Saturday, March 31, 2012

While JMU falls in the WNIT, future bright for overachieving Dukes

It was an amazing run by the James Madison Dukes that almost turned into a national championship.

Instead, Oklahoma State is the one celebrating after a 75-68 victory over the Dukes in the WNIT title game played in Stillwater before more than 6,157 fans.

What worked for JMU all year -- a defense ranked fifth in the NCAA -- had little success against these Cowgirls, who shot 48 percent from the field led by Toni Young's 25 and Tiffany Bias' 17. An early JMU lead evaporated after Oklahoma State went on a 17-4 run.

While JMU got 16 second-half points from Tarik Hislop, 14 from Kiara Francisco, 13 from Nikki Newman and 10 from Lauren Whitehurst, finding offense was a problem most of the afternoon. Kirby Burkholder, who averaged 18 in the previous five games of the tournament, was held to eight, but credit her for a monster 25-footer that allowed JMU to hang close in the waning minutes.

The Dukes dug a hole that ballooned to 18 and spent the entire second half trying to climb out of it, trimming it to four behind the kind of effort we've seen many times this season -- gritty offense and shots that fall in the 11th hour. This time, though, there weren't quite enough of them and the Cowgirls -- who dedicated their season to coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna, both tragically killed in a plane crash on Nov. 17 -- won a national title for the first time in their history. Budke's wife, Shelley, cut down a piece of the net.

"When you come into a venue like this and a situation like this, you can't have lulls," said JMU coach Kenny Brooks. "We had some lulls, and I thought that was the big difference. But give them credit. Toni was probably the best center we've played against all year. She was tremendous and (Tiffany) Bias was probably the best point guard we've played against all year."

While we know it must sting to come so close, we know even better what an amazing job this Dukes team and Brooks have put together this season. No Dawn Evans. No Lauren Jimenez or Courtney Hamner, and yet JMU was a legitimate contender for the NCAA Tournament. They had nights where offense seemed as impossible to find as a purple people eater, and still won a school-record 29 games, knocking off Virginia, Syracuse and Wake Forest in the WNIT alone.

Consider that a year ago, the Dukes touted the top recruiting class in the CAA and one ESPN ranked 40th nationally. Achiri Ade did not come. Jazmon Gwalthmey redshirted. Crystal Ross and Tanika Anderson played sparingly and Briana Jones, not at all. Toia Giggetts emerged as the star from the group, but the larger point is Brooks crafted a far different team than he anticipated having. Starting over after losing seniors who were instrumental in back-to-back CAA championship often means using the word "rebuilding" a lot.

The Dukes are rebuilt. In the end, they were a championship-caliber team and one that leaves us eager for a 2012-13 season full of promise.

WNIT: Getting ready for JMU-Oklahoma State

The James Madison Dukes traveling Stillwater, Okla. in a tour bus once used by rapper Eminem? That's just one of the nuggets gleaned from JMU's recap of the team's activities leading up to today's 3 p.m. WNIT championship game at OSU's Gallagher-Iba Arena.

The Dukes (29-7) should expect a daunting road atmosphere, as the Cowgirls (21-12) have seen their attendance spike for each of the five games to date in the WNIT. OSU drew 3,484 for its semifinal victory over San Diego on Wednesday, and as of Friday afternoon, approximately 3,000 tickets had been sold. Also on Friday, men's basketball coach Travis Ford purchased 400 tickets for students. Two other anonymous donors bought 200 additional student tickets.

The largest road crowd any of these Dukes have played before (in a JMU uniform) was 5,179 at Old Dominion on Feb. 10, 2010. The Dukes won that game 65-59. Later that season, JMU played before 6,325 in an NCAA Tournament first-round loss at ODU's Constant Center, but that crowd was full of JMU fans.

NCAA Tournament that year: 6,325 vs. Temple at ODU.

As for the game, Cowgirls coach Jim Littell said it will a battle of similar teams.

"They're a lot like us," he said. "They've got a couple of guards that can shoot the ball or put in on the floore. They've got some size. We expect it to be a very tough game for us."

The Dukes were led in the semifinal victory by junior Toni Young, who scored a season-high 27 points against San Diego. Young led the Cowgirls in scoring in 2010-11 but had been slowed this season by an arm injury she suffered prior to her second-round WNIT game a year ago when she fell awkwardly attempting to dunk in pre-game warmups.

Finally, much of the nation will no doubt be pulling for the Cowgirls, who have rallied together after losing head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna in a tragic plane crash in mid-November. Even ESPN has taken notice - on Thursday, Littell was featured telling the Cowgirls' tale on the network's flagship program, SportsCenter.

Friday, March 30, 2012

JMU in the WNIT: "Let's go out and win it all"

It's March 31 and James Madison is one of six NCAA teams still playing basketball.

"Unbelievable," said Dukes junior Nikki Newman. "Last year at this time we were doing postseason workouts."

James Madison (29-7) meets Oklahoma State (21-12) in the WNIT championship game at 3 p.m.  Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater. The Dukes have already made history in winning a school-record 29 games, and in this tournament alone have played their best ball of the season, defeating Wake Forest in OT, ousting Virginia in the quarterfinals, rallying to beat Syracuse in the semifinals ...

It's never been more fun to be a JMU basketball player, said Newman, whose 3 with 6.6 seconds left sent JMU's game with Wake Forest into overtime.

"That play wasn't even designed for me," she said. "I got the ball and time was ticking down and I'm thinking, 'We need a 3...' "

Newman said the Dukes watched the NCAA Selection Show together and quickly let the disappointment of  not making the field of 64 fade.

"It was definitely a bummer knowing we didn't get into the NCAAs," Newman said."But we didn't want our season to be over. We figured we'd get into the WNIT and that night we adopted the mindset of 'We're all in. Let's go out and win it all.' "

In the process they have become even bigger darlings in Harrisonburg, which has hosted all of the Dukes WNIT games. The pep band made the trip to Stillwater as did the parents of Newman, Tarik Hislop and Kirby Burkholder.

"The support we've had has been amazing," Newman said. "We had people in the upper sections.I've never played in front of crowds like that. It's been awesome being able to experience that."

