Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Guru's NCAA Report: Connecticut and Stanford Shocked In Semifinals

By Mel Greenberg

Several past histories of NCAA women’s basketball tournaments reappeared here Sunday night in Conseco Fieldhouse putting a new imprint of improbable but not implausible outcomes.

By the time the evening of two thrilling national semifinal games concluded, Stanford’s fourth-straight hopes at the Women’s Final Four for a national title came to a stunning end in the final seconds and Connecticut’s two-year reign was over as was the storied collegiate career of Huskies senior Maya Moore.

Texas A&M (32-5), the No. 2 seed which had dispatched top-seeded Baylor in the Dallas Regional for the first time this season in four meetings between the Big 12 conference rivals, pulled the initial shocker of the night.

TheAggies thundered back from a 10-point deficit to Stanford (33-3) at 54-44 with 6 minutes, 1 second left in the game to oust the Cardinal 63-62 when Sydney Colson fed Tyra White, who had a team-high 18 points, for a layup with three seconds left in the game.

Texas A&M’s All-American Danielle Adams scored 16 points and Sydney Carter scored 14.

“Our kids refuse to give up and they refuse to play a team close and have everybody pat us on the back,” Aggies coach Gary Blair said.

Stanford junior Nnemkadi Oguwmike scored 31 points, Jeanette Pohlen scored 11, and Kayla Pedersen grabbed 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame (31-7), the second seed of the Dayton Regional, which had broken a 0-for-20-lifetime slump in the title game against Tennessee, continued its magical ride in the nightcap.

Down by eight points at 34-26 early in the second half, the Irish used the fourth meeting of the season with their Big East rivals Huskies (36-2) to roar ahead on a 20-point swing in 12 minutes and finish with a 72-63 triumph to join Texas A&M in Tuesday night’s championship.

“I think this is my week for exorcising demons and getting over the hump of some of the best programs in the game,” said coach Muffet McGraw, whose Irish had lost the previous three meetings with UConn this season.

“We made big shot after big shot and we answered the runs. We were resilient and just really did a great job at the defensive end and rebounded really well in the second half.”

Unlike the night in the East Regional final back in 1999 when Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw, the celebrated star of the women’s game, imploded at the outset and could only score 11 points in the loss to Duke, Moore did all she could with a 36-point performance to attempt to extend her collegiate career to one more game.

But she could not do it alone on a night the Huskies struggled in several facets and were exposed by the flaws of a limited rotation.

Freshman point guard Bria Hartley scored 10 points, but freshman center Stefanie Dolson was limited with foul trouble and played only 25 minutes.

Moore experienced a loss to Stanford in the national semifinals in 2008, then went on to consecutive unbeaten crowns and the Huskies continued on in the early part of this season to an NCAA-record 90-game win streak that Stanford finally stopped in its arena in December.

UConn, which was hit by injuries and a roster defection, then continued on winning everything the rest of the way until Sunday night.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, in a rare subdued tone, saluted Moore and her sister senior Lorin Dixon, who were unable to finish off a third straight season on a winning note.

“What Maya and Lorin experienced in the two years between their loss in the Final Four and the loss tonight is something that – that’s what I’m going to choose to focus on when I think about those two, especially Maya,” Auriemma said. “I’m going to think more about the best player in the history of the Big East and maybe the best student-athlete in the history of college basketball.

“And I’m not going to let her be defined by what happened tonight.”

After Connecticut trailed by 12 points at 59-47 with 5:54 left in the game, Moore scored 13 straight points and the Huskies’ seemed like they might survive, pulling close at 63-60 with 2:28 left in the game.

But that was as close as it would get and Moore was unable to conclude her career in storybook style as former UConn star Diana Taurasi had done, winning a third straight national title in 2004.

“There are always positives and negatives out of everything,” Moore said. “So like ‘Coach’ said, I’m going to have to choose to remember the great things and really how fortunate I was able to be a part of so many record-breaking seasons, games, whatever it may be.

“It’s just tough that this is the current taste in my mouth right now, but we’ll deal with it.”

Moore finished with 3, 036 career points, which is fourth on the all-time NCAA scoring list.

