- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- It's not the inevitability of winnowing down a bracket to a single champion -- or even the rumored invincibility of the field's favorite -- that makes the opening weekend of this or any NCAA tournament such a spectacle.
It's the weight of not just the probable but of the possible hanging in the air.
"It's March," Lehigh senior Claire Sullivan said when asked why anyone should give her team a chance Saturday against Auburn.
Added teammate Erica Prosser: "Anything can happen in March."
By the time the nets come down in St. Louis, only one team will finish its season with a victory. But for now, there are 64 teams stepping off buses at largely unfamiliar arenas and setting hotel wake-up calls that might serve only to mark the end of largely sleepless nights. And there are 64 collections of stories that got them to this point.
When Saturday's game tips (ESPN2, noon ET), Lehigh co-captain Sullivan likely will be watching the action from the bench. The fifth-year senior has started just two games this season, the fewest starts she has had since she was a freshman. Third all-time in assists at the school, Sullivan now plays behind Prosser, a sophomore point guard and the Patriot League player of the year after leading her team in points, assists and steals.
"I just look at it as Erica is a great player, a great kid," Sullivan said. "I've learned as much from her as hopefully she's learned from me. It's what works best for our team. We play well together when we're on the floor together, and I think also I can come in and kind of switch things up a little bit, be more of a distributor, give her a little break, buy her a little time. I look at it as I'm in the supporting role, and that's what works best for me right now where I'm at in my career and also what works best for the team."
It's easy to find evidence of how successful the arrangement has become on the court for the Mountain Hawks. They are the only team of the four in Piscataway with two players who both have at least 100 assists and a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. Their ball control helped the team lead the league in scoring, scoring margin and field goal percentage en route to 26 wins.
Less obvious from reading the black and white of the stat sheet is how the two players have formed a mutually supportive relationship out of what could have been a contentious situation. As the senior and the sophomore sought each other out in the sea of celebrating students who stormed the court in the moments after Lehigh held off archrival Lafayette in the championship game of the conference tournament, their embrace told a story of its own.
"They're each other's cheerleaders; they get excited when they do something well," co-captain Tricia Smith said.
In no small part, perhaps that's because Sullivan has been in Prosser's shoes. Five years ago, she was the talented newcomer out of Connecticut pushing senior point guard Chantal St. Laurent for playing time. St. Laurent held the starting job, but by the end of the season, the two were splitting minutes equally at the position. Like this season, the team's 10-4 conference record was an indication of the senior's willingness to share.
"She really helped me a lot," Sullivan said of St. Laurent. "There wasn't ever any competition; it was, 'Yeah, we play the same position, but we're teammates, and if I help you, I'm helping the group.' So that was a really good lesson for me to learn as a freshman and it's something I've tried to carry through with E -- just making sure I'm helping her get better, because when she gets better, the whole group is going to get better."
Prosser has grown into the kind of distributor who stopped looking for her own shot and kept making sure sharpshooter Alex Ross got the ball when the latter settled into a hot streak during the first half of the game against Lafayette. That was a far cry from how Prosser recalled her first start as a freshman, when she turned over the ball twice within the span of about a minute and quickly found herself back on the bench watching Sullivan. And she's not in the least bit hesitant to admit how much watching -- and listening -- to her teammate helped her replace any sophomore slump with the rarer sophomore surge.
"I absolutely would not be where I am without Claire; she's just incredible as a person," Prosser said. "Playing the point guard role, she's definitely helped me develop, and I just can't thank her enough. When I earned the starting position, she stepped back so gracefully. She never complained about it for one second, and she's always been so supportive."
Whatever happens against Auburn, it's also a relationship that bodes well for the wider world beyond the NCAA tournament. Sullivan and Prosser share not only a position on the basketball court, but also career objectives off it, where both want to pursue careers in human rights advocacy. Sullivan soon will leave the East Coast for a two-year stint in Hawaii with the prestigious Teach for America program. After that, it's law school, and if all goes well, a future mediating peace negotiations and helping secure the human rights of refugees and prisoners of war in conflict-riddled regions.
For Prosser, interested in the same trajectory of academic study, that has meant another opportunity to soak up any and all advice and counsel Sullivan has to offer.
"She's really been helping me with class selection and really just thinking about job opportunities that I could have after school," Prosser said. "Like I said, she's a great person and a great friend. She's really been helpful in all areas of my life so far."
There's plenty for Sullivan to look forward to whenever her basketball career concludes, and after five years, a torn ACL and a torn MCL, her body offers plenty of reminders every day of how little it has left to give. But for a player with the maturity to sacrifice her own glory, mentor the future and channel a competitive spirit into making the most of the minutes she gets, a first-round game many will dismiss as a foregone conclusion means everything.
"For me, it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Sullivan said. "And I hope it's not for the rest of the girls in that locker room. But I think for me, this moment is that much more special because it took until my fifth year to get here. It's kind of that culminating point."
That's what this weekend is all about.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
12dBonnie D. Ford