- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Texas A&M coach Gary Blair would like to think his Aggies won more than just the Big 12 tournament title Sunday. He hopes they "won" the opportunity to steer clear of a potential meeting with Geno Auriemma's top-ranked Huskies anytime before the Final Four.
"Folks, I'm going to lobby here for just a bit," Blair said Sunday after a 74-67 victory over a gritty Oklahoma team in a well-played and exciting championship game. "You just saw two No. 2 seeds play. Now, whether they give us two No. 2 seeds -- that's up to the committee. But doggone it, we've earned the right not to be in Geno's region."
The prevailing wisdom is that when the brackets are revealed Monday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), Auriemma's Huskies -- the defending national champion working on a second consecutive perfect season -- will be in the Dayton Regional aka the region of dread, demolition, doom and desolation.
OK, let's not be ridiculous. Sure the Huskies are overwhelming favorites, but 15 others have to join them in that quarter of the bracket. And there's no way those teams' theme song should be (We're on the) "Eve of Destruction."
Those programs will just have to think positively! Or like Blair, you can always try to do a pre-emptive strike. On Saturday, Blair gave an endorsement to the undefeated team he beat on the way to the Big 12 title -- Nebraska -- as a No. 1 seed. On Sunday, he also tried to boost the Sooners, who fell short of winning that program's fifth Big 12 title.
Meanwhile, OU coach Sherri Coale has always taken a "Que Sera, Sera" attitude toward the selection committee, figuring those folks will do what they do and there's not much use trying to project it or lobby for anything.
Coale has always said no matter what, you're going to have to beat good teams to win it all. There is no tourney path that takes you on a leisurely stroll through a sunshine-drenched daisy field to the national championship.
Coale guessed OU would get a No. 3 seed, and overall she couldn't have been much more pleased with how hard the Sooners played in the league tournament. Between graduation and an injury, OU lost three of its five starters from last season's Final Four team. Yet here the Sooners were again, playing for a Big 12 title.
In the final, there were some layups and stick-backs in the second half that the Sooners just couldn't get to fall. Coale readily acknowledged playing three games in three days -- against Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M -- had left her players worn out.
"Amanda Thompson is absolutely spent," Coale said. "She and Danielle [Robinson] spent 40 minutes a game at warrior speed. I think of that layup Amanda missed, and [then] I look at her line. Are you kidding me? Who has a stat line like that?"
Thompson had 20 points, 19 rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks. For those who wondered how the Sooners were going to be on the boards after the leading rebounder in NCAA women's history, Courtney Paris, graduated, Thompson provided the answer.
Add in Robinson's performance at point guard: 18 points, five assists, three steals. And a strong showing off the bench -- 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting -- from freshman Joanna McFarland, the third member of her family to play Big 12 women's basketball. Older sisters Jessica (Kansas State) and Jackie (Colorado) preceded her.
"We feel great going into the [NCAA] tournament," Coale said. "Our preconference schedule and what we've had to fight through in the Big 12 there's no better preparation."
Indeed, consider that Oklahoma has played three of the projected four No. 1 seeds -- UConn, Tennessee and Nebraska -- plus possible No. 2s Texas A&M and Notre Dame. In fact, the Sooners played the Aggies three times.
OU won the matchup at home in Norman, but lost at College Station and then again Sunday. Coale thinks the Aggies' offensive options now make them tougher to guard than ever before in the Blair era, and three of the main reasons they got to celebrate a Big 12 title here in their hometown of K.C.
Danielle Adams, the tournament's most outstanding player, had 19 points and seven rebounds. Tyra White, who was on the all-tournament team, had 16 and six. And Tanisha Smith had eight and seven, while being the table-setter for a lot of what A&M does offensively.
"I was very emotional, very happy," said Adams, last year's juco national player of the year, who is from the K.C. suburb of Lee's Summit. "I've never won a championship in my life."
The interesting thing is that none of the three initially planned to be Aggies.
Smith, a senior, started her career at Arkansas, then went to junior college and then to A&M. Adams, a junior, pledged to Missouri. But she had some academic issues and went the juco route, then decided on A&M over last year's national runner-up, Louisville.
And White, a redshirt sophomore, committed to LSU, but opted out after coach Pokey Chatman resigned there. White then chose A&M, but endured an ACL injury that forced her to sit out the 2007-08 season. That's when the Aggies won the program's first Big 12 tourney, also here in K.C., and advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual national champion Tennessee.
Blair was in the same region as UConn last season, although the Aggies lost to Arizona State before having the chance to face the Huskies. That's why he's lobbying against seeing UConn in his quarter of the draw, although it's not as if Pac-10 champion Stanford or SEC champion Tennessee aren't very dangerous, too.
Nebraska -- far the outlier in NCAA tournament experience compared to the other projected No. 1 seeds -- won the Big 12's regular-season title with a perfect record, but A&M is the league's hottest team going into the Big Dance. The Aggies have won nine of their past 10.
The Aggies and Huskers have to go on the road to start the NCAA tournament, while fellow Big 12 teams Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State are early-round hosts. The conference is expected to also have Oklahoma State and Baylor make the field; if so, it will be the 10th time in the league's 14 seasons that it has had at least six teams in the NCAA tournament. The most the Big 12 has had is eight, in 2008.
However, that year only two of them survived into the Sweet 16 -- the Big East eliminated four of the Big 12 teams in the second round, while the ACC took out the other one.
Last year, Oklahoma made the Big 12's fourth appearance in the Final Four (not counting trips Texas and Texas Tech made when they were in the Southwest Conference). And of course, the Sooners would love to make a return visit to San Antonio, where they played in the program's first Final Four in 2002.
Texas A&M would love to be the "host" school in San Antonio as the Lone Star State representative. But there's a lot to accomplish before that happens.
"I really do think," Coale said, "there will be some surprises in the Final Four."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair and OU coach Sherri Coale agree there's no better preparation for the NCAA tournament than playing in the Big 12. Now, if they can only avoid UConn and the Dayton Regional.