Skylar Diggins provided the bravado for Notre Dame, The sophomore all-America guard poured 28 points and dealt six assists. When the win was safely in Notre Dame’s column, Diggins near the game’s end and several minutes afterwards pulled on her jersey and looked to the Notre Dame portion of the 16,421 fans as she screamed, “This is our house.”

It isn’t but it might as well be considering that South Bend and the Notre Dame campus is only a few hours away.

Natalie Novosel had 22 points for the Irish, who shot 51.9 percent from the field.

As for the elements of the histories, it was down the street in the since-demolished RCA Dome in 2005 that eventual champion Baylor rallied from a deep deficit against favored LSU and Michigan State did likewise against Tennessee in the national semifinal.

Furthermore, Sunday night was the first NCAA meeting between Connecticut and Notre Dame since 2001 and the outcome was similar to that game in which the Irish erased a double-digit deficit in the second half to beat the Huskies and then claim its only title to date by edging Purdue in the championship.

The Notre Dame win comes in the same season that coach McGraw is headed into induction to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., in June.

McGraw, a former St. Joseph’s star, grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, as did Connecticut’s Auriemma.

The Stanford loss, perhaps even worse then the one resulting a year ago in the title game when the Cardinal blew a second-half lead to UConn, mars what would have been a glorious Monday morning for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer. She is set to be named to the 2011 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class, which will be announced in Houston at the site of the men’s Final Four.

“I want to congratulate Texas A&M,” VanDerveer said after the Stanford loss. “They really battled. We had them down, and we didn’t knock them out. Their defense was extremely disruptive.

“I thought Melanie Murphy really came in and did a great job for us, kept us in the game, made great plays,” VanDerveer said.

“And Nneka and Kayla really battled inside. This is really tough for our team. But I’m really – I’m very proud of everyone in how hard they worked and all the things we’ve accomplished this year.”

On the other hand, the Aggies’ triumph propels Texas A&M’s Blair into the tittle game in his second Finals appearance and first since leading Arkansas to the national semifinals in 1998.

“How about those Aggies?” Blair said. “This is what women’s basketball needs. It needs regional final games and semifinal games and final games like this to sometimes wake up America, to be able to give us credit when credit is due.”

Anyone watching the finish of his team’s game had to be impressed.

Texas A&M eventually wiped out the 10-point deficit when Colson hit two foul shots for a 59-58 lead with 53 seconds left. But 18 seconds later Adams fouled Oguwmike, who then hit two free throws with 35 seconds remaining to put Stanford back in front.

Then the Aggies’ White scored on a layup with 19 seconds left and Stanford took time at the 12-seconds mark.

Oguwmike got inside and Stanford seemed alive at 62-61 with nine seconds left.

“We ran a play that got me open on the block, and so I knew I had to produce somehow,” she said.

But Texas A&M had one more opportunity to score and made the best of it.

“Tyra was running with me like we urge one another to do to run in transition,” Colson said of the winning play with White. “She was there when I gave her a bounce pass, and she finished with two people hanging all over her like monkeys in a gym.”

White described the play from her side on taking the pass from Colson.

“When she passed it to me, I just heard Coach Blair’s voice in my head saying pin the ball. So that’s what I did. I thought time was up but it was like three seconds left.”

Oguwmike’s younger sister Chiney, a freshman, also hampered Stanford, being limited by foul trouble and playing only 19 minutes.

The Texas A&M defense hounded Stanford into a season high 22 turnovers and the Aggies outscored the Cardinal in points off transition 21-10 and also in second chance points 16-8.

“They get a lot of steals. They get a lot of turnovers. And they produce (defensively) by turning the ball over,” Nneka said.

“And I think that we tried our best to really kind of find our way around it,” she continued. “It became a little bit more disruptive at the end, and I definitely give them kudos for that defense. It was really hard to get open. And we really tried our best.”

At the end of the night, Auriemma was asked to put his take on what went down with the two upsets.

“I think what people have to understand is nothing’s a given,” he responded. “You really play well and you get a chance to win. You don’t play well and you lose. I don’t care whether you are a 1 seed, 2 seed, the best player, not the best player, it doesn’t matter.

“I think what this night proved was there are good teams, and those teams are not just named Connecticut and Stanford and Baylor.”

-- Mel


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