- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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What happened to the bracket?
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- At least the statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium still gazed out over the rural Pennsylvania landscape when the bus carrying West Virginia made its way out of town Saturday afternoon. Luckily for the locals, it turned out the visitors were only interested in reducing the NCAA Tournament bracket to rubble.
In a weekend uprising as swift as it was surprising, the Big East seized control of this year's NCAA Tournament when three of its teams upset No. 1 seeds and advanced to next weekend's quarterfinals. In a matter of 17 hours stretching from Friday night through Saturday afternoon, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Connecticut brought the bracket to heel in an unprecedented manner.
Capped off by fourth-seeded West Virginia's 1-0 win against Big Ten regular season champ Penn State, the soccer coup also saw unseeded Connecticut blank Stanford 2-0 in Palo Alto and fourth-seeded Notre Dame beat defending national champion North Carolina 3-2 in Chapel Hill, avenging last season's championship game loss and handing the Tar Heels just their fourth loss in NCAA Tournament games at home.
Notre Dame and West Virginia, the Big East regular season and conference tournament champions, respectively, were the only conference teams that merited any kind of seed when the bracket was released, and even then, both teams were seeded three lines below the champions from the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-10 (or in Stanford's case, three lines below the Pac-10 runner-up). But a year after six of the seven Big East teams in the bracket lost during the first or second round, three of its number earned back prestige in a big way.
"I think the respect that the Big East got in seedings was a little disappointing, but I respect the committee and I know they have tough decisions to make," West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said after her team won. "But I also think it really reflects nationwide how strong the Big East conference is from top to bottom and obviously the parity in women's soccer."
Postseason upsets in soccer are one thing when a team, perhaps accepting its physical limitations, bunkers down and purposely slows the game to a crawl in hopes of either stretching the game to a penalty shootout or latching on to a counterattack miracle.
Those results are a triumph of strategy; West Virginia's win was a triumph of parity.
"I don't think it's so much about what we didn't do but more about what that team did," Penn State coach Erica Walsh said after her team lost for the first time this year at home.
West Virginia, which also beat Penn State in Morgantown early in the season, controlled the tempo from the outset of its game. Outside back Greer Barnes repeatedly broke down Penn State's defense on the flanks with her forays forward, and the three-headed striker hydra of Ashley Banks, Kim Bonilla and Deana Everrett produced more one-v-one chances in and around the 18-yard box in the first half than Penn State produced all game. With the notable exception of Nittany Lions midfielder Sheree Gray, the visitors simply played with more pace and aggression throughout the game.
When Krystle Kallman headed home the eventual winner off an Amanda Cicchini free kick in the 71st minute, the goal felt less like a lucky break for the plucky underdog than the wildly overdue product of a barrage of offensive opportunities.
"We talked about, before the game, how they were going to see more pressure than they had seen all season," Walsh said. "The way that West Virginia defends is all out, all over the field. I don't think the team expected the type of pressure that they saw."
The moment belongs to West Virginia, Connecticut, Notre Dame and the Big East, but the greater truth extends beyond the borders of one conference -- even a conference that reaches from New England to Florida and Wisconsin. It may not be the Big East next year, but it will likely be someone.
No favorite is safe, and November is more interesting for it.
2. Wasn't the championship game supposed to be in College Station?
Even if favorites are no longer safe, they still exist. But one of the two best teams remaining in the field, at least according to rankings, definitely isn't going to Texas.
Even before the Big East busted the bracket, a potential quarterfinal showdown between UCLA and Portland loomed as the best game of the first four rounds. And considering USC, the only other team remaining from the original top eight seeds, is playing in the program's first quarterfinal on the road against West Virginia, the winner between UCLA and Portland stands to inherit the title of overwhelming favorite as it travels to Texas for the College Cup. Not that these two teams needed much extra fuel for their budding rivalry.
"It has definitely become a rivalry," Portland midfielder Angie Woznuk said after her team knocked off Tennessee 3-0 to advance to face UCLA in Los Angeles. "From the moment we beat them in the Final Four two years ago -– and then losing to them earlier this year and last year at this time, it definitely brings out a rivalry."
Unlike the three other quarterfinal pairings, these two teams know each other well. As Woznuk indicated, they met earlier this season, with the Bruins coming out on top in a 2-1 overtime win at home, and in a quarterfinal last season in Westwood, which the Bruins similarly won 2-1 after the Pilots claimed an early 1-0 lead. With so much individual talent on the field together for the third time in a little more than 12 months, not to mention all the times players on both sides have played with and against each other at the international level, the element of surprise goes missing.
"I think we both know each other so well, that we have to be smart and finish any chance that we get," Woznuk said. "Like Tennessee, we had never played them before, so we came out with a lot of chances and got three of them. But UCLA we're not going to get as many chances, so it's going to be important to finish any chance that we get."
Both teams are distinctly different from the sides that met in September, but Portland has undergone the most dramatic makeover. Fresh off her time with Canada in the World Cup, Sophie Schmidt came off the bench in that game as a defender. She's now a striker who has helped the Pilots overcome injuries to both Megan and Rachael Rapinoe. And Stephanie Lopez, still playing for the United States in China at the time of the first game, now anchors a Portland defense that has helped the team outscore opponents 33-1 since the weekend trip to Los Angeles that also included a 2-1 loss against USC.
