride," Rhoads said. "We hustle, we never give up."
More often than not, she has stood alongside fellow senior Monica Naltner, a forward who has been one of Penn's star players since being given a starting spot as a sophomore. Naltner is one of many who has treasured her time playing in one of college basketball's most famous arenas.
"I'm already missing the Palestra -- I took my last shot, my last steps on the Palestra floor," she said. "It's pretty sad, but what a way to go off, with a win."
Like her team, Naltner has endured quite a journey over the last few years. After suffering a knee injury early last season that had her in a brace for quite a long time, the knee finally healed this season and she got back to the form that had made her one of the league's most dangerous players.
"After I got to take the brace off this summer and got to work, I tried to get in shape and play my best ball," she said. "While we're not winning an Ivy League championship, I feel like we've accomplished a lot this year and have been able to bounce back from a less-than-stellar year."
Naltner wasn't the only member of her class to suffer a severe knee injury. Guard Lauren Pears tore an ACL in December of 2005 and didn't recover until just in time for the start of this season. But once she got back on the floor, she earned a place in the starting lineup.
"It requires a lot of work -- summers, mornings, nights, everything from hard lifts to early-morning runs to three-and-a-half hour practices -- but it's all worth it," Pears said. "It's a very difficult process just because I've had so many knee injuries, but I think just for that reason it makes it much more worth it to come back and play."
Penn's fourth senior, forward Ashley Gray, never quite made it to being a regular starter. But that hasn't lessened her desire to do whatever she can to help the team.
"I think I have the same mentality as any basketball player on our team, that we're going to keep working hard and keep working to win," she said. "Whether you play or don't play, we've always been proud of what kind role we've had on our team and what kind of contribution we're able to make."
This writer freely admits that the goings-on of a former 15-seed that hasn't seen the postseason since might not be of much relevance when the power-conference teams are rightly staking their claims to the spotlight. Having said that, I am sure that even the Connecticuts and Dukes of the world have players like Penn's seniors.
Of course they have their frontcourt and backcourt stars. But somewhere down that bench in Storrs, I bet there's a player like Ashley Gray: someone who does all the hard work in practice but doesn't get to hear her name called in the starting lineups. Duke's Lindsay Harding missed a full season -- though because of suspension, not injury -- yet, like Pears, she has come back and become a star.
So consider this piece just one portrait of a small piece of the college basketball landscape. The "mid-majors" of the women's game don't get the kind of prominence that they do on the men's side, not least because upsets aren't such a regular occurrence in the women's NCAA Tournament.
But before the time comes for those early-round drubbings that the game's powers always give out, take perhaps you'll take just a moment to think about those lower-seeded teams that don't care who they play. Their moment in the spotlight is a pretty big deal -- and the memories really do last for a long time.