Five things to watch in Sweet 16
There are those who say the world's best stories are nothing more than the product of professional liars. If so, the reality of the women's NCAA Tournament might make liars of us all.
(13) Liberty-(1) LSU, noon (ESPN)
(6) Georgia-(2) Duke, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
(3) Minnesota-(2) Baylor, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
(5) ASU-(1) UNC, 11 p.m. (ESPN2)
(4) Texas Tech-(1) Tenn., noon (ESPN)
(3) Rutgers-(2) OSU, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Kansas City Regional
(5) Vandy-(1) MSU, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
(3) UConn-(2) Stan., 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
All tipoffs ET
Hey, there's nothing wrong with folks who aren't anxiously counting down the hours until the women's NCAA Tournament resumes on Saturday, just as there's nothing wrong with those of us watching the clock. In a sporting landscape bloated with both options and promotion, we're all free to choose where we spend our viewing capital. But if you're inclined toward hoops to begin with, the first two rounds of the tourney haven't lacked for excitement, drama and the groundwork for some titanic clashes ahead.
With that in mind, here are five things worth keeping an eye on this weekend:
This isn't a paean to parity in the women's game, but Cinderella is no longer just a drag queen. Once essentially exclusive to the men's bracket (although Allison Feaster and No. 16 seed Harvard remain the only such seed to win an opening-round game in either the men's or women's tourney), double-digit dancers are gaining more of a foothold in the second weekend of the women's tournament.
Middle Tennessee State took out an NC State squad many felt was overrated as a No. 5 seed before falling to Texas Tech in the second round, but Cinderella's slipper fit snugly on Katie Feenstra's size 15 foot, as the Liberty Lady Flames knocked off both fourth-seeded Penn State and DePaul to advance. And even if Liberty's run ends roughly at the hands of overall top seed LSU (ESPN, noon ET Saturay), Feenstra is still worth watching for another 40 minutes.
Neither the tallest woman to ever play in the tourney nor the first player of her size to show some agility and touch -- 6-foot-8 Lindsay Taylor, who reached the Sweet 16 with UC Santa Barbara just last year was no freak -- Feenstra is a rare blend of big skills at a small school. Against both the Lady Lions and Blue Demons, Feenstra seemed to dictate tempo on both ends of the court, taking full ownership of the low block on offense and discouraging cutters, let alone shots, in the lane on defense. LSU has the size, not to mention abundant speed and quickness, that both Penn State and DePaul lack, but Feenstra might be enough of a presence to make the Lady Tigers beat the Flames at Liberty's game. Regardless, her battle with gifted shot-blocking freshman Sylvia Fowles has the potential to be a classic. Here's hoping the refs don't deprive us of seeing that duel by saddling either with cheap fouls early in the game.
As an expatriate Hoosier, I never cease to get questions, and snide comments, about corn. Like Bubba in "Forrest Gump," I'm expected to pontificate on the wonders of cornbread, corn chowder, corn on the cob, corn pudding, and so on. But the stereotype isn't entirely accurate. All right, the state does exude a certain agricultural vibe, but corn production ranks a distant third behind soy beans ... and jump shooters. Nobody knows more about the latter than Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who routinely raids the state for quality snipers (occasionally stopping off to grab big-city talent like Indianapolis' Shyra Ely). So like Abby Conklin before her, Shanna Zolman relocated to Knoxville and hasn't stopped shooting since.
Zolman isn't Tennessee's best athlete, is somewhat miscast running the offense when Loree Moore rests, and might have trouble checking Smokey, Tennessee's mascot, off the dribble. But make no mistake, Tennessee's title hopes rest squarely on the wrist, palm and fingers of her right hand. Kansas State's Laurie Koehn had the prolific totals and area-code range, but Zolman is the purest shooter in the women's game. Her motion is effortless, the ball arcing in a high textbook parabola from a picture-perfect release point.
There's something compelling about watching a great shooter, especially when she gets on a roll. It's the crowd's collective intake of air as the pass heads in her direction, the defense desperately lunging to close out, knowing as well as the crowd that if the ball gets in the air it's not stopping until it comes out of the bottom of the net. But early in the season, cringing was a more natural crowd reaction when the ball headed toward Zolman, the shooting slump being the yin to the "zone's" yang. Whether it was the oft-mentioned conversation with her dad about having more fun or the simple vagaries of statistical probability, Zolman emerged from her own personal winter with a flourish and shot up a storm in the first two rounds. Watch a few minutes of a Tennessee game, and you'll see what we really grow in Indiana.
