Siroky's Musings: A Return to the Women's Final Four After a Long Absence
INDIANAPOLIS -- For the first time in a long while I took a trip by myself.
When the women’s NCAA basketball tournament started 35 seasons ago, I was one of 37 accredited media.
Two of my best friends were also there as broadcasters, I had a photographer and knew three other national writers. That’s seven of the 37. It was a small group then.
I thought of many of them, the departed and the living, coaches, players and media I had shared a time with.
There are not a lot of us left. In fact, there are but two media.
The NCAA, long used to producing the men’s game, had a media room, code for free beer and pretzels at the end of a workday.
I had met the guy in charge of that.
After the first day he asked me why he was sitting alone in the room.
I told him we did not believe it was real as the predecessor to the NCAA had done nothing for those who covered them, once even scheduling the national semifinal between two Eastern teams as the second game on the northwest coast, meaning it started after midnight.
There were no phones available.
I was one of the few to make deadline in time for the Sunday edition because on of my best friends had a telephone connection at the seat next to me for his radio broadcast and when he finished I was ready to send.
Ticket prices at the first NCAA championships were $2 and $5. There were slightly more than 9,500 fans.
In between, 20 million have attended the Final Fours.
Tickets are now up to $800.
Before the decline of newspapers in recent years, more than 600 media types were given credentials.
They have drawn as many as 28,000 fans (19,000 last season; 15,277 this).
More than 7.2 million have attended.
My little party has a lot of partygoers.
I brought Frank DeFord, the best sports writer ever have I read, with me. In book form. His autobiography. It relaxes me.
I set off on a gray, windy, cloudy day. I like gray, cloudy, windy days. They allow me to think.
As I approached title town, the sunshine broke through. It was glorious.
It reminded how many of these trips to an event had involved my latest pickup truck, just a solitary guy on the road for more than 35 years.
They know me at the NCAA. The credential was ready, already with the ID pic.
The adventure began.
They gave me the best seat. Center. Courtside. Third row on the riser.
I found a free place to park 5 straight days. They always feed the sportswriters.
I marveled at all the gatherings. The parties at fancy places.
I met so many coaches who said they appreciated my writing. Humbling.
I met so many former players who I covered then. One of them, a three-time VP of this tournament revealed she does not eve pick up a ball anymore because she is too competitive and would want to kill anyone she played against; cannot play for fun.
These former All-Americans come here because many of them present awards.
A few of them were surviving members of the first women’s Olympic team, 1976.
About that time, college hoops started and they became the bedrock of the better programs.
The neat thing about women’s hoops are the legends for the most part, are still with us. The historical connections are real people. Hugs all around.
The games were good, too.
Rick Nixon and the NCAA invited the Division II and Division III finalists to play here too, one time only, on the inbetween days.
Imagine the thrill for non-scholarship players (Division III) coming to the grand stage to represent their division in front of national media at the national site. One of them came from Alaska. Talk about friends and family travel commitments.
That is sort of women’s basketball defined. Passion that started with Wayland Baptist barnstorming teams until now, first class all the way.
The winning teams were all undefeated, all coached by men, as were all four of the Division 1 teams. That’s a combined NCAA record.
For me, the neatest sidelight was seeing the undefeated Division II champs from a Christian school, in their first year of eligibility after moving up from NAIA.
The coach was unafraid to talk of a Christian life.
But the highlight of the sidelight was seeing a certain forward perform.
She had struggled with injuries but was needed in the big game and played on.
There are 40 minutes to a basketball game She played 37, second most of anyone to win the championship of Division II.
For me the personal thrill was I had covered her mom when her mom was a player at the University of Tennessee.
The big-time originals are just now producing college-aged kids.
I was the only one who realized this was a first: A Final Four starter mom with a Final Four starter daughter.
What a shared joy as me and mom hung out.
Most times, it is all about the access of being there. Had I not been there I could have not helped the former player get a lot of backstage access that made her once in a lifetime thrill all the better.
Had a photographer friend shoot pics of the current player, which he would not have done had it not been noticed.
And this was a one-in-a-lifetime event for Division II and III, no matter how enjoyable, though there may be more since Geno Auriemma, coach of the Division I champion Connecticut squad endorsed making it a regular happening in the future, as did many other Division I notable.
