Same venue, new story lines in Raleigh
Baylor, Louisville, Maryland and Vanderbilt all seek dates in Elite Eight
RALEIGH, N.C. -- The last time I was in North Carolina's capital city for the NCAA tournament was two years ago, in March 2007.
I've been back here several times since, most recently in January at the funeral service for NC State coach Kay Yow. But returning to the RBC Center, which was a host site for the NCAA first and second rounds in 2007, reminds me of how much can happen in so relatively short a period as 24 months, and how that plays into the regional games we'll see here in 2009.
Saturday, No. 2 seed Baylor meets No. 3 Louisville (ESPN, noon ET), followed by No. 1 Maryland versus No. 4 Vanderbilt (ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET). Two years ago, all four of those programs lost in the NCAA tournament's second round.
The most surprising of those losses then was Maryland, which at the time was the defending NCAA champion. The Terps were upset by Mississippi in 2007, and soon after, Maryland coach Brenda Frese's top assistant, Jeff Walz, left to take over at Louisville.
Those Cardinals had never been to the Sweet 16 before. Now, they've made it this far two years in a row.
"We all want to take a step further in our program and we really want to get to St. Louis," Louisville senior Angel McCoughtry said.
McCoughtry is from Baltimore, and she originally committed to St. John's. Things weren't working out academically, though, so she went to a college prep school in North Carolina.
Then in the second recruiting process, Maryland -- being near her hometown -- was in the running for McCoughtry. She opted away from the Terps, however, when Marissa Coleman committed there, thinking they would compete too much for playing time.
It has worked out well for both programs. McCoughtry has combined with Candyce Bingham as Louisville's "dynamic duo," and Coleman has done the same with Kristi Toliver at Maryland.
The Terps hope for the same result this Sweet 16 as they had last year when they faced Vanderbilt. Maryland won that game by 12 points, but of course had Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper then. They graduated, but Toliver and Coleman are still together, finishing their fourth season.
"Our chemistry has been there since the beginning," Toliver said. "It's only continued to grow. It's frightening how well we know each other's game."
Frightening if you're an opponent, for sure. Walz has to worry about Baylor on Saturday, so he's not looking at Maryland. But, obviously, he knows the Terps very, very well.
"I was fortunate to be able to coach at Maryland with Marissa and Kristi," Walz said. "They both have learned to play really well with each other on the floor. It's fun to watch. You'll see them come down in transition, and Toliver will make a pass before Coleman cuts. And you'll see Coleman make the pass before Toliver is even behind the 3-point line.
"Angel and Candyce are the same in a way, except Angel does not have the ball in her hands bringing it up the floor like Toliver does. So Angel and Candyce do a great job of playing off of each other in the post. Everybody knows we're trying to get the ball to Angel and let her create. Candyce does a great job of knowing where to get on the court."
Louisville is Bingham's hometown, but she thought it best to move a bit away and so started her career at Xavier. She changed her mind and transferred after her sophomore season, so she has had just two years with McCoughtry. Yet they still click very well together.
"I've heard us called 'Batman and Robin,'" Bingham said. "She would be Batman, I would be Robin. And I'm OK with that. I think it's been really good for this program, and we both love playing together."
There is yet another dynamic duo at this regional in Vanderbilt's Jennifer Risper and Christina Wirth, the senior starters who've combined for 85 points and 27 rebounds in the Commodores' two NCAA tournament games.
Asked which one would be which if they were compared to Batman and Robin, Risper said, "Batman's bigger, right? I'll put Tina as Batman."
Yes, Wirth is the biggest of the Commodores' starters at 6 feet, 1 inch. Vandy is now pretty much a team of guards, some of whom have to act like posts. Risper has done that very well, especially since forward Hannah Tuomi has been out since the end of February with a stress fracture.
"We convinced Jennifer Risper that she had an advantage in the post, and she has accepted that role," Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb said of Risper's quickness and guard skills helping her inside.
Wirth acknowledges that as the Commodores entered the SEC tournament, they were all wondering just how well they could do without Tuomi, who averaged 11.4 points and 5.9 rebounds.
In winning the SEC tourney and making the Sweet 16, they have all answered that question. But Risper excelling even though she doesn't "look" the part of a post player is particularly inspiring.
"I guess I say it's a little bit of a mental thing," Risper said. "I embraced the role. I think everything is always easier when you want to do it."
Baylor's players could relate to that sentiment. The team's leading scorer and rebounder, Danielle Wilson, went out with an injured knee Feb. 28. In the seven games since, Baylor has had five different players lead the Lady Bears in scoring.
"This is a team that's wrapped itself around my heart as a coach," Baylor's Kim Mulkey said. "Because they win in spite of all the things they have no control over. I was thinking of all the things we've had happen to us."
Two years ago, right here in Raleigh, the team found out then-senior Bernice Mosby's family had lost everything when her mother's house burned down.
One Baylor player, Morghan Medlock, lost her mother in December to a homicide. Another, Rachel Allison, came to Baylor in 2005 not knowing what happened to her cousin, Natalee Holloway, who had disappeared earlier that year in Aruba. Four years later, she still doesn't know.
Then last weekend, Baylor played its NCAA first-round game without Mulkey, who was hospitalized with complications after kidney stone surgery.
"My health is getting better," Mulkey said, then explained what happened is still sort of a mystery.
"The blood work came back with lots of major issues," she said of tests done because she was worried about her breathing patterns. "It was thought it could be anything from ovarian cancer to sepsis we don't know what caused all the issues, but it's starting with the liver. It was affected by medication or the anesthesia or whatever.
"Within a matter of three days, my lab results have come back heading in the right direction. Significantly in the right direction. I feel good, like I have more energy. The first 24 hours of being scared to death are gone. I'm not going to go away that easy."
And it was impossible to hear that, in Raleigh, and not think of someone else who didn't go easily. Someone who fought for her life as hard as life has ever been fought for: Kay Yow.
Two years ago in this building, Yow's NC State team beat Baylor and advanced to the Sweet 16. Yow at that point had trouble even eating, as cancer had returned to her a third time. Yet she was the story of the 2007 tournament, summoning the energy to come back to the sidelines.
Yow died in January, but obviously the memory of her lingers here. The RBC Center was not her team's home gym -- that's Reynolds Coliseum on campus -- yet it was in this facility that she had her final NCAA tournament triumph.
It's noteworthy, then, to look at the four coaches here -- Balcomb and Mulkey (both 46), Frese (38) and Walz (37) -- and recognize one more way all these story lines come together. They are part of the current younger generation of coaches who've paid their dues but also are quick to thank the "pioneers" before them. There is a generation coming up right after them, and you hope its members, too, will forever appreciate the Yows of their profession.
"You realize what the coaches in front of us did -- they paved the path," said Frese, who has a national championship, as does Mulkey. "They are the ones that got us to the point where every game [in the tournament] would be televised.
"Because of what they did, what coaches my age are hopefully doing for the game is bringing greater parity. That was something we've all wanted to get to, and over the next many years, you'll keep seeing that happen."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.
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