- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Fast-forward yourself to May. (Don't worry, we promise you'll get to come back and won't miss the NCAA tournament.) You've just gotten a new DVD on the 2009-10 Division I women's basketball season.
You know exactly what you would see then, right? Or at least you're pretty darn sure. There's a prohibitive favorite to win it all, and not much optimism that somebody else will step forward to stop that favorite. But
Hey, lots of DVDs do have "alternate endings," don't they? So what if this season didn't turn out the way that it's predicted?
What if No. 1 Connecticut didn't run through its six NCAA tournament opponents, win its second straight national title and extend its victory streak (all by double digits) to 78?
What if at least one team really pushed the Huskies along the way? What if the players and fans, really for the first time in a long while, felt that heart-pounding exhilaration of a game going down to the final seconds?
Or what if -- dare we even say it? -- it doesn't end at all like predicted? What if UConn actually loses?
Well, here's how we think the DVD would look with three different kinds of endings for the NCAA tournament:
1. UConn continuing to dominate its competition and winning the program's seventh NCAA title;
2. UConn taking a more harrowing path that reveals some vulnerabilities -- but still getting the championship;
3. The real Hitchcock-like shocker. As in, the big star of the movie, Janet Leigh, takes an ill-fated shower and er, the No. 1 seed, UConn, is eliminated before the picture's even over.
Ending No. 1: "Perfection Squared: UConn Does it Again"
This ending details the team that went wire-to-wire No. 1, not only not losing a game, but never having an opponent come within single digits. It chronicles those few hair-raising moments for Huskies fans. Like um the couple of times they felt this vague fear early in the second half and actually had to get up from their seats to call out, "Come on, guys!" before the inevitable run (or series of runs) that safely buried the Huskies' foes.
OK, that's kind of exaggerating. The Huskies did get some "scares" or at least had reason for alarm in some games of the 2010 tourney. But every time, they responded quickly and efficiently.
Sure, there were those quips exchanged between media-savvy funnymen Geno Auriemma and Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly before their teams' Sweet 16 matchup in Dayton, Ohio. There was the mutual-respect-between-old-buddies stories before the Elite Eight's UConn-Ohio State meeting. But again, Auriemma got the best of pal Jim Foster of the Buckeyes.
There were some pretty funny postings on UConn's "Boneyard" fan site about grudging respect for the Buckeyes' flashy and highly emotional point guard, Sammy Prahalis. (The more self-aware fans saying, "Guys, need I remind everyone of our love for Diana Taurasi?")
Of course, there was a review of the biggest-hyped women's hoops game anyone has seen: the national semifinal meeting of "Evil Empires."
Since ending their regular-season series in 2007, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had not wanted to talk about UConn or Auriemma, but she had to take deep breaths and discuss both in San Antonio.
One couldn't help but remember that when these two programs met in the Alamo City in 2002 -- UConn won that semifinal matchup 79-56 -- the coaches had enough of a "thaw" between them that Summitt went to the Huskies' locker room to congratulate Sue Bird, Tamika Williams, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Taurasi and the others about being one of the best teams she had ever seen.
But things went really sour with the recruiting battle over Maya Moore, not to mention the accumulation of years of quips and wisecracks from Auriemma that Summitt took personally, along with his feeling that she basically just couldn't stand him.
Was their first meeting in three years -- and eighth in the NCAA tournament -- a ratings bonanza for the sport? Of course. But just like that 2002 matchup, UConn won going away. A benefit for Tennessee: It's a team with no seniors, so everybody is back next season.
Then the last hope for a really close game for UConn came from Stanford, which had led the Huskies at halftime of their regular-season matchup before losing by 12. For the third consecutive year, UConn and Stanford played in the Final Four. The Cardinal had stopped the favored Huskies back in the 2008 semifinals, but couldn't do it in 2009. And this year, ultimately UConn's guard play was just too much. The Cardinal kept in striking distance until about the 10-minute mark of the second half. But, as it had against everyone else, UConn pulled away.
Sure, some of the behind-the-scenes stuff on this DVD is really fun. Like watching Auriemma trying to find things wrong with his team, and coming up with classic hyperboles like, "They can't guard anybody!" (This part will have subtitles for the sarcasm-impaired who don't speak Geno-ese. The previous quote is subtitled, "Sometimes our opponent scores.")
Special features will include Kalana Greene's and Tiffany Hayes' "Tips for Southerners Surviving These Freakin' Miserable Winters" (No. 1: Whenever possible, stay indoors) Caroline Doty's favorite on-court confrontations Crime-solving buff Tina Charles' never-before-seen prank "public service announcement" to remind people to always lock their cars when they leave their national championship rings inside Maya Moore discussing the Meisner, Stanislavski, Adler and Strasberg variations of Method acting techniques to explain how she amazingly manages to always look sincerely interested when answering the same questions for the 5,000th time in a season.
