Spartans shaping up with Irish flare
INDIANAPOLIS About a month and half ago, when I kind of got fixated on this idea that "green" teams might go to the Women's Final Four, I also kind of got fixated on the comparison between Michigan State 2005 and Notre Dame 2001.
That Notre Dame group was kind of the perfect team in so much as every starter pretty much fit the exact definition of each position. There was center Ruth Riley, power forward Kelley Siemon, small forward Ericka Haney, shooting guard Alicia Ratay and point guard Niele Ivey.
Further, those five carried almost all the load all season. The bench realistically didn't go more than two deep in big games.
So it's a lot like the Michigan State group of center Kelli Roehrig, power forward Liz Shimek and guards Victoria Lucas-Perry, Lindsay Bowen and Kristin Haynie. Along with supersub sixth-woman Rene Haynes.
It's certainly not an exact comparison or anything. For one thing, the 6-foot-5 Riley was an All-American and has become an Olympian; Michigan State doesn't have a player that dominant. Plus, no one for Michigan State maintains the constant deep-freeze expression that Ratay did. (Then again, who does?)
And, of course, there are different spellings of Kelley and Kelli, Haney and Haynie (neither of whom should be confused with Haynes).
But Sunday, something else happened that made for a very weird coincidence between these two teams. Notre Dame came back from a 16-point deficit to win its national semifinal game against Connecticut. Michigan State came back from a 16-point deficit to win its national semifinal game against Tennessee.
Those two are tied for the biggest comebacks in NCAA Women's Final Four history. What are the odds? See why I'm fixated?
"I can see the similarities, sure," Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "But really with this team, I haven't looked for any comparison. They're their own cats."
And that's true. They've made it this far in an intriguing twists-of-fate way.
What if the ball scramble at the end of the Southern California game in the second round had gone the other way? What if the defensive adjustments made in the second half against Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16 didn't work? What if Bowen didn't hit the clutch shot near the end of the win over Stanford after she'd been 0-for-7 from the floor previously that night? And what if Roehrig had lost her composure after missing a point-blank open shot during the rally against Tennessee?
Yet this is how it often goes with teams that chase championships. They make things happen, and then good things happen for them. Before Haynes' ball-scramble basket against USC, Bowen had made some huge, high-pressure shots. Then when she was struggling against Stanford, Haynie and Shimek weren't. They were the rocks that game. Roehrig seems to keep a perpetually positive attitude, so a miss that could have stayed in another player's head didn't affect her. She hit her next big shot, then got the rebound and made the outlet pass for a layup that sealed the win over Tennessee.
Michigan State never tries to be a team that it can't be. The Spartans know what works for them and why. Shimek, the leading scorer and rebounder, is the epitome of that philosophy. She's adept with both hands, she has a lot of effective moves near the basket and she doesn't force what isn't there.
Look at Shimek's line when the smoke cleared against Tennessee: 14 points, 11 rebounds and no turnovers. That's the kind of game she's been having her whole career, but now she's on a stage where everyone can see it. Appreciating Shimek is a little like appreciating the pitcher who doesn't have an overpowering pitch but just the same gets people out. When you actually sit and watch it, you really see the effort and artistry of it.
McCallie has more than done her part, too, with the challenging schedule she put together this year including going to Notre Dame and to UConn and the way she has taught these players to constantly be maximizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. That sounds easy, but it really isn't at all.
So will Michigan State 2005 finish like Notre Dame 2001? We'll find out Tuesday night. But regardless, McCallie said, it won't change her opinion of her team.
"This is an exciting game obviously," she said. "But no matter which way it goes, there's already been too much proof in the pudding, so to speak. It would be very poetic for them to secure something so special, though, because I think they've earned it through a long, long journey."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at email@example.com.