 Like the rest of the Dukes, Newman is aware of the special circumstances surrounding Saturday's game for the Cowgirls. Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke and his assistant Miranda Serna died in November when their plane went down in Arkansas when they were returning from a recruiting trip. The Cowgirls dedicated this season and this tournament to both of them.

"If Oklahoma State were playing any other team," Newman said, "I'd be rooting for them."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

ODU's Buchan no longer in Great Britain's Olympic pool

It looks like Old Dominion's Mairi Buchan will not be participating in the 2012 Olympics. The Scotland-born Buchan isn't among the 20 finalists for spots on the eventual 12-member team that will represent Great Britain in London this summer. This story labels her "the most surprising omission."

"Selection to our senior squad gets more competitive year on year and this squad selection has been the toughest to date," British Basketball Performance Director Chris Spice said. "Some very good players have missed out this year and that reflects the increasing depth of women's basketball in Great Britain."

Buchan has represented Great Britain in U-20 competition the past couple of years and was on Great Britain's entry in the World University Games last summer in China. She averaged 7.0 points and 4.3 rebounds as a redshirt junior for the Lady Monarchs last season.

WNIT: Getting to know Oklahoma State

So, exactly what is JMU getting itself into when the Dukes travel to Stillwater, Okla. to take on Oklahoma State in Saturday's WNIT title game?

Beats us. Fortunately, Jessica Lantz of the website Swish Appeal has done an excellent job chronicling the Cowgirls' postseason run, including her latest post on Wednesday' 73-57 semifinal round victory over San Diego. Oklahoma State drew 3,484 fans to Gallagher-Iba Arena for that game, and Cowgirls coach Jim Littell wasted no time in beating the drums for a much larger gathering on Championship Saturday.

"Let's go fill the thing! People are getting excited about it," Littell said. "I don't know what's a realistic number. We're very appreciative of the people that are here. I hope it continues to grow. This is the middle of the week, you'd think that you'd have a great crowd on Saturday."

San Diego coach Cindy Fisher said that even at 3,400-plus, Oklahoma State's fans make more than enough noise to be disruptive.

"I thought the crowd was phenomenal today," said Fisher, a former assistant at Old Dominion. "It was hard for (my team) to hear my calls and hard for them to hear (point guard) Dominique (Conners') calls and we missed assignments a few times."

For the record, JMU (29-7) drew 4,008 for Wednesday's 74-71 semifinal victory over Syracuse. We're not completely sure how the WNIT bidding process works, but we suspect the Dukes may have had a strong case for hosting the final if their Convocation Center were available. The building is being used for a home and garden show this weekend. The Dukes still bid to host the title game, but would have had to play at Eastern Mennonite University, where the capacity is just 1,800.

But hey, if someone offered you six postseason games and said you could play five of them at home, you'd be crazy to complain about the sixth, right? We suspect the Dukes are too stoked about playing for the WNIT title to worry about anything except bringing that title back to Harrisonburg.

JMU tops Syracuse, reaches WNIT final

The irony is, if James Madison had gotten these kinds of wins during the regular season, they wouldn't be in the WNIT.

They didn't - at least in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament committee - so they are. And now they find themselves one game away from a national championship.

Force into something of a shootout, the defense-first Dukes proved they could succeed at that style, too, as four players scored in double figures to lead JMU past Syracuse 74-71 Wednesday before a rollicking crowd of 4,008 at the JMU Convocation Center.

After five straight victories at home, the Dukes will travel to Stillwater, Okla. for Saturday's 3 p.m. title game against Oklahoma State (21-12). The Cowgirls advanced with a 73-57 victory over San Diego in Wednesday's other semifinal.

All season long, the Dukes (29-7) made hay with shutdown defense, and this might have worked Wednesday if Syracuse's 6-4 center Kayla Alexander had called in sick. Instead, Alexander reported for work and promptly worked over the Dukes in the paint, finishing with 29 points and 13 rebounds.

The Dukes kept returning fire, though, particularly during a second half in which they made 52 percent of their shots and erased a seven-point deficit. They also attacked the basket and were rewarded with 30 trips to the free throw line, where they converted 23 times.

Kirby Burkholder, who led the Dukes with 20 points in Sunday's victory over Virginia, led the way with a team-high 18 points against the 'Cuse. Tarik Hislop added 14, Lauren Whitehurst 12 and Nikki Newman 10 along with team high totals of 11 rebounds and four assists as the Dukes notched their program-record 29th victory.

The only downside of a Dukes' postseason run that has featured four victories over schools from the ACC and Big East is that it's likely made coach Kenny Brooks' job of trying to schedule teams like this in the future that much harder.

Don't feel too badly for Syracuse. The Orange had two players in Wednesday night's McDonald's All-American Game and will welcome the nation's No. 6 recruiting class (according to ESPN) to a roster that graduates only one significant contributor.

Meanwhile, the Dukes have one more task to complete this season. Oklahoma State (21-12) was revealed as one of the last four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, along with Temple, Virginia and USC. Counting their five WNIT wins, the Cowgirls are 13-1 against non-conference foes this season. The loss came during a post-Christmas tournament in Las Vegas to Long Island 64-63 on a layup with two seconds remaining.

The Cowgirls believe they're playing for more than just themselves. One game into the season, head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna died in a plane crash while returning from a recruiting trip in Arkansas. The players have dedicated the season, and this postseason run, to their memory.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

WNIT's "bandwagon effect" benefits JMU

Maybe the NCAA Tournament committee did JMU a favor.

Or better yet, perhaps the Dukes turned the committee's snub into basketball gold. We don't want to let those guys off the hook for leaving JMU out of the NCAAs (Middle Tennessee State? Texas? Really?) But let's be honest. Had the Dukes gotten a bid, they'd have been hard-pressed to survive the first weekend, or frankly, even the first game.

But by embracing their bid to the WNIT, the Dukes have been able to rattle off four victories, including a satisfying triumph over Virginia. They've benefited from a series of extra practices. And perhaps best of all, they've turned on a  host of new fans to the charm of JMU women's hoops.

Sunday's 68-59 victory over Virginia drew 3,301, better than 1,000 more than the team's average attendance in 2012 and three times more than the gate (1,028) for the Dukes' WNIT first-round win over Davidson. Tickets are going even faster for tonight's WNIT semifinal against Syracuse, as reserved seats are already sold out.

