- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The slippers fit for Green Bay, but they aren't made of glass. And there is no midnight curfew on this party.
As Green Bay prepared last week to leave for Wichita, Kan., and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, senior Kayla Tetschlag and junior Hannah Quilling distributed some unconventional wardrobe accessories to teammates who otherwise spend a lot of time clothed in the not-quite-emerald hue that makes their city famous. For the trip to Kansas, players donned ruby slippers like those worn in "The Wizard of Oz" by Dorothy, perhaps that state's most famous fictional resident. Only it turns out there is a slightly different takeaway to this telling of the classic adventure.
Home is nice, but it will be there in another week or two. For this team, there's no place like the Sweet 16.
For the first time in the long history of a program that doesn't have a lot of "firsts" left on its bucket list, Green Bay is going to the Sweet 16. The Phoenix earned their trip to Dallas, and a date opposite Brittney Griner and Baylor next weekend, by beating fourth-seeded Michigan State 65-56 in the second round.
A year ago, a two-point lead with 2:18 to play in a second-round game against fourth-seeded Iowa State in Ames slipped away from the Phoenix. But if 12 months is a long time to wait to erase 138 seconds of disappointment, the payoff proved worth the patience for a program that joins the likes of Gonzaga, Marist and Xavier in rising from the mid-major ranks in recent seasons to reach the second week of the tournament.
"This is something we've been working toward since last offseason," Tetschlag said. "I remember all the coming together in the weight room last summer, and as our [huddle] break, instead of saying 'Team!' we said 'Sweet 16!' because we knew that was our goal from Day 1. I don't know, just to make history and be a part of such a successful program like Green Bay and take it a step farther than it's ever been, it's really special."
Entering the NCAA tournament, Green Bay hadn't played a down-to-the-wire game since the last week of January. It won its final 20 regular-season games and then breezed through the conference tournament with an average margin of victory of almost 30 points per game. But twice in the span of a little more than 48 hours in Wichita, it found itself locked in battles, first against Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round and then against Michigan State.
Against UALR, a slow start helped consign the Phoenix to a grind of a game against an emboldened opponent. But the wakeup call lingered through the start of Tuesday's game. Green Bay jumped to a 6-0 lead after a little more than three minutes and a 15-6 lead after a little more than five minutes against the Spartans.
"Coach talked about us being the most aggressive team, and that was the key to the game," Tetschlag said. "I think on Sunday night, we didn't start the game out as the most aggressive team, but we finished the rest of the game that way. That makes a huge difference. I feel like we were the most aggressive team tonight."
The Phoenix needed to be to make up for the size advantage enjoyed by the Big Ten team at every position (although perhaps coach Matt Bollant had a couple of inches on Michigan State counterpart Suzy Merchant). Tetschlag carried the offensive load when shots didn't fall for others in the first round, scoring 24 points and totaling 11 rebounds in a 59-55 win against UALR. But her role was considerably less glamorous, if no less important, on this night. Michigan State finished with a decisive advantage on the boards, but it totaled just 16 second-chance points on 18 offensive rebounds. And Tetschlag, when not busy drawing another charge or another round of free throws, led all players with 12 rebounds, including 11 on the defensive end.
After bouncing off Spartans all night to keep the post from becoming a breach in the line, the team's honorary "Queen of the Training Room" earned the time she'll spend in there over the coming days, as will most of the Phoenix after proving a lack of size doesn't mean they can't handle the physical demands of postseason play.
"I think right now nothing hurts because we're on such a high right now. But I think tomorrow, the aches and pains will start to come back. I'm going to start feeling my age tomorrow," Tetschlag joked. "But I'm totally fine with that. If we came out with the win, I didn't care if I had a broken leg."
That they came out with the victory also had a great deal to do with sophomore Adrian Ritchie not caring if she had a fully healthy right knee. A starter when the season began, Ritchie suffered an injury to the MCL in early January and missed nearly a month. One of the best shooters on a team that doesn't have any rotation players who can hit from long range, and a sneakily deceptive player off the dribble, she is back to full strength perhaps only by her own definition.
"I think I'm 100 percent," Ritchie said. "I feel like I can run 100 percent, I can jump 100 percent, everything. My knee might hurt while I'm doing it, but I don't think that is less than 100 percent. I think I just have to fight through maybe a little more pain. It takes a little longer to warm up, but it's still better every time I play. I can still push through it and be the player I wanted to be."
She scored 20 points and hit four 3-pointers against the Spartans, including back-to-back shots from beyond the arc in the first half that halted a Michigan State run. She hit perhaps the single biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer to extend Green Bay's lead to 44-40 midway through the second half after Michigan State had closed a 10-point deficit to a single point. You don't win Miss Basketball in any state, as Ritchie did as a prep star in Wisconsin, without a bit of a thirst for the big moment.
"If I was to describe her in words, it's sheer confidence," Tetschlag said. "She will step up and knock down a 3 when it's off the first pass of our offense. That's not our offense at all -- we're supposed to be making four, five, six passes and getting a layup. Technically, that's how our offense is supposed to run. But she's not shy, even as a sophomore, to receive one screen and launch a 3. But she's so confident that it's going in, it's just amazing. It's so great to see, and for her to step up in big games like this just shows how great of a leader she's going to be next year."
And about those ruby slippers. After a fan planted the idea in Tetschlag's head during the party the team held to watch the tournament selection show, she and roommate Hannah Quilling spent a good bit of their free time during spring break week driving around Green Bay in search of cheap (they are, after all, working with a college student's budget) white ballet-like slippers that could be easily colored and appropriately glittered.
"Those extra little things that go into it, this is what it's all about," Tetschlag said. "It's about the camaraderie and the friendships I have with these girls and these little favorite memories that we're never going to forget."
Cinderella's glass slipper left her at the whim of fate and a fairy godmother. Dorothy's ruby slippers were a reminder she had controlled her own fate the whole time in Oz.
Which makes them rather appropriate footwear for a team that found it belonged among the final 16 all along.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.