Women's game gains chauvinist-turned-convert
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- I'll admit it: I'm a college hoops sexist. I like my basketball played above the rim, at Mach 4, and by players who shave their faces, not their legs. Give me a choice between D-I women's basketball and a seminar on sewer-line technology, and I'll opt for the pipes lecture.
But I'm weakening. And fast.
Unranked Florida's 95-93 overtime win at No. 5 Tennessee on Sunday is what did it. For the first time in, well, ever, I'm thinking I owe an apology note to every Lady Vol, Gator, Husky, Blue Devil, Tar Heel, Dawg (Lady Dawg? Not going there), etc., I've made fun of while watching a game on the plasma. Admit it, fellow hoops chauvinists: You've muttered the same things.
"My noon league pick-up team could beat a Top 25 women's squad."
"Is there a dunk in the house?"
"Hey, James Naismith called. He wants his two-handed set shot back."
That was me. Smug. Condescending. And clueless.
I sat on press row for Saturday's men's game between Arkansas and 11th-ranked Tennessee, and again for Sunday's Florida-UT women's game. And if I had to pick an All-Weekend Knoxville Five, I'd take Arkansas' Ronnie Brewer, Tennessee's Chris Lofton and then three players with ponytails or hair buns: Florida's Brittany Davis and Sarah Lowe, and Lady Vol Candace Parker.
Meanwhile, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had me at hello. It was Senior Day for UT's Tye'sha Fluker and Shanna Zolman, and the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history was thoughtful enough to also present pre-tipoff flower bouquets to the four Florida seniors -- Davis, Lowe, Dalila Eshe and Danielle Santos -- who were playing their final regular-season game for the Gators. Sportsmanship lives.
Of course, after the first five minutes of the game, I wanted to dunk my head into a bucket of hydrochloric acid. Airballs. Turnovers. Bruised rims. A grand total of 12 points had been scored. If CIA interrogators are looking for ways to make captured spies talk, just keep showing them the first five minutes of UF vs. UT. Believe me, they'll crack like eggshells.
But here's the thing: I didn't hear one boo from the turnstile-count crowd of 17,595. And as the play improved, so did the applause.
Unlike the men, there are no names on the back of the Lady Vols' jerseys. There also are no player weights provided on the official roster or in the Lady Vols media guide. Then again, everyone knows who Parker is. She's the two-time USA Today National Player of the Year who now leads the Lady Vols in points, rebounds, blocks, missed dunks (one) and autographs signed. Replicas of her No. 3 jersey are available in campus bookstores for $44.99.
With about 4 minutes left in the first half, Parker blocked two consecutive Davis shot attempts. Then Davis bumped Parker, or Parker bumped Davis. Anyway, the 6-foot-2 Davis and the 6-3 Parker got into each other's grill, and I guarantee you men everywhere -- at least, those watching the limited CSS broadcast (it was unavailable in Gainesville) -- started yelling, "Cat fight!" That's what men do. We're worthless and predictable.
What male viewers should have done was fist bump. After all, this was quality stuff. I loved the stare down. I loved that a redshirt freshman didn't back down from a senior, and that a senior wasn't intimidated by a national rep.
Parker would finish with 34 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, five blocks and a slightly swollen nose, courtesy of an elbow to the schnoz. Davis would leave with 29 points, nine rebounds, one block and a cramped right calf. Together they played a combined 81 minutes out of 90.
But my favorite was Lowe, the 5-7 Gator point guard who can't even touch the rim. "I can get to the middle of the net," she said, smiling.
Lowe spent more time on the floor than the coats of polyurethane. She was a human skid mark. Early in the second half, just as she was beginning a face-first slide on the court, Lowe somehow delivered a John Wooden-textbook pass to Davis on the low post. Lowe sounded like a Squeegee being dragged across a dry window.
But guess what? Davis was fouled, scored and converted the and-one. I remember two things as Davis converted the shot: Lowe letting loose with a primal scream, and the nickel-sized floor burn on her knee.
It wasn't the best played game I've ever seen. Tennessee committed 28 turnovers, 20 of which were the result of Florida steals. The Gators shot only 39.5 percent from the field. And if Parker had made 12 of 16 from the foul line instead of 10 of 16, they might still be playing.
But inch for inch, sports bra for sports bra, these players were a gas to watch. I saw why Parker might one day be considered the best ever to play D-I women's hoops. "Nobody in the country can guard her with one player," Summitt said afterward.
I saw the Gators run a ¾-court press nearly the entire game. "And I felt like I could have gone 10, 15 more minutes today," said Lowe, who must have speed-dialed her folks a thousand times on her Motorola after the big upset.
I saw two coaches -- Summitt and Florida's Carolyn Peck -- who have won a combined seven NCAA championships (six for Summitt, one for Peck).
What I didn't see was a single dunk. And it didn't matter.
"I think the biggest thing we fight is we're not men," said Peck. "But we're a great, great game."
"We have a long way to go," said Parker, "but we've come a long way."
They don't have as far to go as they think.
So says the former male hoops chauvinist.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.