This bandwagon effect the Dukes are experiencing is nothing new for successful WNIT teams. The first game, which comes at fans on short notice and is tinged with disappointment since supporters were hoping for a bid to the NCAAs, is often played before a meager crowd. But if the home teams win that game and gets on a roll, interest often picks up dramatically.

 In 2007, Wyoming had 2,644 fans at their opening-round victory. As the Cowgirls piled up the victories, checking this team out became the thing to do throughout Laramie. The tournament went on to produce the four largest crowds in program history, topped off by the 15, 462 that attended the championship game.

Two years later, Kansas drew 1,981 for its first round game against Creighton. When the Jayhawks reached the final, a Big 12 record 16,113 turned out to see Kansas take on South Florida.  And last year, Toledo's first-round victory over Delaware played out before 1,247 at Savage Arena. Four victories later, the Rockets sold out their championship game in advance, and a school-record 7,301 turned out to see the home team down USC for the crown.

Now it's the Dukes turn to experience the postseason homecourt atmosphere that can be generated when students and casual fans join the diehards in spurring their team to a postseason title.

So thanks, NCAA committee. This is turning out pretty well.

But hey, next year, get it right, OK?

NOTE: A Dukes victory - no easy feat against a Syracuse team that has won four straight WNIT teams games on the road - would boost them into Saturday's final. The JMU Convocation Center is unavailable this weekend, but according to Matthew Stoss of the Harrisonburg Daily News Record, JMU has submitted a bid to host the game at Eastern Mennonite University's Yoder Arena. By the way, Stoss does a great job of posting updates of JMU games via Twitter, so if you can't make it to the game - or even if you're there - follow him here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

We wait, we watch, we wonder about the future and Pat Summitt

Like we have so many times this season in regards to Pat Summitt, we wait, we watch, we wonder.

Was Tennessee's loss to Baylor in Monday's regional final the last game Summitt will coach? We have heard in prepared statements she hopes to return next season, and no decisions have been made otherwise. No surprise given the Lady Vols' exit in the NCAA Tournament isn't 24 hours old. But we know the Lady Vols have already lost a highly touted high school star in Kaela Davis, who reopened her recruitment after verbaling to Tennessee, noting she was concerned over who will be the coach of the Lady Vols for the next four years.

So we wait, watch and wonder. Will Summitt step down?

We have watched Summitt, albeit uncomfortably, all season. For nearly 40 years, an expectation has come with watching the University of Tennessee. Lots of orange. Winning almost all of the time. Summitt. Summitt's stare. Summitt shouting -- sometimes encouragement, other times orders -- to her team from the bench. Summitt postgame being as candid and thoughtful as any coach, any sport on the planet.

Not so this season. Instead we've watched Summitt out of the corner of our eye, perhaps sometimes pretending not to. But inside we can't help but wonder. How OK is she? Does she know what's going on? Does she ever close the door and say, why me? Our eyes watch every time the camera wanders her way. We want to see if there are signs that we recognize -- a penetrating look, perplexity with her team's lack of focus. Instead we usually see a different, quieter Summitt -- reserved on the bench, a listener in the huddle who is rarely in front of a microphone.

This is all new territory for us. We've never seen a larger-than-life figure deal so publicly with Alzheimer's disease. Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's. So did Charleton Heston. While neither completely disappeared initially, they were rarely seen in public after the diagnosis was made.

Summitt hasn't disappeared. She's started a foundation. Orange shirts read "We Back Pat." While she's delegated most media duties to her assistants, she has spoken publicly this season, including the initial interview with Sally Jenkins revealing details most of us would choose to keep private.

We don't want Summitt to go away. But we really aren't prepared to watch early-onset dementia turn into full-blown Alzheimer's for the most revered figure, the most beloved woman in the sport. Admittedly we're scared, not just for her, but for us. Alzheimer's touching Pat Summitt only confirms what we already know. It can happen to our mom, our dad, our brother, our sister, our son, our daughter. It can happen to you and me.

There are many, many worthy causes out there asking for our money. Pancreatic cancer is dear to my heart; I lost my father to it, and nearly 15 years later, we are no closer to finding a cure. But Summitt has inspired me to give money to fight Alzheimer's, to read up on stem cell research, to hope against hope that while we read about others losing their minds along with their memories, this does not happen to Pat.

We wait for the cure. We wonder if it will be in Pat's lifetime, in son Tyler's lifetime. Bigger than any game, any win, any NCAA Tournament title, we wish that something will be done so we do not lose someone so precious to something so awful.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

WNIT: Burkholder's bombs lift JMU past UVa. and into semifinals

Sunday afternoon was a tough one for television-viewing fans of competitive basketball, as you had Kentucky's men's team tearing through Baylor on one channel, Notre Dame's women overwhelming St. Bonaventure.

But blowout blahs weren't an issue for the 3,301 fans at the JMU Convocation Center, though, as Virginia and the Dukes went at each other in a action-packed WNIT quarterfinal that featured momentum swings, tactical moves and a clutch effort from Kirby Burkholder that led the Dukes to a 68-59 victory.

After sitting out for nearly 10 minutes after picking up her fourth foul, Burkholder returned with 4:12 remaining and the Dukes down 55-53 and promptly drained back-to-back 3-pointers over the next 43 seconds to kick-start JMU's game-closing 15-4 run. After making just one of her eight shots in the first half and sitting most of the second, Burkholder finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds for her first career double-double.

The victory was JMU's program record-tying 28th of the season, and it propelled the Dukes (28-7) into yet another home game in the WNIT semifinals on Wednesday at 7 p.m. against Syracuse (22-14). Our understanding was that the Convocation Center wouldn't be available this week as the building needed to be prepped for a weekend home and garden show. But no one can say this university isn't behind its women's basketball program. Dukes officials worked things out with their weekend guests, and now the Dukes will appear in the Final Four in their cozy confines where they've won eight straight, including all four WNIT games.

Said JMU Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne: "The Shanandoah Valley Builders Association has been a great partner with JMU over the years, and we really appreciate their working with us to allow us to keep Coach Brooks and the Dukes home for another round. We wanted to make sure they could still have the great event they always host at the Convo this weekend, and through everyone's hard work, they are going to be able to do that and still allow our women's basketball team another home game. Thanks to all involved for their dedication and efforts in making this happen."

