Temple, Rutgers battle for bragging rights
Temple meets Rutgers on Tuesday for the right to return triumphantly as toast of the town in the Philadelphia Regional.
All things considered, this matchup may be happening at least one round too early. The Owls are on a 25-game winning streak, and they don't much seem like a No. 6 seed. But, this is how it is.
The more important thing is this game is happening at all. There are storylines that would make for a primetime special, which is what this game will be on Tuesday night.
As soon as the bracket came out, I thought that if the seeds held, this would be dubbed, "The Honorary Mel Greenberg Game."
In case you are new in following women's hoops, Mel has been writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer since the days of actual typewriters and was the originator of the women's national poll. Back in the mid-1970s, of course, there were no games on TV and no Internet, so all input from coaches came via phone calls. It took a tremendous amount of work and dedication, and the sport forever owes Mel a debt of gratitude for being a consummate and tireless professional at a time when very few sports writers had any idea women's basketball even existed. And he's still cutting edge on following and reporting on the sport.
I happened to be reading an article in one team's postseason guide the other day, and someone referred to the originator of the women's poll as "Hank Greenberg." That would be the Detroit Tigers' legendary slugger, who is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. No offense to Mel, but I don't think he ever got around on the fastball quite like Hank.
However, nobody knows Temple and Rutgers women's hoops like Mel, who is a Temple alum. He's seen Temple coach Dawn Staley grow up -- through Dobbins Tech High in Philly, through Virginia, through the Olympics, through the WNBA and as a college head coach.
And I'm pretty sure Mel started covering C.Vivian Stringer's coaching career when she was 6 years old and running teddy bears through line drills.
-- Mechelle Voepel
Of course, Stringer and Staley would just as soon this game be about their players, not them. And, indeed, there will be some outstanding players on the floor.
Rutgers has the leadership of Cappie Pondexter, Chelsea Newton, Nikki Jett and Michelle Campbell (who always has to play "bigger" than she is, and does it.) And the Scarlet Knights have two of the country's top freshmen in Matee Ajavon (don't look now, but she's already past you) and Essence (At the Rim) Carson.
Rutgers had its big splash in late December-early January, when it beat Tennessee, Texas and LSU in succession. The Knights split regular-season games against Connecticut, then lost to the Huskies in the Big East tournament final ... you might have heard something about a "difference of opinion" between Stringer and UConn coach Geno Auriemma after that game.
But did you know that Temple beat Rutgers in their regular-season meeting, 71-60 on Dec. 13? The Owls got a huge game that day from one of their senior leaders, guard Cynthia Jordan, with 28 points.
She and fellow senior Ari Moore, plus junior Candice Dupree and sophomore Kamesha Hairston have started every game this season and all are averaging 30-plus minutes per game. They're Temple's iron women, and they play the game in a reflection of their coach.
Staley is in her fifth season at Temple and wants the spotlight to go away from her. But it's hard to make that happen, because she's such a phenomenal story. Anyone who saw Staley in college at UVa recalls what a heartbreaker it was to see her go to three Final Fours and never get a championship.
Yet sometimes I wonder if maybe that wasn't the "fuel" for what's kept her going this long as a WNBA/Olympic player and now a college coach. Maybe she'd have done it anyway, even if the Cavaliers had won all three NCAA titles. But perhaps those disappointments just strengthened the resolve she already had.
Staley has had so much success since her college playing days -- including three Olympic gold medals -- that sometimes I almost forget that she didn't "win it all" at UVa And that's really cool, because Staley is as much a "winner" as anyone in college hoops.
Stringer is just a legendary figure, even if she's not particularly popular in Hartford, Conn., these days. She spent 11 years at Cheyney State, 12 at Iowa and is now in her 10th season at Rutgers. She's taken all three programs to the NCAA Final Four.
Rarely do you get so many big storylines, so much emotion and history, in one NCAA Tournament game. Let alone a second-round game. Enjoy this one, folks.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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