"I think we've grown so much," Woznuk said of incorporating the new parts. "Ever since that weekend, we've been able to work as a team and really come together. And I think we've gotten into a rhythm and connect and everything. And that weekend wasn't that big of a deal considered the fact that we're now in the playoffs and we're where we need to be right now.
"It would have been nice to win that game, but it's also nice to come back after a loss -– get a little energy going and stuff like that to redeem ourselves."
3. Who was the weekend's individual star?
Football pundits like to talk about Heisman candidates needing to come up with a signature performance in chasing the award, and Darren McFadden, Tim Tebow, Chase Daniel and others hoping for that hardware could learn something from Lauren Cheney.
With time running out and her talent-rich Bruins down a goal at home against Virginia and the stingiest defense in the nation, Cheney took over and ensured at least one No. 1 seed would live to play another game. The sophomore cut through Virginia's vaunted defense and set up teammate Kristina Larsen for the tying goal with 7:29 left to play in the second half and then finished off the 2-1 win herself with a long shot in the eighth minute of the first overtime.
Entering the game against Virginia, Cheney ranked second to Jackson State freshman Naira Crimiel as the nation's most effective goal scorer, averaging 1.050 goals per game. But with 12 assists on the season after her point on Larsen's goal, 11 more assists than she had during an otherwise spectacular debut season last year, she's also sharing the wealth.
Cheney makes those around her better, and when that's not good enough, she's capable of taking over games, just as she did for 16 key minutes against Virginia.
Just what you expect from the favorite for this season's Hermann Trophy.
Michelle Weissenhofer, Notre Dame: Few athletic feats measure up to watching someone execute a flip-throw -– pause one some time and go through frame by frame -- and Weissenhofer may be the unique skill's most able practitioner.
One of those throws connected with Brittany Bock's head to give Notre Dame a 1-0 lead early against North Carolina Saturday, but Weissenhofer wasn't done. Just 14 seconds later, off a pass from Kerri Hanks, she netted a goal of her own to stake the Fighting Irish to a 2-0 lead and claim a place in the record book for her role in the fastest back-to-back goals in NCAA Tournament history.
And for good measure, she scored the eventual winner early in the second half.
Slowed this season by an ankle injury, Weissenhofer's return to form once again gives the Fighting Irish its full complement of offensive options.
4. Which team turned in the most impressive performance?
Florida State's offense appears to be catching up with its statistics after the Seminoles cruised into the quarterfinals with a 4-0 win against the same Texas team that silenced Ashlee Pistorius and Texas A&M in the second round. Led by Mami Yamaguchi (2 G, 6 A) and Sanna Talonen (4 G), Mark Krikorian's team has outscored opponents 11-0 through three rounds, including back-to-back 4-0 wins against LSU and Texas.
The Seminoles entered the NCAA Tournament as the nation's most prolific offense from a major conference, but their totals were skewed slightly by the 25 goals they put up against Troy and two non-Div. I opponents in North Florida and Francis Marion. In 10 ACC regular season games, the Seminoles averaged 1.9 goals per game, compared to 3.5 goals per game out of conference. Granted, averaging nearly two goals per game in a league as tough from top to bottom as the ACC is an accomplishment, but it's one befitting a very good offensive team rather than a historic scoring juggernaut.
That looked all the more true against North Carolina in the final of ACC conference tournament, when Florida State couldn't consistently press the attack or find Yamaguchi and managed just three shots -– all credited to Yamaguchi -- in a 1-0 loss.
Solving a Connecticut defense that hasn't allowed a goal in nearly 300 minutes won't be easy, but no matter what the early numbers said about the ease with which Florida State appeared to replace departed talent like India Trotter, Kelly Rowland and Selin Kuralay, it may be that the Seminoles are only now hitting their offensive stride.
5. Shouldn't we really be playing the Canadian national anthem?
It may not rank with the loonie making the dollar feel like Monopoly money, but Canadian players are increasingly valuable in chasing a national championship.
Only three teams in the quarterfinals won't have at least one Canadian playing a prominent role on the field -– USC (which barely has any non-Californians, let alone Canadians), Notre Dame (which certainly has its own history with the Maple Leaf in the form of former stars like Katie Thorlakson and Candace Chapman) and Duke.
With three starters from north of the border, West Virginia leads the way but the Mountaineers hardly hold exclusive rights to national drama worthy of the CBC.
Two months ago, Sophie Schmidt helped console teammate Kara Lang when the weight of a disappointing group-stage exit caught up to Lang after the final whistle of Canada's final game at the World Cup in China. Friday in Westwood, both rising stars will be doing everything possible to ensure the other leaves the field unhappy when Lang's UCLA Bruins host Schmidt's Portland Pilots.
Collegiate pride and a spot in the College Cup will be on the line for two of college soccer's best keepers when Florida State freshman Erin McNulty and Connecticut junior Stephanie Labbe meet in Tallahassee. But for Alberta native Labbe and Manitoba native McNulty, teammates on both the 2004 Canadian Under-19 World Championship roster and 2006 Under-20 World Championship roster, the game in the heart of Dixie also offers a head-to-head showcase for two players with aspirations to guard the net for the full senior Canadian national team in the 2011 World Cup.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.