A quick word about Sunday's crowd: we actually thought there were quite a bit more than 3,301 on hand because it sure sounded that way. The fans were buzzing from tip to buzzer and created the type of postseason atmosphere that frankly has been absent from a lot of the NCAA Tournament games.

"The intensity was tremendous," Dukes coach Kenny Brooks said. "It's a great game when you have over 3,000 people here, both (school's pep) bands here. It's one of the most electric atmospheres since I've been here."

Can't wait to see what it's like if they get 4-5,000 in there (hint, hint, JMU fans). Syracuse figures to be tough to spook, though. The Orange have won all four of their WNIT games on the road. The stretch includes a 65-43 victory at Drexel, a team that put it on JMU pretty good in the CAA Tournament semifinals.

Still, that the Dukes are even in this position is remarkable when one considers they graduated four prime-time starters off last year's CAA Tournament championship team. And the same can be said for Virginia, which reeled off 25 wins - their highest total since 1999-2000 - despite having to adjust to a new coach, having no incoming recruits and losing starting point guard China Crosby a few days before Christmas to an ACL tear.

For a good chunk of Sunday's game, it appeared that the Cavaliers (25-11) were the ones positioning themselves for another round of basketball. Ultimately, though, they couldn't overcome JMU's Burkholder-fueled late flurry, or the foul problems that plagued them throughout. At game's end, four Cavaliers had four fouls. A fifth, Telia McCall, fouled out with 1:48 to play.

Cavaliers senior guard Ariana Moorer was heroic in defeat with a team-high 18 points and 7 rebounds in her final college game. Ironically, Moorer was subbed out for a brief blow at the 4:12 mark, just as Burkholder was returning. Brooks theorized the Cavaliers didn't realize Burkholder was back and failed to lock in on her. Maybe. Or perhaps, given the way she shot the ball initially, they just weren't that scared of her. We know this - if these teams hook up again within the next two years, Burkholder will have a Cavalier standing next to her while she's pulling up her socks in the JMU locker room if Virginia coach Joanne Boyle can get away with it.

Sunday also was the final game for Virginia forward Chelsea Shine, who by simply taking the court broke Heather Burge's 20-year-old program record for games played with her 136th appearance.

Tarik Hislop added 17 points for the Dukes, Lauren Whitehurst chipped in 14, freshman Toia Giggetts pulled down a career-high 12 rebounds and Nikki Newman tied her season high with six assists, including passes that set up Burkholder for both of her late-game 3-pointers.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sunday. WNIT. Virginia at JMU. Be There.

Get ready for Round Two.

JMU's 72-45 beatdown of South Florida sets up a WNIT quarterfinal that doubles as a Commonwealth Classic - the Dukes hosting Virginia on Sunday at 2 p.m. The good news is that no matter what happens, one of these teams will advance to the WNIT Final Four. The bad news, at least for us, is that one of the teams we enjoy rooting for has to lose.

As for which team that will be, we have no idea. The regular-season meeting between these teams - Dec. 20 in Charlottesville - showcased a lot of good on both sides. The Dukes controlled things for first 32 minutes or so; the Cavaliers dug in and bum-rushed a foul-plagued, mistake-prone over the final eight en route to a 59-53 victory.

The win was bittersweet for the Cavaliers, though. A mere 36 seconds into the contest, Virginia point guard China Crosby went down with yet another knee injury. She later learned it was her second torn ACL.

That Virginia and JMU have made it this far in the WNIT should surprise no one as both teams have NCAA Tournament resumes. Each team also seems to be playing better by the round. On Thursday, the Cavaliers (25-10) made quick work out of Appalachian State 74-58. And on Friday, the Dukes (27-7) annihilated South Florida before 2,345 at the Convocation Center, limiting the Golden Bulls to just 12 first-half points on 4-of-30 shooting.

Sunday's winner will face either Toledo or Syracuse in the WNIT semifinals. Those two teams will meet Saturday in Toledo, where the defending WNIT champion Rockets have won nine straight WNIT games. The other quarterfinals: San Diego at Washington and Colorado at Oklahoma State.

WNIT: Virginia rolls; VCU falls

WNIT bracket

Virginia 74, Appalachian State 58 : This is clearly a bad matchup for the Mountaineers, as the mere sight of these guys turns the typically low-scoring Cavaliers into an offensive juggernaut. In its season opener, Virginia hung 80 points on Appalachian State in a 32-point victory. And the 74 points they put up Thursday were the most by the Cavaliers since an 84-41 win over Wagner on Dec. 28 in the Marriott Cavalier Classic. Ariana Moorer 16 led the way with 16 points and a career-high 11 assists while Ataira Franklin dropped 22 points and Telia McCall  added 14 for Virginia, which will meet Friday's JMU-South Florida winner in the WNIT quarterfinals. It's the fourth time in seven seasons Virginia has reached this tournament's final eight. Kate Mallow paced the Mountaineers (27-7) with 17  points and freshman Maryah Sydnor added 14. Sydnor originally signed with Longwood but was granted her release after the Lancers changed head coaches in December, 2011.

Toledo 81, VCU 64: The Rams' string of WNIT miracles ended at about the 8-minute mark of the second half when the defending WNIT champion Rockets broke a 51-51 tie with 22-3 run and left the Rams without enough time to work their late-game magic. As usual, the VCU relied heavily on senior stars Courtney Hurt (26 points, 17 rebounds) and Andrea Barbour (23 points), and the dynamic duo delivered by combining for 49 of the Rams' 64 points (26 of 28 in the first half). Offense wasn't really VCU's problem, though. When you surrender 81 points on 52.4 percent shooting, even scorers the caliber of Hurt and Barbour will struggle to keep up.Then again, few opponents have much success at Toledo's Savage Arena, where the Rockets have developed one of the most underrated homecourt advantages in Division I. The Rockets have now won nine straight at home and are 57-7 at Savage in three-plus seasons under coach Tricia Cullop. All six of last season's WNIT victories were home games, and so are all three of this season's postseason wins. Thursday night's crowd of 3,042 included a nice student section, spurred on by the fact that the first 300 to arrive got free pizza and T-shirts.