There are comparisons made to past "perfect" UConn teams in 1995, 2002 and 2009. The players talk about how they overcame losing floor general Renee Montgomery to graduation, how nice it was to have Doty back after the knee injury that cut short her freshman season, how much Greene asserted herself as an emotional force, how Charles became the program's all-time leading scorer and rebounder but really didn't pay much attention to personal stats. Just as Moore couldn't have cared less if she or Charles got the various national player of the year awards.
In conclusion, Auriemma voices some frustration that people who don't really follow women's basketball see his team's accomplishments as more an indictment of other programs than as proof UConn has just put together a spectacular team.
But he also says he really doesn't have time to worry about the naysayers. He's gotta figure out how to replace WNBA No. 1 draft pick Charles for next year but before that, concentrate on winning the World Championship as Team USA head coach later this year.
Ending No. 2: "Shaken but Not Stirred: UConn Overcomes Obstacles for Title"
This has technically the same ending but only in the sense that UConn wins it all. How the Huskies do it is quite different.
Sure, they breezed through the early rounds, but Iowa State isn't a Sweet 16 pushover. In fact, Auriemma breaks out in night sweats and stops sleeping in the days leading up to that game, because he can't help but remember the 1999 regional semifinals.
That's when the Cyclones' 3-point shooters did their thing in a big way -- at one juncture of the second half, they hit five consecutive shots from behind the arc -- and upset the No. 1-seeded Huskies 64-58.
Before this game, Auriemma stresses over the eerie coincidences to 1999: Again, it's the Sweet 16 versus Iowa State, the Cyclones are again a No. 4 seed, the game is again in the state of Ohio (Dayton now, Cincinnati in 1999) and Shea Ralph was playing for the Huskies in 1999; she's a UConn assistant coach now!
So when Iowa State point guard Alison Lacey, recovered from the pneumonia that kept her out of the Big 12 tournament, hit a 3-pointer to start the game, Auriemma yelled, "Oh, no! Remember when Stacy Frese "
associate head coach Chris Dailey and Ralph conspired to slip a mild sedative into Auriemma's cup of water. The Cyclones did rain some more 3-pointers, but eventually UConn's defense took control, plus Charles asserted herself inside.
She had a harder time doing that in the regional final against Ohio State, as counterpart Jantel Lavender had one of the best games of her career. For the first time all season, UConn fans found their stomachs truly knotting up with tension as the score stayed tight deep into the second half.
Then Moore took over. Her breakaway layup after Greene stole a pass gave the Huskies their first real breathing room, and the UConn fans -- with so much emotion pent up from sitting quietly a lot during this season of routs -- practically blew the roof off Dayton's arena, to the dismay of all the Ohio State fans there.
Somewhat like the 1995 regional final when UConn held off Debbie Ryan's Virginia team 67-63 (although the Huskies had the home-court advantage then), Auriemma breathed a relieved sigh after beating someone he used to work for long ago.
Now, sometimes a big favorite's survival in a tough regional final propels that team into the Final Four, where it resumes its dominance. Such was the case in 1998, when Tennessee had to rally to beat North Carolina in the Elite Eight, but then clobbered Arkansas and Louisiana Tech in the Final Four.
This time, though, the danger isn't over for the favorite, as Tennessee is next. UConn had lost its past three regular-season meetings with Tennessee, but the Huskies had won their past four NCAA tournament meetings. Including for the NCAA title in 2000, '03 and '04. UConn had also beaten Tennessee in the 1995 final.
Admittedly, Auriemma is really in his element going against Tennessee but he knows that this is a tough matchup. Tennessee's athleticism and Angie Bjorklund's shooting make for a formidable task for UConn, which trailed at halftime. But Charles got Kelley Cain in foul trouble inside; Hayes and Greene were able to clamp down on Tennessee's perimeter game, and Doty broke free to sink a couple of huge 3-point shots.
UConn survived with a seven-point victory, the head coaches' handshake takes one-hundredth of a second, and most furious Tennessee fans attempted to flee San Antonio before the final by any means of travel available, including unicycles.
Then, for the third year in a row UConn faced Stanford. While Auriemma's relationship -- what there ever was of it -- with Summitt deteriorated over the years, it has pretty much been the opposite with Stanford's Tara VanDerveer.
Nearly mortal enemies in 1995 when Auriemma felt TVD dissed Nykesha Sales and Rebecca Lobo, the two coaches' appreciation of well-executed offenses plus their shared experience of being in charge of the national team has served to warm their dealings with one another.
