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Thursday, March 18, 2004
Updated: March 20, 12:04 PM ET
The last Dance

By Stacey Dales-Schuman
Special to ESPN.com

Mom always said I had to eat my vegetables before I could have dessert. She also said I had to do my homework before I could watch Michael Jordan fade into greatness, and I had to clean my room before I could play road hockey with my brother and the boys around the block.

Man, was life tough. Every great thing came with a price tag on it. Even the smallest things at least had a "for sale" sticker. No good reward or tidbit of fun ever came without a pretty penny.

And that's why growing up was the hardest and easiest thing I ever had to do -- until college.

Much like my childhood, I learned that becoming a senior student-athlete and working to reach the highest level of basketball with my team certainly didn't come without a high dollar ticket. Looking back now, two years later, becoming a senior in college was again the hardest and easiest thing I've ever had to do. And if I had to guess, this might be the case for many of the four- or five-year veterans out there now.

And that why reaching the NCAA Tournament and further, the Final Four, marks such a bittersweet end for a senior. It's like the reward at the end of the day, a triple-dipped, creamy chocolate vanilla sundae with whipped cream, a cherry and nuts. As Diana Taurasi put it, "It's the last chance you have to reach all the goals you set out to reach when you arrived on campus."

Some say that being a senior is just a part of the process, but it's much more. You have to know the ropes, you have to climb the ropes, and you certainly can't fall from the ropes. You know that every single step, whether grand or minuscule, is being eye-balled by the toddlers beside you. You know that no flaw can ever enter the mix and you know that doing the right thing all the time is the only thing acceptable. Talk about pressure.

Sometimes seniors are lost in the middle of nowhere and sometimes they can see every bit of habitat that creeps and thrives at the bottom of the ocean. But if one thing's for sure, all seniors remember their plight. They remember when they could barely make it to class on time because their legs were too sore. They remember what it felt like to step on the court only to realize that they knew nothing at all. They remember enduring injury and sickness and laughter and friends and change. They remember all of the expectations, demands and goals. They remember learning what it meant to be a part of something that had reason and purpose. And they remember how quickly it all passed them by.

And then all of a sudden, they stop remembering and they jump into the here and now. For as much as they have remembered, they have more speedily forgot. They have instead become enthralled in the moment and all that it stands for because their last NCAA Tournament has finally arrived.

There is no time to peek over their shoulder to make sure they are well ahead, and there is no time to ponder who might be approaching. There is time only for being fully and completely immersed in the task of finishing their senior year with the best experience humanely possible.

And so, these seniors pull out their shiniest pair of black dancing shoes and their most flattering outfit, and they allow the chorus to guide them. They feel the electricity on the surface of the court and they hear the hum of the crowd. They get shivery goose bumps when a teammate amazes and they smile when their coach applauds. Every scrap of their existence is beautifully wrapped up in the most bittersweet close of what it means to be a senior.

And though it is time to move on because they know the song won't last forever, they hope to make this last dance the best one of all.

Former Oklahoma standout Stacey Dales-Schuman, who has been a WNBA All-Star with the Washington Mystics, is an analyst for ESPN.