As for the Rams, it's tough to picture this team without Hurt, Barbour and fellow senior Chelsea Snyder leading the way. But we felt the same way a couple of years ago when D'Andra Moss, Kita Waller and LaToria Rorie moved on, and before that when Quanitra Hollingsworth departed. Not sure how Beth Cunninhgam is going to do it this time, but history says it's probably not a good idea against the Rams maintaining their status as Colonial Athletic Association contenders somehow.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

JMU's Dawn Evans talks about the "Real World"

Really enjoyed Dawn Evans' latest blog post that takes us inside a "Real World" audition:

I remember walking in, looking at all these people thinking, 'What in the world did I get myself into?' The types of looks ranged from girls in 6-inch stilettos dressed like Snooki (Jersey Shore) to girls in fish nets with converse to men in trench coats to men on the 'roids.' Never seen so much variety in one place at once.

How did "Real World" auditions lead Dawn back to basketball? Read her latest blog post on Love and BasKIDNEYball titled "MTV or WNBA?"

Dawn is finishing up the season with her Flying Foxes team in Austria before heading to the Connecticut Sun's training camp.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

NCAA Tournament and the Constant Center: Where were the Lady Monarchs?

West Virginia coach Mike Carey assigned his guards homework after Monday's subregional final loss to Stanford at the Constant Center.

Watch the film and more importantly, watch Stanford's guards. And while you're watching, learn.

We're not sure if Old Dominion -- comprised largely of underclassmen -- learned from this past weekend's game. From what we can tell, the Lady Monarchs were largely MIA at the Constant Center.

Granted, it's tough. Your school is a host. You didn't make the tournament. It must be painful to think of another team playing on your home floor for the chance to advance to the Sweet 16. Who wants to watch it?

Know what? What's good for you -- and in this case, what's best for your sport -- isn't always the easy decision.

LadySwish didn't walk up and down every aisle, so we will be the first to admit if the Lady Monarchs were in that arena, save for assistant coach Adrienne Goodson, sophomore Becca Allison and walk-on Brianca Washington, we didn't see them. Our belief is anybody planning to wear an ODU jersey next season had a responsibility to be in the stands -- not as an individual, as a team, as a visible representation of their sport and their school. So even if the returning Lady Monarchs were there, they were not there as a team.

In 2008 ODU defeated VCU at Delaware, host of the CAA Tournament. Tina Martin and every one of her players were in the stands as spectators. Martin, coach of the 2012 CAA champions, understood the responsibility a host team has but moreso, she understood how valuable it was to have her players see up close the level they need to reach to succeed.

A sage we often quote in this blog noted to me once that if the home team is playing, folks will go, sometimes in droves. If UConn and Tennessee are playing across the street, they'll walk right by. Women's basketball suffers from that philosophy. The Constant Center rocked when ODU hosted first and second rounds in 2008 -- beating Virginia en route to the Sweet 16. In 2010, ODU hosted again and minus the Lady Monarchs, got lucky when a revered UConn team came to town. Husky fans travel.

No such luck in 2012 when the only true buzz in the stands came from Hampton fans greeting the Pirates the first time they took the floor. Women's basketball fans of the sport -- not of their team -- can be hard to find.

But in this case, the Lady Monarchs, coaches and staff wouldn't be just two dozen more bodies in the seats. They're representatives, ambassadors for their sport. We LadySwishers don't play women's basketball; we watch it and we consider it our sport. When our sport comes to town and plays in NCAA Tournament games, it would feel wrong to be sitting at home watching "Jersey Shore."

We talk to a lot of players and often ask them about other players. Kobe and LeBron are the names that most cite as favorites, and on occasion we'll hear about Maya and Candace and Diana. All five have had terrific careers, but so has a kid named Nneka Ogwumike, as skilled and athletic a player as any these LadySwish eyes have laid eyes on.

Perhaps many Lady Monarchs have seen the smooth, lithe forward on TV. If they weren't at the Constant Center this weekend, they missed their last chance to see one of women's basketball's finest in person. We can't help but ask if you're playing women's basketball and you don't care about your own national championship, why should anyone else?

Have you seen this shot by JMU's Nikki Newman?

Although most James Madison fans love Nikki Newman, she's not the first player who comes to mind when you think of offense. But in Monday's second-round WNIT game against Wake Forest,  it was Newman's 3 with 6.6 seconds left that tied the game at 70. The Dukes went on to win 84-76 in OT and advance to play South Florida on Friday. Vote here for Newman's shot to win Eastern College Athletic Conference Play of the Week honors.

Monday, March 19, 2012

WNIT: Virginia trumps Richmond to reach round of 16

"It's a privilege. Any time we get another opportunity to play, it's a privilege. I just love to play basketball, so I'm excited that we get to continue the journey." - Virginia's Lexie Gerson on playing in the WNIT.

And that, folks, is a big reason why we're picking Virginia to win this whole thing.

Of course, the main reason we're high on the Cavaliers is that they're really good. But really good teams without the right mental outlook flame out of the WNIT every year. Virginia thought it deserved an NCAA bid, but the Cavaliers have managed to embrace the invitation they received. That attitude, along with their NCAA-caliber game, just might take them a long way.

It was all a bit too much for Richmond Monday as Virginia made off with a 68-56 victory at John Paul Jones Arena. Back in December, the Cavaliers beat the Spiders 69-56 in Richmond, so Monday's score seems an accurate reflection of the gap between the two teams.

That's no knock on a youthful Spiders team that defied relatively low expectations by winning 23 games and finishing in the top four in the rugged Atlantic 10. It's more a credit to a Virginia team that also wasn't that heralded in the preseason but quickly bought into new coach Joanne Boyle's teachings and fashioned a season that nearly landed them in the NCAA Tournament.

As it is, the Cavaliers will advance to the WNIT's round of 16 where they will host Appalachian State (27-6) on Thursday at 7 p.m. It will be another rematch of Virginia, which crushed App State 80-48 on Nov. 11 in Charlottesville in the regular-season debut for both. In this tournament, though,  Mountaineers have already claimed one ACC victim - on Saturday, they marched into Raleigh, N.C. and snuffed out North Carolina State 66-62.

Richmond closes out its 2011-12 campaign at 23-9.

