Commentary

A&M's title caps unpredictable tourney

WNBA draft, coaching moves loom ahead -- and perhaps Baylor as the preseason No. 1

Originally Published: April 6, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel and Charlie Creme reflect on Texas A&M's victory and predict both the Aggies and Notre Dame to be among the top teams next year.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Texas A&M players were very happy to hear that the school's beloved collie mascot, Reveille VIII, was coming from Texas to Tuesday's national championship game here.

"One of my friends from College Station texted me and said, 'Reveille's going to be at the game. You should pet her,'" Aggies senior Maryann Baker said. "It was extremely exciting. Then I saw her before tipoff, and her tail was between her legs. She was very scared."

[+] EnlargeGary Blair
AP Photo/Amy SancettaGary Blair's national title is Texas A&M's first NCAA basketball championship for men or women.

Understandable. Reveille is used to the huge football crowds outdoors at Kyle Stadium back home. But all the indoor noise and excitement at Conseco Fieldhouse unnerved her a bit, so she was taken back to a quieter place in the arena.

But while Texas A&M's dog was a bit intimidated by the atmosphere at the Final Four, the so-called underdog teams here were not cowed in the slightest. To the contrary, the Aggies and Notre Dame, both No. 2 seeds, each beat two No. 1 seeds on the way to the NCAA championship game.

Notre Dame became the first team ever to defeat both Tennessee and Connecticut in the same tournament … but it wasn't the luck of the Irish for that to give them the NCAA title. Instead, it went to Texas A&M, which knocked off Big 12 rival Baylor in the Elite Eight and then another No. 1, Stanford, in the national semifinals.

The Aggies' 63-62 victory over the Cardinal, Notre Dame's 72-63 win over UConn, and then A&M's 76-70 victory against the Irish represented one of the most competitive and entertaining women's Final Fours in the event's 30-history. It was just the third time that all three games at the Final Four have been decided by single digits; the others were in 1991 and 2004. It had the first title game since the Maryland-Duke overtime thriller in 2006 that didn't involve either UConn or Tennessee. It had the oldest coach ever to win a Division I women's hoops title, as Texas A&M's Gary Blair at last grabbed the trophy at age 65.

"We gave you the national championship game without the so-called powers of the world," Blair said after the final. "The two powers tonight were the two that earned it, Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

"Either one of us deserves this trophy, but we played just a little bit better in the second half. Danielle Adams responded at halftime to what was open -- to quit shooting the jump shot and go inside and get them in foul trouble. Sydney Colson responded by playing the game the correct way, like a point guard should. That's why she'll be in the WNBA, just like Danielle."

[+] EnlargeKevin McGuff
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonAmong the many coaching changes, Kevin McGuff left Xavier to take over at Washington.

The WNBA draft will be April 11 at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. And if the pro teams hadn't already quite made up their minds about Adams and Colson, perhaps their performances in this NCAA tournament influenced them. Both will have plenty of things they need to work on at the pro level, like almost all rookies. But they did show why they were so valuable to their team as collegians and what they have to offer at the next level. Adams was the Final Four's most outstanding player, scoring 30 points in the title game and 16 in the semifinal. Colson had a combined 17 points, 11 assists and seven steals in the two games.

No one had any doubts about UConn's Maya Moore being ready to make that transition. And even if she didn't win a third NCAA title, she went out with a magnificent performance that underscored her ability to rise to the occasion: 36 points and eight rebounds in the loss to Notre Dame.

Moore is certain to be the No. 1 pick in the draft by Minnesota, and a lot of what happens after that is up in the air. And as it turned out, this NCAA tournament was also not as predictable as in recent years.

Since they were No. 2 seeds and were ranked in the top 10 pretty much all season, Texas A&M and Notre Dame weren't huge shocks to be in the title game. But they still were underdogs. As was Gonzaga, the No. 11 seed (OK, not really, but that's what the Bulldogs got) that made the Spokane Regional final.

Philadelphia No. 10 seed Marist made another run at a Sweet 16, and Dallas No. 5 Green Bay actually did make it to the regional semifinals for the first time in the program's history. Spokane No. 7 seed Louisville, which was in the 2009 NCAA title game, accelerated its reloading process with a run to the Sweet 16, including knocking off No. 2 Xavier.

The Musketeers -- often an underdog in past NCAA play -- didn't adjust well to the role of favorite in this tournament. And now Xavier also has lost its coach, as Kevin McGuff is leaving his Midwestern stomping grounds to see if he can rejuvenate a once-competitive Washington program.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
Mark D Smith/US PresswireMelissa Jones will be gone, but Baylor gets Brittney Griner and the rest of the roster back.

While the Pac-10 gained McGuff, it lost one of its rising coaching stars, Nikki Caldwell. After three successful seasons at UCLA, the former Tennessee player and assistant moved back to the SEC to take over at LSU, which missed the NCAA tournament this year for the first time since 1998.

There are still more coaching moves to be made, but it doesn't appear that Katie Meier -- who shared Associated Press coach of the year honors with UConn's Geno Auriemma and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer -- is leaving Miami. Her Hurricanes, the No. 3 seed in the Dayton Regional, won their first NCAA tournament game since 1993 and might be the favorites next season in the ACC.

Along with the coaching merry-go-round, there will be player departures and transfers. Tennessee, which won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles but was bitterly disappointed to lose to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, has this week lost players Kelley Cain, who is foregoing her final season of eligibility, and freshman Lauren Avant, for whom things didn't click this season in Knoxville.

Tennessee also graduates Angie Bjorklund, but the Lady Vols have a lot coming back and as usual will be in the mix next season for the NCAA championship. Same with Stanford, despite losing seniors Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen.

Moore is irreplaceable at UConn … but then again, so was Diana Taurasi in 2004. The Huskies still got back to national-championship form five years after Taurasi's departure, and we'll see how long it takes after Moore is gone. Notre Dame, led by Skylar Diggins, might be the Big East favorite next season and will have an additional fire lit by the loss in the NCAA final.

Baylor, which loses senior starter Melissa Jones, might be the preseason No. 1 pick in November, behind Brittney Griner. And even though Texas A&M loses Adams and Colson, the Aggies have back their other three starters, including clutch-shooting Tyra White.

The Aggies also lose the senior guard Baker, one of those players that Blair especially loves: the unassuming, blue-collar, hard-working cog in the machine. However many minutes she got, Baker was always upbeat and ready to give everything she had. In games as close as those were in this Final Four, every minute on court mattered. Baker had two points and an assist in seven minutes against Stanford, and two points and a rebound in 10 minutes versus Notre Dame.

Plus, after the championship game, she did get to pet Reveille.

"And I took a picture with her with the trophy," Baker said. "I got the most out of it."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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