Ball St.'s upset is tourney's biggest ever
It's funny how people in sports throw around the term "historic" every other week -- if not more often. And so when something truly historic happens, sometimes they freeze in the face of it.
They describe why it happened -- in a state of numbness because of the surprise -- and so the magnitude of it seems explainable.
And yes, technically we can explain why fifth-seeded Tennessee lost to No. 12 seed Ball State 71-55 on Sunday. There are most definitely reasons. This was the most flawed, inconsistent, troubled team that coach Pat Summitt has ever had since taking over in Knoxville as a 22-year-old in 1974.
Tennessee, the two-time defending national champion and winner of eight NCAA titles overall, lost all five of its starters from last season. Including WNBA No. 1 draft pick Candace Parker.
Tennessee had six freshmen and one redshirt freshman. It lost its only experienced post player, Vicki Baugh, for the rest of this season to a knee injury on Feb. 2. The players lost the use of their plush locker room, they lost 11 games, they almost lost for the first time ever to Mississippi State, an SEC program that has been beating its head against an Orange wall for 23 years.
Summitt won her 1,000th game this season -- in Knoxville on Feb. 5 -- but it was ironic she would reach that peak in a season with so many valleys. She said during the course of this season that she'd never had a team in her entire career that had such low energy.
And in spite of all that, plenty of people, as they filled in their brackets, moved Tennessee along to the Sweet 16 -- or even further. After all, we've seen Summitt's crew in difficult seasons before, relatively speaking, come through when it really counted.
Many kept thinking the "real" Tennessee would show up in March, and do the kinds of things it always had done as it piled up an absurd 18 Final Four trips.
Even if we thought Tennessee might tumble early, we thought "early" would be in the second round -- which in and of itself would have been historic because the program had never previously lost before the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, which dates back to 1982.
But Ball State -- a No. 12 seed playing in the NCAA tournament for the very first time -- crushed the Orange Crush.
Most historic upset ever in the women's NCAA tournament? Yes.
More so than what most people previously considered the most historic: No. 16 Harvard's upset of No. 1 Stanford in 1998.
That's still the only time a No. 16 seed has won a game in the men's or women's NCAA tournament, and this is not meant to diminish that. But the asterisk next to it will always stand out. Stanford was nowhere near a No. 1 seed after losing two starters -- superstar Kristin Folkl and Vanessa Nygaard -- to ACL injuries days before the NCAA tourney opener. Stanford had a couple of practices to try to adjust to losing the heart of its team.
The Cardinal were so emotionally out of whack for that game that it's hard to describe its atmosphere -- from Stanford's perspective -- as anything but funereal. Plus, Harvard did have a future WNBA player, Allison Feaster, take over that game.
This is more "historic" because of what it indicates about the sport overall (hooray for the little guys' taking another big step) and the fact that it involves the sport's most historic program.
Regardless of Tennessee's flaws. Regardless of how Summitt's program had its lowest seed ever. Regardless of Kelley Cain's being injured (she had scored 10 points when she was sidelined) and missing the second half of Sunday's game.
We're talking "historic," and to qualify, you know Tennessee had to be involved. With all due respect to Stanford, which has won two NCAA titles, and to this year's No. 1 seed and overwhelming favorite, UConn, Tennessee has won more championships, been on top and represented the term "entrenched" more than any program in this sport.
Even people who know nothing else about women's basketball -- not one other thing -- know about Tennessee.
And that's what makes this the most historic upset in women's NCAA tournament history. We're at a time when the women's game is not mainstream but is still far more visible than even a decade ago, when Harvard got its huge victory.
Tennessee's losing in the second round of this tournament would have grabbed attention. Tennessee's losing in the first round to David Letterman's school is something even bigger.
Especially when you consider the backstory at Ball State, which makes this even more improbable. The Cardinals have a new coach this season in Kelly Packard. She replaced Tracy Roller, who'd been Ball State's coach for seven seasons.
Roller stepped down in April 2008, later bravely and honestly explaining she had been diagnosed with manic depression. Packard, who took over in May, played collegiately for Anderson University, a Division III school in Indiana, and graduated in 1990.
She was an assistant coach for five seasons at Colorado State in two separate stints in Fort Collins.
She was out of coaching for a while, and then guided the Colorado Chill for two seasons (2004-05, 2005-06) in the NWBL, a semipro league in which WNBA players who happened to be stateside during the winter passed the time.
Then she was out of coaching again. Packard had worked with Bowling Green head coach Curt Miller while both were at Colorado State as assistants. They remained friends, and Miller helped persuade Packard that the Ball State job might be a good entry back into coaching.
Then, of all things, it was Packard's Ball State team that upset Miller's Bowling Green squad in the Mid-American Conference tournament championship game, earning the Cardinals their first NCAA tournament bid.
Senior guard Porchia Green made two layups in the final 26 seconds of that 55-51 win. Against Tennessee, the Indianapolis native Green scored 23 points and had eight rebounds. Just add her to that state's phenomenal hoops lore.
Ball State moves on to face No. 4 seed Iowa State in the second round (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET Tuesday), and to continue the MAC theme: Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly began his head coaching career at Toledo.
Tennessee goes home and tries to comprehend how far wrong this season went -- just 12 months after the program had been the champion. Sunday's loss was a microcosm of this season: poor perimeter shooting (2-of-18 from behind the arc), more turnovers lost (16) than were forced (13) and shaky defense (Ball State shot 57.1 percent from the field in the second half).
Summitt instantly proclaimed this one of her most difficult losses, putting it in a category with the 1990 Elite Eight loss to Virginia, which kept Tennessee from playing in the Final Four on its home court. The year after that, Summitt won her third national championship.
Whether she and her program can rebound to that degree next year remains to be seen. What's certain, though, is that life will be hell for a while in Knoxville for the players who will try to regain Tennessee's swagger.
And for Ball State, there is truly a place in women's basketball and college sports history. No one else will ever beat the giant Tennessee in the NCAA first round for the first time ever. That distinction belongs forever to the Cardinals.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.
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