"It has been a great season," said Abby Oliver, the first-team All-Atlantic 10 guard and the Spiders' lone senior who scored a team-high 16 points in her final college game. "We came into the season and people were saying we were too young to do much. I think we just kind of took that, and that motivated us. We knew that we had a lot of talent and that we could do big things on the court. That motivated us to come in every day and to work hard and compete. It took us a long way."

Liberty bows out to Notre Dame in NCAA Tournament

You wonder what would have happened if Liberty had faced the Irish on St. Patrick's Day.....

But luck had nothing to do with this one, which was more about No. 16 seed Liberty pitted against the NCAA runner-up in its own building with a team that has all the talent to be a national champion. We'll spare you the detail other than the Irish scored the first 11 and outscored the Lady Flames 44-19 in the first for an end result of  74-43.

We take this chance to salute the marvelous collegiate career of Avery Warley, who leaves Liberty as the Big South Conference's all-time leading rebounder with 1,282 boards. Warley also tied the Big South career record with her 132nd game played.

As for the Lady Flames (24-9), all they did was win their 14th Big South title in the last 16 years. The first goal of every team is to rule their own conference, and no Division I team does this with as much regularity as Liberty.

The trick now is to do a bit more in the non-conference schedule to avoid the type of NCAA Tournament seeding that makes it difficult to advance. This year, for example, since Notre Dame was the only No. 1 seed that hosted the first two rounds, a case can be made that the Lady Flames drew the toughest opening-game assignment in the entire tournament.

While it will be impossible to replace Warley, there are plenty of reasons why Liberty could make some early season noise. For the first time in three years, the Lady Flames should start the season with an experienced point guard. And they still have Devon Brown, who overcame personal tragedy to put together another first-team All-Big South campaign and often played her best in Liberty's biggest games. Brown had 24 points and a career-high 14 rebounds in the Lady Flames' come-from-behind 81-73 victory over High Point in the Big South title game. She even distinguished herself in Sunday's NCAA Tournament loss to Notre Dame, finishing with a game-high 16 points.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

WNIT: Barbour rescues VCU - again; JMU rallies past Wake Forest

WNIT bracket

Andrea Barbour
This is why you don't pack it in in the WNIT, why you treat these games as though they're as big as anything happening in the NCAAs. Because even though your regular season and conference tournament may not have ended the way you wanted, if you throw yourself into the postseason anyway, some magical things might still happen.

That's what's going on right now for VCU, particularly Andrea Barbour. With six seconds remaining, Barbour made a steal and, for the second game in a row dribbled the length of the floor and beat the buzzer with a layup, this time lifting the Rams past St. Joseph's 67-65 in overtime of the WNIT second round Sunday in Philadelphia.

On Thursday, Barbour went coast-to-coast in the final five seconds and scored as time expired to boost the Rams to a 73-72 win at Bowling Green. This time, her basket capped a 6-0 run by the Rams over the final 41 seconds.

With the victory, VCU avenged a 72-66 loss to St. Joe's in the same building one year and one day ago in the 2011 WNIT first round. The Rams (19-14) will now face the winner of Monday's game between Toledo and Cincinnati in the WNIT round of 16; the date, time and place has yet to be determined.

Frankly, we were a little concerned about the Rams' motivation heading into this WNIT, as they are led by seniors who began the season with their hearts set on ending their careers in the NCAAs. We're not concerned any longer, though, as VCU's seniors have been carrying this club through these remarkable two games. On Thursday, Barbour and Courtney Hurt combined for 50 points and 28 rebounds and scored VCU's final 14 points over the last 2:42. Sunday, Barbour went for 26 points and 8 boards while Division I rebounding leader Hurt had 19 boards to go along with her 19 points.

It wasn't just those two getting it done, though. Chelsea Snyder, VCU's other senior, pulled down 9 rebounds while Robyn Parks (8 points, 6 rebounds), Robyn Hobson and Carleeda Green produced some timely scores to keep VCU alive in a game that featured 12 ties.

As a result, the Rams are suddenly racking up the kind of wins they struggled to produce throughout the regular season. Bowling Green appeared headed to the NCAA Tournament until an upset loss to Central Michigan in the MAC semifinals. And St. Joe's is a senior-laden team with 22 victories to its credit. For all their talent, the Rams weren't beating teams like this from November through early March.

So thank God there's a WNIT.

Kirby Burkholder
VCU wasn't the only state school to survive a WNIT thrill ride. JMU rallied from a 17-point first-half deficit, got a 3-pointer from Nikki Newman with 3.3 seconds left in regulation to force overtime - Nikki Newman? - then pulled away in overtime for an 84-76 victory over Wake Forest Sunday in Harrisonburg.

The Dukes (26-7) will host South Florida in the WNIT third round on Friday at 7 p.m.

Sophomore Kirby Burkholder led the Dukes with a career-high 26 points and was 10-for-10 from the free throw line. On two separate occasions, Burkholder was fouled in the act of shooting a 3. She made all six of the subsequent free throws. Lauren Whitehurst added 17 points, Tarik Hislop 13 and freshman Toia Giggetts 11.

It was the fourth time this season the Dukes won after trailing by 10 or more - 12th time under head coach Kenny Brooks - and the 17-point deficit was the largest they'd overcome in Brooks' 10 seasons in charge.

On Monday, Richmond (23-8) will travel to Virginia (23-10) in the other WNIT second-round game of note, at least to us.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stanford overpowers Hampton in NCAA Tournament

Hampton brought hundreds of fans, its bangn' band and sensational cheerleaders to ODU's Constant Center for Saturday's NCAA first-round encounter with mighty Stanford.

What the Lady Pirates didn't bring was their 'A" game.

Hampton coach David Six conceded his team would need something close to a perfect performance to take down the top-seeded Cardinal. Once it became clear the No. 16 Lady Pirates couldn't quite pull that off, it was just a matter of time before Stanford pulled away for a 73-51 victory before a crowd of 4,258.

"We were like that pitcher who doesn't have his best stuff," Six said. "So they just wore us down."

After Choicetta McMillian's 3-pointer got Hampton to within a point at 22-21 with 6:57 left in the first half, All-American forward Nneka Ogwumike led the Cardinal on a 13-0 run that opened things up.

