- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Sometimes, there's this amazing serendipity of someone being in the right place at the right time with the right people. And you think, "Didn't this work out perfectly?"
It all really did come together just that way for Middle Tennessee and Alysha Clark. The Blue Raiders are headed back to the NCAA tournament for a 13th time in program history after a Sun Belt conference tournament performance by the 5-foot-10 Clark that was nothing short of legendary.
Clark scored 40 points in the quarterfinals against North Texas, 44 in the semifinals against Western Kentucky and then 48 -- including the winning basket with 1.8 seconds left in overtime -- in the 70-68 final over Arkansas-Little Rock. Oh, and she had 13, 14 and 16 rebounds in those three tournament games, too.
Apparently she also did this spinning-plates show (while blindfolded and riding a 15-foot-high unicycle) at halftime that had to be seen to be believed.
OK, that might be a fabrication. But the 132 points and 43 rebounds really happened. Let's break this down even more. She had 16 field goals in all three games, shooting 48-of-78 from the field (61.5 percent). She made 35 of 42 free throws (83.3 percent) and also compiled 10 assists and six steals.
The championship battle -- and it truly was a battle -- with UALR was Clark's personal Sweet 16 game: 16 field goals, 16 free throws, 16 rebounds.
It has to be one of the most complete league tournament performances ever. Although not officially confirmed, Middle Tennessee media relations reports that Clark's 132 points rank as the top league tournament performance in NCAA women's basketball history, surpassing the 128 in three games by Maine's Cindy Blodgett in the 1997 America East tourney.
But the first things I thought of to compare her performance to, scoring-wise, were: Jackie Stiles (of what now is called Missouri State) and Sheryl Swoopes (of Texas Tech when it was in the Southwest Conference).
But Clark, who is averaging 28.7 ppg this season, outdid even them. Stiles' best performance in the Missouri Valley tournament came when she scored a still-standing league record of 103 points in the 2000 tournament: 17 in the quarterfinals against Creighton, 56 in the semis against Evansville and 30 in the final (which Missouri State lost) against Drake.
Swoopes had 53 points in the 1993 SWC final over archrival Texas, but her three-game tournament total of 93 points is still not in Clark's ballpark. (It's of note, though, that Swoopes did compile 177 points in her five NCAA tournament games that year on the way to the national championship.)
I haven't had a chance to do a complete run-through of all Division I women's conference tournament scoring records, but Clark's points tally tops anything from the history of the current "big six" leagues. The best among the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10 (which has had a tourney since only 2002) is North Carolina State's Linda Page, who scored 100 points in three games of the 1983 ACC tournament as the Wolfpack were runners-up to Maryland.
Of course, what did Clark say after scoring 48 to help the Blue Raiders clinch the automatic bid Tuesday? That she was thinking she really needed to hit that winning bucket to make up for what she hadn't done earlier.
Seriously, she really said that.
"I was kind of upset because I missed a few shots before that I should have hit," she said. "My teammates had faith that I was going to stick it. It was the last seconds of the game, and I knew it was time for me to step up and make a big shot."
Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said, "That's a winner -- that's what she is. She's blessed. She's one of the best players I've had the privilege of coaching. We knew exactly where we were going with the basketball. I'm sure everybody on [their] team did, and everybody in the stands did. I was going to put it in her hands, and I knew she'd make a play."
Right place, right time? Yes, but consider the winding path for Clark to get to that moment in Hot Springs, Ark., on Tuesday.
She was born in Colorado, then lived in Utah and Kansas before settling in Tennessee, where she finished high school in Mt. Juliet. Some kids move that much, and they become very adept at making new friends quickly. Clark, who is more on the introverted side, said it wasn't really like that for her.
"I think I adapt well, but I'm also more to myself a little bit," she said. "I don't really click with a lot of people, I tend to have more a smaller group I do things with."
But she did click with her Middle Tennessee teammates almost instantly. The journey to Murfreesboro really started in earnest -- although she couldn't have known it at the time -- when she went to Mt. Juliet.
Clark acknowledged that she didn't necessarily take basketball very seriously until moving to Tennessee.
"It was like a huge wake-up call," she said. "Because I played volleyball in Kansas, and it was so serious there. When I came to Tennessee, basketball was the more prominent sport. I thought, 'Wow, this is a big deal.' And as I learned more about it, I enjoyed it more."
Clark got to know one older couple in Mt. Juliet who had been coming to high school basketball games since 1949, and they told her stories about the old six-on-six days for girls in Tennessee.
Of course, the scoring numbers that Clark put up at this Sun Belt tournament looked like what you might have seen from a forward in six-on-six. Clark's mom, Jan, actually played six-on-six while growing up in the state where that sport was most popular, Iowa.
