- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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When they met for an NCAA title five years ago, Kim Mulkey and Joanne P. McCallie were in rather different positions than they are now. For McCallie, in fact, quite different.
Mulkey's Baylor team defeated McCallie's Michigan State squad in Indianapolis in 2005. For Mulkey, it was the culmination, once and for all, of her split from Louisiana Tech, her alma mater and the place she was an assistant coach for 15 years.
She said there was no intended symbolism to her wearing a Tech-blue outfit for that championship game. But it was hard to see it and not be reminded that Mulkey had wanted to stay in Ruston, La., but felt the school wouldn't give her enough of a commitment.
After all those years at Louisiana Tech, she'd finally left precisely at the time many expected she might decide to stay forever. Then with a national title, her commitment to Baylor was firmly entrenched. She'd taken a program that had seven wins the season before she arrived and led it to the peak of the sport.
Meanwhile, McCallie had guided Michigan State to the championship game by beating traditional powers Stanford and Tennessee on the way there. In the national semifinal against Tennessee, the Spartans had trailed by as much as 16 points but rallied to win. This came right after Baylor had been down 15 to LSU but came back.
McCallie seemed entrenched in East Lansing, Mich., and even had a new contract in the spring of 2007. But when Gail Goestenkors left Duke, McCallie went after -- and got -- what she called her dream job.
Now, Mulkey and McCallie meet again, but this will be for a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio. Once more, Tennessee has been left in their wake; this time, it was Mulkey's team that took out Pat Summitt.
No. 4 seed Baylor defeated top-seeded Tennessee 77-62 on Saturday afternoon, emptying out much of the FedEx Forum in Memphis and assuring that Monday's crowd for the final will not be the Big Orange Party that was expected.
Duke, the No. 2 seed, did do what was expected against 11th-seeded San Diego State, ending the Aztecs' upset run, 66-58. And just as Mulkey really cemented herself as belonging to Baylor, and vice versa, by winning that 2005 title, McCallie could do the same just by making this Final Four.
It would be Duke's fifth, but the first since Goestenkors left. The way the bracket was set up, Saturday's Sweet 16 game might have been a meeting between Duke and Goestenkors' Texas squad. But it never materialized, as the Longhorns didn't make it out of the first round. That Texas lost by 11 points at home to the same Aztecs team that Duke beat by eight on a neutral court was just another of those ways the Blue Devils moved further into the McCallie era.
"Just really proud of our team, their effort, their fight and what they represent in terms of them just being all over the floor today," McCallie said of her players. "I love the second half more than the first because of the defensive intensity. Holding a team like San Diego State to 24 points in the second half is very, very good for the kind of players that they have offensively. San Diego State's a terrific team."
Then McCallie pointed to junior Jasmine Thomas, who led Duke with 29 points and six assists, and senior Joy Cheek, who had 14 points.
"[They] have an awful lot to do, not only their performance, but their leadership and the people they are, [in] just keeping the team organized and focused on the right things," McCallie said. "So it was definitely a very good day for Duke."
It was also an excellent day for Baylor, which like Duke joined its men's program in the Elite Eight. In fact, it's a Blue Devils-Bears matchup in both the men's and women's tournaments to decide who goes to their respective Final Fours.
It might be overstating the case to say Baylor freshman Brittney Griner has blossomed during the NCAA tournament; it has been more a case of her showcasing the best of what she did during an outstanding regular season. Nonetheless, she has been the centerpiece of everything Baylor has done, compiling 52 points, 21 rebounds and 26 blocks in three NCAA tournament games.
"I'm really excited. I'm just taking in every moment, trying to stay focused on the game and at the same time take in everything that's happening," Griner said. "This is just really special."
But Mulkey also has been pleased with her other young players, too. Sophomore Terran Condrey and freshmen Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden combined for 21 points off the bench against Tennessee.
"Madden hadn't been on the floor much since her knee injury against Iowa State in Big 12 play and she was huge," Mulkey said. "Hayden penetrated the zone when they were in the man and made the passes needed.
"Terran Condrey did what she does every day in practice. Terran is the best jump-shot shooter. She can just nail it. What happens to her is that she just doesn't talk. What has kept her from progressing is communicating while on the floor. She has to open her mouth and point her finger and guard people. I thought for her size in the second half, she did as good a job as anybody on guarding [Angie] Bjorklund."
Baylor has just one senior in Morghan Medlock, who also has had a strong postseason. Fellow starters Kelli Griffin and Melissa Jones are juniors, but most of the rest of Baylor's firepower is coming from younger players.
By contrast, Duke started three seniors and two juniors Saturday. The only Blue Devils freshman who has received significant playing time is Allison Vernerey.
Still, McCallie didn't see youth as being a problem for Baylor.
"I really do think there was a lot of maturity on the floor today, in terms of what Baylor did," McCallie said. "I didn't [watch] it continuously, but one of the glimpses that I caught, I was very impressed with. Which was Brittney getting like four people on top of her and [dumping] it somewhere for an easy score.
"I know everyone watching says it looks easy. But it's hard to make that decision when you're under duress and you're a young player. So she's pretty exceptional."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
They met five years ago with an NCAA title on the line. Now, Kim Mulkey and Joanne P. McCallie meet again with a berth to the Final Four at stake.