Six said without looking at the tape he could recall three different possessions during that run where Hampton's defensive rotation came within inches of getting a steal.

Usually, Hampton's superior ability to recover keeps them in play defensively. Against this team, though, Hampton had to have those steals, because once Stanford got the ball to its preferred scoring areas,
particularly in the post, the smaller Lady Pirates (26-5) had few answers. The 6-2 Ogwumike had 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting in the first half alone, a 20-minute stretch during which the Cardinal made 64 percent of their shots.

Stanford led by 15 at intermission, by 15 with 15 minutes to go and by 30 midway through the second half before cruising to its 29th straight win. The Cardinal (32-1) now move on to a second-round date with West Virginia Monday (24-9) at 7 p.m.

The Lady Pirates, meanwhile, finished the 2011-12 season with a school record for wins, a third straight MEAC Tournament title and the consensus opinion that they were significantly undervalued by the folks who seed the NCAA Tournament.

But Saturday's game also brought an end to the Hampton careers of McMillian, Jericka Jenkins and Melanie Warner, three of the main catalysts for the Lady Pirates' rise to MEAC power and national relevance.

"You know what? I started thinking about (not having them) at the start of this season," Six said. "They're good people, most of all, and I'm going to miss them tremendously. But they certainly have taken me on the ride of my life."

Like Six, we also struggle to picture the Lady Pirates without McMillian's dead-eye shooting and the all-around excellence of Jenkins and Warner. But Saturday's game may have showcased the national coming-out of forward Alyssa Bennett (a team-high 16 points), the only Lady Pirate whose high school resume matched those of the Cardinal. Bennett was ranked No. 32 in ESPN's Top 100 high school recruits in 2009.

"They have 12 Parade All-Americans; we have Alyssa," Six said.

While Stanford's defense successfully neutralized Jenkins and McMillian, Bennett's athleticism allowed her to pretty much get where and what she wanted. She made just 7 of 20 shots, but generally displayed the range of skills that, assuming she continues to develop, should make her an extremely tough matchup for the next two seasons.

We're quite confident that any combination of players Six puts out on the floor will continue Hampton's tradition of lockdown defense - that is, if they're interested in staying on the floor. So even without the three highly decorated departing seniors, don't be surprised if Hampton turns up in the NCAA Tournament yet again next season.

Only this time,  hopefully as something higher than a No. 16 seed.

Friday, March 16, 2012

West Virginia's Stepney, Leary home for NCAAs to the delight of Mamas

Vivian Harrison and Theresa Leary are used to road trips.

Long ones on a winding path to see their daughters play basketball in Morgantown, W.V. They often make the nearly seven-hour drive from Norfolk together.

"I'm so afraid of those mountains," Harrison said. "But I'm there every weekend or every other weekend. I try to keep my eye on the road, not the mountains, and it helps when Theresa and I got involved in a good conversation."

This weekend the drive won't be so far. Harrison and Leary live just 10 minutes away from the Constant Center where their girls, Norfolk's own Linda Stepney and Crystal Leary, will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Tipoff for the first-round game between No. 8 West Virginia (23-9) and No. 9 Texas (18-13) is at 11 a.m.

Moms will be wearing shirts with this photo on front.
You can bet Linda's mom will be there. So will Crystal's. You can spot the two decked out in Mountaineer colors wearing homemade shirts with a picture from a game program on the front. The pic features Linda and Crystal, best friends since forever,  basketball teammates since age 11 and now freshmen college teammates at West Virginia University. The pair led Lake Taylor High School to its first-ever Group AAA state championship in 2010. Linda and Crystal will be getting plenty of support from Lake Taylor High on Saturday, too. Coach Saundra Sawyer is bringing her team and as many Titan supporters as she can find.

Sawyer has been eager to make it to West Virginia to a game this season, but she is even more tickled with this thought. "They're coming to me," she said.

Naturally, the players are just as excited about this coincidental homecoming as the family and friends that can't wait to cheer them on. Mountaineers coach Mike Carey heard the girls singing, "We're coming home!" on the ride to the airport.

By the time the plane touched down at Norfolk International Airport, words weren't necessary.

"As soon as we landed, all we could do is smile," Crystal said.

Of course, the families were there to greet the players. But that airport gathering is nothing compared to the Leary/Stepney contingent poised to invade the Constant Center on Saturday. Theresa Leary said the 20 tickets she and her husband, Chris, pre-ordered were snapped up faster than one can say, "The Mountaineers are coming!" There will be siblings. Cousins. Friends.

And signs. Lots and lots of signs.

"We love Pooh 32!" reads one, letting the world know Crystal's nickname.

"Physical for 40 minutes!" implores another, adorned with a picture of the entire West Virginia team.

"Welcome to the 757, West Virginia!"

Harrison had considered the possibility that the Mountaineers -- the only team in the field of 64 to have a win at No. 1 seed Notre Dame -- might come to Norfolk for first and second rounds.

"I prayed on it," she said. "God has answered my prayers."

The bracket revealing the early round games was the first one unveiled on Selection Monday. Harrison couldn't believe her eyes when she saw West Virginia coming to town with the winner set to meet the winner of No. 1 Standford/No. 16 Hampton. Linda didn't call her until late that night, and the two celebrated.

About 15 minutes before the selection show aired, Theresa Leary received a text from her daughter reminding her to tune in - as though Mom hadn't been thinking about it all day.

"When I saw "West Virginia" up there next to Norfolk, I just started screaming at the top of my lungs," Theresa said. "My son said I about blew his eardrum out."

She then picked up her phone and sent her daughter one simple text:

"My baby's coming home."

That's actually fitting, because for much of the girls' freshmen year, their parents have been bringing "home" to their babies. Theresa Leary said the families have been making the drive to Morgantown every other weekend, sometimes just the moms, other times as a party of 20.

"We just don't want her to feel she's alone," Theresa said.

Even so, Harrison had become used to late-night calls from her daughter, who had the typical freshman growing pains that occur when a kid with close family ties picks a school far, far away.

"In the beginning she cried herself to sleep every night," Harrison said. "She cried every time I left."

One night Linda called and asked Mom to come get her. Harrison reminded her daughter that her old life and her old friends had moved on. And by second semester, Linda adjusted and became happy with the decision to play basketball at a premier Big East program.

