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.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Guru’s WBB March Madness Package — Stony Brook Draws Arizona in NCAA Debut


By John Quinn


 The first time was a charm as history came fast when the NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket was being announced on ESPN’s Selection Show Monday night.

 Stony Brook popped up on the screen in just the third game displayed against the third-seeded Arizona Wildcats in the Mercado Region in San Antonio, where all the games will be played.

Yes, Stony Brook, America East champions.

Stony Brook, Division I since only 1999.

Stony Brook, a program started in only 1969 as Title IX was just  becoming a dream.

The 15-5 Seawolves started celebrating, and dancing, on their home court and ESPN co-host Maria Taylor celebrated too, saying Stony Brook would be dancing all the way to San Antonio.

“It’s a dream come true,’” said coach Caroline McCombs, echoing the sentiments of everyone after watching themselves on the big screen.

Though there was little doubt Arizona, jumping just inside and outside the Top 10 of the Associated Press women’s poll all season, would be in the 64-team field, this matchup features personal unfinished business from a year ago.

That’s when both squads were likely NCAA bound, but each was deprived due to the outbreak of the coronavirus causing the cancellation of the men’s and women’s tournaments along with everything else in the sports world.

Now the Wildcats, second in the PAC-12 standings to overall top-seed Stanford, are back for the first time in 16 years, dating to 2005.

Meanwhile, Stony Brook is one of four teams making their NCAA debuts. The other three are Missouri Valley champion Bradley, Big South champion High Point, and Western Athletic designate Utah Valley. 

The WAC reps earned the slot because champion Cal Baptist (24-0), the lone unbeaten in the nation, is still going through the transition to full Division I membership and is ineligible. However, the Lancers will compete in the WNIT. 

“It was so disappointing to have done all the work and not go,” reflected coach Adia Barnes, a former Wildcats star who has executed a rapid turnaround back at her alma mater. 

”We know Stony Brook is a very good team. But at this point, we just have to focus on us,” she noted.

 “Because of our schedule and things we did all year, we’re better equipped to handle the quarantine (in Texas) and things many other teams, who may have flown in and out of places the same day  and operated differently, may not  be.” 

The Seawolves’ dream that is now reality continues Tuesday morning when they will fly out to San Antonio.

 ‘We want to put us on the map,” said guard Asiah Dingle, and for those in Arizona and the rest of the country, it’s about an hour and a half east of New York City if you take the Long Island Expressway.

McCombs, in her seventh year as coach, guided the Seawolves to a 28-3 record last year, even slightly better than this one, with a chance at the Dance in the America East final before the Dream Season was suddenly short-circuited by the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘We weren’t ready to be done,’ said Hailey Zeise, who graduated but came back for another try. ‘We had some unfinished business.’    

The American East championship game this time was played last March at top-seeded Maine and the Seawolves were down 11. 

But the heartache from the year before melted away as they resolutely, confidently, came back, sensing destiny in a 64-60 victory.

A month ago, the top two conference teams met on Long Island in back-to-back games.

Stony Brook rallied to take the first, but the Black Bears rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit and grabbed the next for a split to stay in first.

‘It was the best feeling in the world,’ said Annie Warren, who scored a career-high 31 points in the championship at Orono. 

Those sentiments were replayed once again Monday night when they were selected scant minutes into the show.

“Oh my God, we’re really up there,” Warren said.

McCombs said she has been in contact with scores of alumni, proud of their past. 

‘“They paved the way for us,” McCombs said of the state university of New York, which has progressed through bumps in the road journeying from Division III and II with most students from the metropolitan area.

McCombs is proud of the program, which got a jump start several years ago with an upset at Penn State in a non-conference meeting.

 “These are the things you remember the rest of your life,” she said. “Because we took care of each other in tough moments, we built a lot of trust. We’ve been able to share it and be vulnerable. We’ve picked each other up when we were down, we’ve grown together.”

Perhaps none was tougher than Dingle, who transferred from Kent State to be closer to her ailing father, only to lose him. 

“It meant a lot to him,” Dingle said. “He wanted me to do it. I wish he was here but the court was my sanctuary.”

Stopping Arizona won’t be easy. The Wildcats are led by PAC-12 player of the year Aari McDonald. 

Arizona (16-5) lost in the semifinals of the PAC 12 tourney and had a NET ranking of 15. By contrast, Stony Brook’s rank is 100.

 Monday’s 2 p.m. game will be televised on ESPN2. The winner gets either Rutgers or BYU.

 McCombs knows it’s all about the journey. 

Her players are from Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Massachusetts. 

Forward India Pagan will play for Puerto Rico’s national team this year as it competes in the Olympics for the first time.


  “We have so much balance on this team, never know who is going to be the leading scorer, it’s such a selfless group,” McCombs said.

  The coach is also very aware of the historical significance of the moment. 

“We really want to pour this out for them (former players and alumni),” McCombs said. “We’ve had so many great women back here from all different eras. They weren’t able to experience this. I see them now sharing their stories on social media.”



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