They bid out their title towns, too.
A rare confluence allowed all three title games in the NCAA’s hometown which included swapping an original destination for a Division 1 Regional site.
Just a marvelous opportunity for me when my low-flying angels help fools such as I.
The Big Game
An empty main event basketball arena early on game day is its own cathedral of worship. Magnificent arching space. Graceful. Sacred silence.
The grids set up for bands and cheerleaders in a holding area off court patiently await their exuberant human occupiers, all color and fluff, noise and practice, though muscle memory has surely set in.
College students at this level, they are also very representative participants, also on a trip of a lifetime, cheering for their school in a game played by their contemporaries.
The buses unload below street and seat level. The teams arrive.
Very purposeful walks by two teams coaches, intimate supporters, for each game.
Upstairs, the champs of Division II and III are signing autographs. Before the game, they will carry the court-sized American Flag for its honors. A last-minute snack is offered to the professional viewers.
I love being in a building where a life-sized Orange can walk past and then a full-sized Husky on two feet and neither even gets a second glance. Where face paint is anticipated in certain areas.
Now the pageant can begin.
The best team in he country started out so well you wondered how fast the clock could run.
In this first year of quarter play in the women’s game, the comparison of segments is too evident.
Only one player scored baskets for the lesser team.
The better team distributed as better teams do and led by 15.
There was not much evidence of a real fight yet.
By the half it was over, the winning team already had 50 and the losing team would not score as much until the closing minutes.
The winning team kept scoring, of course, and the three senior starters outscored the whole other team.
The winning team had completed 399 passes in the game. The best player alone had received 45 and passed 43, all between the two top scorers. The top player also passed 27 times to another player. The third all-star had completed 37 passes
But there’s more.
To me, the fourth senior is the best story.
In reply to a Twitter from the best player in America, 5-4 Briana Pulido walked on at UConn.
Yes, earned a spot on the toughest roster as mostly a practice player but going through it all for three season and now with three championships.
It’s the dream of every child in America to just get a chance.
For all the naysayers of tough coaches you get a glimpse of his true self ever once in awhile.
So, as the fabulous team wrapped up the unprecedented fourth straight season another one undefeated -- they call it Four for Fourever -- the coach naturally cleared the bench so the three senior All-America starters could get a just ovation.
The Big Three had outscored the other team all by themselves, never to be denied
Still with one minute left he leapt up, called a timeout and got Puli into the game.
UConn missed a shot, then claimed possession at the other end. The coach motioned Puli into the corner and the point guard of the moment saw it. The ball shot her way and she shot the ball.
The angels smiled. Nothing but net. More tears, the seniors on the bench exploded more than any other group.
Forevermore, she is in the NCAA record book for scoring. For evermore, she scored the last points of the record championship season.
The team floated to the other end of the court truly in flight.
One of the All-American seniors said, “I probably jumped the highest I've jumped all season when she shot that shot. We were so excited for her, and to end the game the way she did, it was great. And we got 82 points, so we got wings.”
Back home that's the total that gets the UConn faithful a free culinary item.
TheY floated into each other’s arms, the last time alone as this team on a basketball court.
The seniors are already separated by the mists of time.
Pulido was in the mishmash.
A starting freshman guard, the one who broke her foot and missed playing in the final game, said, “It was so important that she made that shot. No one else knows. So important.”
The guard who fed her the ball for the shot said, “It’s such a fitting ending. She comes into practice every day and makes sure there is energy, that we are ready to go. For her to come in and hit that basket, was incredible. A fitting ending.”
In the moshpit of hugs and tears in the rope enclosure at midcourt, Pulido gave and got hugs and tears.
So how was making The Shot?
”It was everything,” she said. "It was not designed. The ball just came and I shot it.”
She moves on of course, but to Med School, a well-developed brain in that athletic body, maybe the smartest person n the group.
Soon they were cutting down the nets, a strand at a time.
The other seniors insisted she stay on the ladder, immortalized with them in a class picture.
In the end, they were just a group of girls, sitting on the awards stand, not wanting it to ever end, their legs dangling and kicking a bit, arms all around each other.
And that is why I have covered this game for two thirds of my life: Moments you get to share, to witness and report.
“It was everything. I shot it.”
Indeed. The party continued as I left to find my truck and chased the moon northward.
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