- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- In a packed gym that felt like something out of a bygone era, two coaches who made their mark in the high school game showed what women's college basketball can be at its best.
"Tonight I kind of felt like I was in 'Hoosiers,' the little school," Marist coach Brian Giorgis said after Wednesday's game against Oklahoma. "We're not Hickory; we have a heck of a lot more than 57 people. But what an atmosphere -- like I told [Oklahoma coach] Sherri [Coale] before the game, this is a typical crowd."
And that's from the guy who came up on the short end of a classic in which No. 16 Oklahoma rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat Marist 80-71 in overtime.
The fire marshal might have had something to say if many more people than the announced crowd of 2,828 crammed inside the tiny McCann Center on a cold, slushy evening better suited for staying home and watching television. But anyone who loves the sport -- anyone who loves any sport -- deserves a night like this, deserves to soak in an atmosphere like this.
With more than 30 minutes left before the game, the stands were already well on their way to full. The early arrivals reached such a point that it was reasonable to wonder if people realized the tip was set for 7:30, instead of the more standard time a half-hour earlier. But as students filled the bleachers behind one basket and red-clad fans of older and younger generations did the same elsewhere, there was a palpable energy circulating that only comes from knowing you're at the biggest show in town.
"This is an unbelievable atmosphere," Coale said. "It made me want to go back and have some eligibility back. And I want to play and I want to go to Marist College to play. It's unbelievable here. Your students -- so refreshing. On college campuses across the country, there is student apathy when it comes to sports. And not here. Everybody was here and involved from warm-up to the final buzzer of overtime. It was just a fantastic atmosphere for women's college basketball, and we feel honored to be a part of it."
It was gracious of Coale to applaud the students and thank the hosts, but the truth is all the credit goes to the coaches who put in motion the events that led to Wednesday night.
Less than 15 years ago, Oklahoma was an afterthought in women's basketball. Marist was whatever comes after an afterthought. But pulled from the high school ranks in the same communities in which they now coach collegiately, Coale and Giorgis changed their respective landscapes to the point that thousands of people wanted to come out to McCann Arena to see their Red Foxes take on one of the game's biggest brand names.
Coaching in high school is not the quickest route to running your own Division I program. Success stories -- these two and Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell among the most notable -- are out there, but there are a lot of outstanding prep coaches who never make anyone's short list at the college level.
That's why Giorgis sought out Coale when he was finally convinced to leave Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie after compiling a 451-44 record in 19 seasons -- and by most accounts, it was as much of a sales job by the school as by the would-be coach. Though many years his junior, Coale's arrival at Oklahoma in 1996 predated Giorgis' first season at Marist by six seasons. And the season before he took over, she led Oklahoma to its first Final Four.
"It's nice with Sherri, because Sherri gave me the best advice when I took the job," Giorgis said. "And she had gone from high school to being a Division I head coach, and at a much bigger program. And I asked her, I said, 'What advice can you give me coming from high school?'
"And she said, 'Just remember basketball is basketball.'"
There is plenty about the way both Oklahoma and Marist play that is more intricate than that simple wisdom, but both coaches also work from a foundation familiar to high school success.
"I think it forms us," Coale said. "In high school, you get what you get, and you've got them. And you've got to teach everybody. You know, your center may be 5-foot-7, and that's just what it is. And so you've got to teach her how to play and you've got to figure out how to win. And I think it maybe keeps us from being spoiled. When we have a great athlete, we're going to teach them how to do this and this and this because that's what we've always done and what we had to do."
And so it was that with a first-half field goal on her way to 25 points in the game, Marist's Rachele Fitz became the first player in program history to score 2,000 career points. Fitz is a gifted athlete but not a basketball junkie in any way (fashion, her true passion, nearly derailed her preparations for Wednesday's game, when the due date on a major project was moved up by 11 days and left her with little time for sleep or basketball). But while watching her compete against Oklahoma, it was obvious that Fitz was a world apart in both effort and savvy from the player who survived largely on athletic ability and naiveté as a freshman.
Fitz's rainbow 3-pointers -- a relatively recent addition to an array of half-hooks, mid-range jumpers and twisting leaners -- stretched the Sooners in the first half. Her work on the boards kept them at bay for much of the second half. She took her share of physical punishment and kept coming back for more.
But she couldn't do quite enough to overcome Nyeshia Stevenson, one of Coale's three seniors. A spare part as a freshman, and only now a full-time starter, Stevenson was unstoppable Wednesday night, scoring a career-high 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting, including 9-of-18 from the 3-point line. She broke Marist's zone in the first half. And when the Red Foxes adjusted, Stevenson simply took a few more steps out and buried the 3-pointer that tied the score with 16 seconds to play and then added two more treys in overtime.
Down one star for the season after Whitney Hand's knee injury and down another star for the balance of the second half after Danielle Robinson fouled out, Stevenson put the Sooners on her back.
"Early in her career, in tight situations, she didn't want the basketball," Coale said. "And as she's grown and played more minutes and gotten more experience, not only does she want it; she wants to win the game. She wants the ball in her hands; she wants to decide it. And I always say confidence comes from demonstrated ability. It does. But the biggest deposit she's made, in terms of confidence, is that she's become a fantastic practice player. And that was a work in progress, and she's there now."
Two seniors; one a star from her first day on campus who only got better with age, and the other a role player who has grown into something much more.
In a nutshell, that's how Coale and Giorgis made Wednesday a night to remember. Basketball is basketball.
"I feel bad, but boy, did I have a lot of fun tonight," Giorgis said.
And if you're out there guiding a big program through a schedule softer than the fresh snow that greeted residents of Poughkeepsie on Wednesday morning, take note. Marist is still trying to get some of you -- any of you -- to fill up two more games next season.
It wouldn't be easy, but it might be a lot of fun.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.