Ambivalent over Falwell affiliation, not Flames' wins

Originally Published: March 21, 2005
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Well, No. 13 seed Liberty is in the Sweet 16, and what can you say? Isn't it just the perfect pairing: women's basketball and Jerry Falwell?

I can think of only a few things more closely linked. Maybe ... Gloria Steinem and Saudi Arabia. PETA and the NRA. Exxon and Greenpeace. Molly Ivins and Ann Coulter. Mercury and Pluto.

Jerry Falwell and Liberty are one heck of a Cinderella story.

Who'd have guessed the "L-Word" for the NCAA Tournament would be Liberty?

It would be completely ignoring the obvious to not acknowledge that many women's hoops fans, who normally would be quite pleased with such an underdog's success, are feeling ambivalent about this one.

Obviously, the reverend is a polarizing figure. There are countless examples, but we'll cite a particular one: After the Sept. 11 tragedy, Falwell verbally rounded up the usual suspects – gays, pagans, abortionists, feminists, ACLU members – and implicated them in the attacks. He probably just forgot to add in cannibals and drivers who believe a "Left lane closed ahead" sign doesn't mean, "Get over now and wait your turn like everybody else," but rather, "Proceed speedily to the front of the bottleneck and force your way in."

Of course, then Falwell did tell CNN he was taken out of context and apologized if anyone got the wrong impression. Because, you know, his statement, "I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen,'" had been so ambiguous and unclear.

Alas, you might be uncomfortable or even angry with me now, saying, "OK, let's not bring politics and religion into basketball. Let's just focus on Liberty's team, never mind you-know-who."

Certainly, there's lots to talk about concerning Liberty, the basketball team. I'll get to that. But let's be realistic: There is no "separating" Liberty and Falwell. This surprise Sweet 16 team does warrant discussion about some fascinating but not often openly acknowledged sociological aspects about women's basketball. Including the diversity of the fan base.

At almost any game anywhere, you could have a lesbian (constantly speculating on who might be "with" whom) cheering wildly right alongside a grandmother (who wants a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage).

You have fans who know somebody, who knows somebody, who KNOWS high-fiving other fans whose mind-set is, "Don't ask, don't tell, don't think about it. They're just sharing expenses, like they did on 'Kate and Allie.'"

People representing every aspect of our country politically/socially can all be on the same "side" when it comes to pulling for a team. Whether any of them totally grasp that – or what it means – is up for debate.

And there's another "ironic" aspect of women's hoops. Religion in all forms has been a societal institution worldwide that at many times has been (and in some cases still is) diametrically opposed to women's very participation, let alone progress, in sports. Yet Catholic schools such as Immaculata played a huge role in developing and supporting women's collegiate basketball in its 1970s infancy.

So here we are with Liberty: A school founded by someone who has regularly denounced gay people and feminists (both of whom are a significant part of women's basketball) is also a school that's supportive of women's sport programs and has been the women's hoops powerhouse of the Big South conference for nearly a decade. And it's a chief example of how such smaller programs can be great NCAA Tournament stories.

Truth is, Liberty's success against Penn State and DePaul isn't any big shock. The program has been knocking on the door of a real postseason breakthrough for a while. The previous seven years, Liberty had been a No. 13, 14, 15 or 16 seed facing one of the best SEC schools. Liberty had to play Georgia three times, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, LSU and Tennessee in that span. Prior to that, in 1997, Liberty opened and closed NCAA play with No. 1 Old Dominion. And most of those times, Liberty was competing on its opponent's home court.

Liberty starts four seniors, including 6-foot-8 center Katie Feenstra (from Michigan) and 5-10 guard Kristal Tharp (from Ohio), who could have gone to play in any major conference if they had wanted to.

Two other senior starters, Rima Margeviciute and Daina Staugaitiene, are among three players from Lithuania on Liberty's roster, as a pipeline of sorts has been established. The other player out of Klaipeda, Lithuania, is freshman Egle Smigelskaite. Sophomore Karolina Piotrkiewicz, a transfer who was originally at Xavier, is from France. Freshman Roli-Ann Nikagbatse is from Germany. Incidentally, those five also provide a spelling challenge that tops anything I can ever recall facing in women's college hoops.

Liberty won at Kansas State in December, albeit with the Wildcats' Kendra Wecker having been sidelined the day before by an ankle injury. Folks I know gasped at the outcome and e-mailed to ask if it meant K-State was on its way over a cliff; I told them what it really meant was that Liberty was just plain good and had a very strong chance at making noise in the postseason because of its experience and talent.

And that's what Liberty has done. Does the ride end against No. 1 seed LSU in the Chattanooga Regional? Well, almost certainly, it does. But Liberty's run thus far is inspiring to the "mid-majors" and the "smalls" ... even if, simultaneously, it has made plenty of women's basketball observers/fans contemplate that this is one complicated Cinderella story.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at mvoepel@kcstar.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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