But Alysha, who is the second-youngest of six siblings, is really the only hard-core hoopster in her family. While at Mt. Juliet, she said her coaches told her that she could make up for being an undersized post player with great footwork and diligence with fundamentals.
"Coming out of high school, most colleges wanted me to be a guard," Clark said. "And I was willing to do whatever to continue playing. But really and truly, I wanted to stay inside because that's all I've ever known."
She started her college career at Belmont University in Nashville, where she was the Atlantic Sun player of the year as a freshman and sophomore.
She had a huge amount of loyalty to the school because she felt it had stuck by her in the recruiting process after she'd seriously hurt her left hip while playing in high school. Yet there was no getting past the nagging feeling she was not quite in the right spot. But she was close to it.
So Clark transferred to Middle Tennessee, just south of Nashville in Murfreesboro.
She often has told the story of facing Insell's Shelbyville Central team when he was still coaching in high school. Mt. Juliet won the game, and afterward -- because the locker rooms were so close together -- Clark and her teammates could hear Insell giving his squad grief for the mistakes it made.
She might have laughed about it then, but it stuck with her that Insell was someone who demanded excellence.
"I knew what kind of coach he was and how he could help me get where I wanted to as a player," Clark said. "I had to make a decision for myself. I felt like I'd been doing things to make everyone else happy. I knew there was another level for me to go to if I wanted to improve my game."
Clark always has just a little bit of stubbornness to her. For instance, when she injured her hip in high school, in January of her junior year, she still tried to play in the game.
"I went back in the last minute of the second quarter and tried to run and it was like, 'Something is not right,'" she said. "But the funny thing is, I didn't want to leave for the hospital because our guys were playing next, and it was supposed to be a good game."
Clark laughs at the memory of her resisting going to get X-rays on what turned out to be a cracked hip, an injury similar to what Bo Jackson suffered. Clark was on crutches for two months, then came back to play in March.
And she remembered who kept calling and sending letters to her while she was hurt: the coaches at Belmont. That helped her make the decision to go to there, but after two seasons she knew it was time to leave.
"They weren't happy I was going, obviously, but they respected where I was coming," she said. "It was hard because it was like family."
However, Clark was able to become part of the Middle Tennessee family right away. And like at Belmont, Insell didn't try to force Clark to give up playing the forward position.
"It's been a long battle with that," Clark said. "I know everybody's going to be bigger than me. I have to just use the talents I have to my advantage. I know it's still something I have to keep proving even to this day. I don't mind; it's something that helps drive me.
"I know that if I want to play at the next level, I have to have an outside game, too. In the WNBA, it's the best of the best. That's just something I'm going to have to improve on more. It is something I've been working on."
Her first season with the Blue Raiders, she averaged 27.5 points, the best in Division I. And Middle Tennessee nearly pulled off an upset of Michigan State on the Spartans' home court in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Blue Raiders led most of the game, but then Clark fouled out with a minute and a half left.
MTSU fell 60-59, and Clark had 34 points. All summer long, she and her teammates thought about how close they'd come to that victory, and it fueled them.
A very tough nonconference schedule this season -- including a visit from Tennessee that packed the house in Murfreesboro in November -- has helped prepare the Blue Raiders (25-5) for the postseason. They lost just one Sun Belt conference game -- to UALR in Little Rock on Jan. 9 -- and avenged that in the league tournament.
They've now won 16 games in a row, and the senior-dominated squad (there are six) is ready to push further into the NCAA tournament.
Clark said that when she's racking up points as she did in the Sun Belt tournament, "It doesn't feel like I'm scoring that much. It kind of takes me by surprise when I see the numbers."
Maybe that's because the stats really don't matter to her. They're just a by-product of doing what she's supposed to do. Clark isn't intimidated by bigger opponents. She studies defenses and always has a game plan, but she also can improvise on the fly.
You hear great running backs in football say they watch film of themselves and can hardly believe the moves they make. Sometimes, Clark admits, some of her moves baffle her and her teammates.
"They'll say, 'I have no idea how you even made that shot,'" Clark said, chuckling. "And I'll say, 'You know what? I really don't know, either.'"
Clark said that one of her favorite WNBA players to watch is Tamika Catchings, because of her heart, hustle and defense. Clark wants to be a true all-around player, not just a scorer.
Still, she'll go down in the record books as having put on one of the great scoring performances in any conference's tournament history. Not to mention one of the great clutch performances. Because we also should mention this: Clark picked up her fourth foul with 7 minutes, 19 seconds left in regulation. So she played the last 12 minutes of the game -- with an NCAA berth on the line in her senior season -- with four fouls.
"She may have missed two little shots before that, but she was not going to miss that shot," Insell said of the winning basket. "She's just a winner. You know, you're born with that. You don't coach that."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
12dBonnie D. Ford