After many of the stories of the past two seasons are rehashed -- including the one about Stanford center Jayne Appel's dad breaking his leg on her recruiting visit to UConn -- the teams combine to put on a scintillating, gutty and smart display of basketball.
Ultimately, as Charles and Moore play to virtually a draw with Appel, Nneka Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen, it's Greene, Hayes and Doty who finish off the Cardinal.
Afterward, Auriemma says of finishing perfect again despite a perilous NCAA journey, "Good grief, I'm getting too old for this crap."
Which is followed immediately by a reporter asking him about three-peating and besting the UCLA men's program's 88-game winning streak next season.
Ending No. 3: "Shocker: Huskies Upset, Title goes to "
OK, here's the deal. To this point, it has been easy enough to write these phony scripts about UConn either cruising to an NCAA title or having to really fight for it. Because it still ends the way everybody thinks it will.
But if it doesn't happen like that, who is going to be the giant-slayer? Well, whoever might topple UConn might not be the team that ends up winning the national championship.
Let's look back at some NCAA stunners over the years in which a team many expected to win the title was upset.
Take 1985, when top-seeded Texas was favored to win a national championship on its home court in Austin, site of the Final Four. But the Longhorns never made it home alive in the tourney. Playing the regional semifinals in Bowling Green, Ky., they were upset by Western Kentucky 92-90 on Lillie Mason's last-second shot. However, Western Kentucky then lost in the national semifinals to Georgia, which then lost to Old Dominion in the championship game.
Circumstances were pretty similar in 1990, when Tennessee was hosting the Final Four in Knoxville. But it had to play a regional final in the home state of its opponent, Virginia. That game was in Norfolk, and the Cavaliers won 79-75 in overtime. However, Virginia did not win the NCAA title, falling in the national semifinal to eventual champion Stanford.
Then there was another famed Elite Eight upset in which the winner didn't then win an NCAA title. That was in 1999, when Duke -- playing in nearby Greensboro, N.C. -- stopped Tennessee's quest for a fourth consecutive championship. The Blue Devils' 69-63 victory was thanks largely to hounding Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw into a horrendous 2-of-18 shooting performance. However, then Duke lost to Purdue in the national championship game.
If the scenario of UConn losing before the NCAA title game was to play out this year, the ultimate beneficiary might well be the team that never has to play the Huskies.
That might include UConn stumbling in front of an Ohio State-partisan crowd in Dayton in the regional final or to Tennessee in the Final Four.
In either case, Stanford might end up with the national championship, which would be the first for that program in 18 years. Once UConn is off the table -- if that indeed happens -- the Cardinal would inherit the mantle of favorite.
Of course, Tennessee also has a history of ending UConn perfection and then going on to win it all. That happened in 1997, when the teams met in the regional final in Iowa City. UConn was undefeated; Tennessee had lost 10 games and finished fifth in the SEC.
But Summitt lit the fire under her team at tournament time. And after Tennessee had knocked off UConn, it also benefited from big victories from two other teams. George Washington upset No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Sweet 16, which paved the way for a scrappy Notre Dame team to make the Final Four, where it was ultimately overmatched against Tennessee.
Plus, in a titanic national semifinal that year between No. 1 seeds, Old Dominion beat Stanford 83-82 in overtime. Tennessee had a relatively uneventful 14-point semifinal win over Notre Dame, and then the Orange Crush took out an emotionally and physically taxed ODU squad 68-59 in the final.
Might Tennessee do something similar again? Could Summitt stop UConn's perfect season and then beat Stanford for a national title again? The Lady Vols defeated the Cardinal in the 2008 championship game.
Or might there be something really, really, really different about to happen? Could Nebraska, which enters as the shakiest No. 1 after falling in the Big 12 tourney semifinals to Texas A&M, right its ship and complete what has been an unprecedented dream season?
How about A&M? Coach Gary Blair has taken a team to the Final Four before, with Arkansas in 1998, but this Big 12 champion Aggies squad is not only more talented than those Razorbacks, but would be the local favorite were A&M to make it to San Antonio.
What of No. 2 Duke? The ACC champ Blue Devils made the Final Four under Gail Goestenkors four times, but lost twice in the title game and twice in the semis. The latter included in 2002 in San Antonio. Duke didn't fare well against UConn when they met during this regular season, but what if the Huskies are taken out before the Final Four?
Obviously, this third ending seems the most implausible to occur. But if it does -- no matter exactly how it happens -- that's really going to be some kind of finish.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Are 63 teams playing for second place? UConn is the prohibitive favorite. But what if the unexpected occurs? The Huskies face three scenarios.