- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- They come from far and wide to the first two days of the NCAA tournament, 64 teams with different hopes -- hopes of winning a national championship, making a longer-than-expected run or merely prolonging seasons and sometimes careers for even 40 more minutes.
So many stories that are easy to miss when half of them end in the blink of a basketball eye.
What they share is that they all come from somewhere. In No. 12 seed Bowling Green's case -- as it prepares to play fifth-seeded Michigan State in the first round Saturday (ESPN2, ESPN360, noon ET) -- it's a place easily overlooked as you drive north or south along the western edge of Ohio. A place where the orange and brown of the Cleveland Browns take a backseat to the local sporting passion, the orange and brown of the Bowling Green Falcons.
"It's something you don't experience in every college town," senior Tamika Nurse said. "It's something that's really special. A lot of people will drive up and down I-75 and never pull off at exit 71; they'll never make the stop. But if you do, it's something that's just special."
Nurse clearly has a rooting interest in that debate, but she also has more points of comparisons than many. It's only about a five-hour drive from Bowling Green to Freedom Hall in Louisville, but Nurse took a rather circuitous route to what will be her first and last NCAA tournament.
And it's not without some irony that Donovan McNabb's niece is a walking, smiling, dribbling embodiment of the maxim that sometimes a change of scenery makes all the difference. After playing her first three seasons at Oregon, Nurse is making her only season in orange count.
"I'm never going to knock what I went through," Nurse said. "I'm never going to knock my decision to go to Oregon. It made me the person I am today. It made me be able to cherish a moment like this. It made it that special. So I would never change anything, but I'm glad I am where I am."
Nurse's route wasn't just transcontinental; it was international. Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, she grew up following her aunt Raquel Nurse (now Raquel McNabb) during her basketball career at Syracuse, and watching the NCAA tournament on television every year and dreaming of going south to play college basketball in the United States. That decision eventually came down to Oregon, Eastern Michigan (then coming off a MAC title and NCAA appearance under the direction of current Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant) and Bowling Green.
At the time, Bowling Green was taking its first tentative steps toward conference relevance early in new coach Curt Miller's tenure. There were family connections -- Miller was an assistant at Syracuse when Nurse's aunt played there -- but the lure of Oregon, with its Pac-10 amenities and an assistant coach who also served as the national coach for Canada, won out in the end over the uncertainty of one-bid territory in the MAC.
Nurse played immediately for the Ducks, off the bench as a freshman and as the team's leader in minutes as a sophomore. But it was after that latter season, again watching the NCAA tournament on television instead of playing in it, that she found Bowling Green back in front of her.
"I'm sitting home in March and I'm watching ESPN, and here is Curt Miller and Bowling Green Falcons and they're playing in the Sweet 16," Nurse said, posing a question to herself. "What are you doing? On spring break, doing nothing.
"So I watched him turn this program and turn it into this staple program, this highly respected mid-major. And I watched the winning tradition at Bowling Green flourish from a distance. So when it came time to transfer, it was almost like the light bulb came on in my head."
She started 18 more games as a junior in 2007-08, but the time to transfer came after that season, when she and former Oregon coach Bev Smith decided by mutual agreement that it was best she move on. It was perhaps not a happy time, but it is not one she looks back on with any animosity.
"I learned how to appreciate, I think, the simple things in life in Oregon," Nurse said. "I learned that it rained a lot. I learned that I might like the snow a little bit. But I think everything happens for a reason. I truly believe that. And coming here and being able to be in an NCAA tournament, to play in Louisville, play on a big scale, it just affirmed that for me. That everything absolutely happens for a reason."
Given his familiarity with both Nurse and her family, Miller welcomed her despite her one remaining season of eligibility, an accommodation he said he wouldn't have made for anyone else. She sat out last season to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements but is a fixture in the lineup this season, starting each of the team's 33 games entering Saturday and playing more minutes for the Falcons than anyone but reigning two-time MAC player of the year Lauren Prochaska.
Nurse leads the team in assists, shoots 38.7 percent from the 3-point line and is good enough taking the ball to the basket to lead the team in free throw attempts. Either paired in the backcourt with fellow point guard Tracy Pontius (herself second on the team in points, assists and steals) or spelling Pontius to extend legs at the end of the game, Nurse makes her impact felt.
Conventional wisdom holds that experienced backcourts reign in the postseason, and even if Nurse is in her first season in this uniform, she, Pontius and Prochaska form one of the best.
"Early in the season, when you're coming back off a year off, there's some rust," Miller said. "And [she was] trying to find her place with another very talented point guard on the floor. So we, for the first time, were playing with two true point guards on the floor at the same time. So she's playing more 2-guard, and then when we move her to the point, she can change the tempo for us.
"There was an adjustment period, and certainly we're playing better basketball in January and February than we were in November and December. And part of that is her comfort level has really taken us to a new level."
From Ontario to Oregon to marathon summer workouts with her uncle at his offseason home in Arizona, Nurse took the scenic route to find her own way to exit 71 off I-75 in northern Ohio. But that route also led her to Louisville and the NCAA tournament she always dreamed of playing in. With an easy smile and aspirations for a career in broadcasting, Nurse is naturally gregarious and inquisitive -- sitting at the podium Friday while she waited for a news conference to begin, she happily quizzed one of the local staffers on when the Kentucky State Fair took place in the complex the grounds share with Freedom Hall. But there are two words she doesn't waste much time on: what if.
"You write your own history," Nurse said. "It's all a journey ,and if you look at your life as the final product, then you've missed half of what you've done and half of what you've accomplished and half of what you've gone through. It's the day you look at the final product and forget about the journey when nothing you did was worthwhile."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
After a three-year stopover at the University of Oregon, Ontario native Tamika Nurse landed at Bowling Green, just in time for her first NCAA tournament.