Should No. 2 seed Ohio State be worried entering its Sweet 16 game against Rutgers? Well, the Scarlet Knights ended Connecticut's run of Big East regular-season titles, handed LSU its only regular-season loss and lost by just two to the Buckeyes ... in Columbus ... with Cappie Pondexter playing just 19 minutes. Other than that ...
Unlike the men's NCAA Tournament, the first two rounds of the women's tournament haven't yet embedded themselves in the consciousness of casual fans, but Pondexter spent the opening rounds laying out her campaign for stardom, scoring 25 points on 7-of-14 shooting against Temple and 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting against Hartford. Considering Rutgers cruised through the regular season on the strength of its tenacious defense, finding it with the tourney's leading scorer should be enough to leave even the dour C. Vivian Stringer giddy with excitement.
Pondexter certainly hasn't come out of nowhere after earning All-American mention last season, but it's not wholly inaccurate to say she has come out of hibernation this March. She missed the first eight games of the season for undisclosed personal reasons and started just five times in 23 appearances before the NCAA Tournament, averaging fewer minutes per game than several teammates. She remained the team's leading scorer, but at Rutgers, that's akin to serving the best Thai food in Gillette, Wyo. A terrific point guard, Pondexter will happily make a statement with her passing if Ohio State spends too much energy stopping her shot, but one way or the other, she's likely to be front and center on Saturday.
The Michigan State Spartans might have the most fitting nickname in college sports. Like the ancient city-state, which survived and thrived for centuries against larger foes by rearing its own to be warriors first and foremost, both Tom Izzo and Joanne P. McCallie have built championship-caliber programs in East Lansing by feeding off the state's high-school products. Flint has long been fertile territory for Izzo, but McAllie's top-seeded Spartans are equally homegrown. There are no mercenaries here, with nine players from Michigan and only two from outside Michigan and Ohio. That regional pride is somewhat lost in the fame of a national program, but make no mistake, bringing a title back to Michigan would mean something extra to the Spartans.
No player is a better representation of that spirit, or of Michigan State's toughness and talent, than senior guard Kristin Haynie. This isn't to say Haynie is worth watching because she's a nice story; she's worth watching because she's the one setting up all the baskets for Liz Shimek, Lindsay Bowen and Kelli Roehrig. Haynie manages to average double figures herself, but it's the three steals, six rebounds and five assists she puts up that keep bringing your eyes back to her on the court.
Pride won't beat Vanderbilt, and it certainly won't beat Connecticut or Stanford if the Spartans advance past the Commodores. But it does ensure Haynie and the rest of her teammates will play hard through the final buzzer. And given their talent, that's something worth watching.
The best part about Tasha Humphrey's starring role in this year's NCAA Tournament? You won't hear one minute of debate about her prospects of returning to school next year. Not that Humphrey wouldn't, or shouldn't, jump at the chance to secure her financial future, but the WNBA just doesn't offer that sort of monetary windfall. So while it might be less academic idealism than financial realism that keeps continuity in the women's game, Humphrey will be around for three more seasons.
The on-court glue of a Georgia team that desperately needed the freshman to step up and fill the role, Humphrey plays with the maturity of an tournament-tested upperclassman. Perhaps more importantly, she also plays with the post game of a WNBA power forward. Georgia's leading scorer at 19.1 points per game in the regular season, Humphrey has been so intimidated by the spotlight of tournament play that she posted 26 points in a second-round heavyweight bout against Tiffany Jackson and Texas.
There are still holes in Humphrey's game -- Jackson scored 30 in that second-round contest, although Humphrey wasn't solely responsible -- but those holes aren't what concern Gail Goestenkors and the Duke Blue Devils (ESPN, 2:30 p.m. Saturday). The prospect of guarding Mistie Williams and going to work in a post area clogged by Alison Bales could unnerve just about any player, but if the rest of the season is any indication, Humphrey might be too busy controlling the game to be overwhelmed by the surroundings.
Either way, it won't be the last you hear of Humphrey.