"Linda said one of the kids already got her autograph," Harrison said. "I told her to stay humble. She's such an easygoing, amazing girl."

Linda has played in 30 of West Virginia's games, starting 26. She averages 4.4 ppg and 2.8 rpg. Her roommate, Crystal, battled injury early in the season. Crystal has played in 15 games and started three, averaging 2.8 ppg and 3 rpg.

Harrison feels good about West Virginia advancing, noting, "If they take care of the ball, with their defense, they should be OK."

Either way Mom, or should we say Moms, will be cheering.

Read what JMU's Dawn Evans has to say about joining the WNBA

Know who was more excited than LadySwish about Dawn Evans receiving a training camp contract with the WNBA's Connecticut Sun? That would be Dawn herself.

"I am more than excited to play with the likes of the girls on the Connecticut Sun -- girls I have watched for years," Evans said. "I am just excited to be able to learn and get better and compete throughout training camp."

As for Austria, where Evans is playing with the Flying Foxes (whose season ends March 31:

"It is amazing," she said.  "It helps being so far from home having such great American teammates, Kachine Alexander and Nicole Soulis. They have helped the transition into pro ball so easy. The city is beautiful but the shopping is top on my list!. It's heaven on Earth! aka..not saving much money."

JMU's Evans gets WNBA contract

Dawn Evans is WNBA bound at last.

The CAA Player of the Year in 2011, who led James Madison to back-to-back conference championships, signed a training camp contract with the Connecticut Sun.

Evans is currently playing in Vienna, Austria for the Flying Foxes and averaging 10.2 points through six games.

Sun coach Mike Thibault told the Hartford Courant, "Coming out of college, Dawn was considered one of the most talented players in the draft class. However she had a number of medical issues that needed to be addressed and went un-drafted. She has addressed those issues and we felt, based on talent, that she would be a great addition to our training camp. Dawn can play both guard positions and will compete for one of the last few spots on our team."

Congrats, Dawn!

The NCAA Tournament and the Virginia connection for all 64 teams

The little-known fact about the NCAA Tournament, which begins Saturday, is that all 64 teams have some connection to the state of Virginia. (Fitting, isn't it, that we have Interstate 64 here, too!) We ran down each of the 64 connections for you. Enjoy and enjoy the games this weekend.

Go Liberty! Go Hampton!

Des Moines Region

Stroh Center, Bowling Green, Ohio (Bowling Green)

No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 UCSB, Sunday, 2:30 p.m.: That 6-8 center that 6-8 Brittney Griner is often compared to is none other than ODU's Anne Donovan. ... You'll see below that Georgetown has a Sugar who hails from Virginia. Seems like her long lost sis must be "Sweets" Underwood from UCSB.

No. 8 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Florida, Sunday, 12:15 p.m.: Buckeyes freshman Amy Scullion went to Salem High School. Granted, it was not Salem High in Virginia Beach, but details, details. ... Florida center Azania Stewart, a native of England, attended Notre Dame Academy - now Middleburg Academy - in Middleburg and has teamed with Old Dominion's Scotland-born Mairi Buchan on national teams for Great Britain.

Carmichael Arena, Chapel Hill, N.C. (North Carolina)

No. 5 Georgetown vs. No. 12 Fresno State, Sunday, 12:20 p.m.: Sugar, Sugar. Nope not the Archies song. Hoyas junior Sugar Rodgers hails from Suffolk, Va. ... One of the four teams playing this weekend at the Constant Center heads to Fresno for the regional.

No. 4 Georgia Tech vs. No. 13 Sacred Heart, Sunday, 2:30 p.m.: Georgia Tech's 24 victories this season include a 10-point win over Virginia, a 10-point victory over Virginia Tech and a 31-point rout of Old Dominion... ... Pioneers sophomore Blair Koniszewski is from Vienna, Va.

 Jack Stephens Arena, Little Rock, Ark. (UALR)

Cindy Fisher
No. 6 Nebraska vs. No. 11 Kansas, Sunday, 7:30 p.m.: Former ODU assistant Cindy Fisher was assistant coach at Nebraska for two seasons. ... Kansas head coach Bonnie Henrickson led Virginia Tech to a 152-68 record and seven postseason appearances from 1997-2004.

No. 3 Delaware vs. No. 11 Arkansas-Little Rock (UALR), Sunday, 5:20 p.m.: The Blue Hens are 8-0 versus Virginia schools this year. ... UALR senior Britteni Williams went to James Madison High, albeit in Houston.

Allstate Arena, Rosemont, Ill. (DePaul)

No. 7 DePaul vs. No. 10 BYU, Saturday, 6:30 p.m.: DePaul coach Doug Bruno is a former WBCA president. Former ODU coach Wendy Larry was also a WBCA president. ... The father and two brothers of former Briar Woods High star Kim Bell all played football at BYU, and her mother and a sister played basketball for the Cougars. Bell herself currently plays at Utah Valley.

No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 Tennessee-Martin, Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Norfolk is old home for the Lady Vols, who have played there 26 times, 19 times in the regular season and seven times in the NCAA Tournament, including the 1982 Final Four and in 2006 when Candace Parker dunked twice against Army ... Tennessee-Martin is the alma mater of Pat Summitt, who went into labor midway through a flight back from a recruiting trip to Pennsylvania but refused to have her baby (Tyler) in the state of Virginia and ordered the pilot to continue on to Tennessee. Tyler was born in Knoxville.

Fresno Region

Constant Convocation Center, Norfolk, Va. (Old Dominion)

No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 16 Hampton, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.: Last time the Cardinal played in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in Norfolk, they lost to Maine at the ODU field house. ... Hampton? No need to state the obvious about the three-time MEAC champs.

No. 8 West Virginia vs. No. 9 Texas, Saturday, 11:10 a.m.: Mountaineers Linda Stepney and Crystal Leary hail from Norfolk, Va., and grew up playing ball together about five minutes away from the Constant Center. ... The last time Texas coach Gal Goestenkors was at the Constant Center, she was coaching Duke in 2004. Her Blue Devils were denied a Final Four bid by Minnesota in the Elite Eight.

Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind. (Purdue)

No. 5 South Carolina vs. No. 12 Eastern Michigan, Saturday, 11:05 a.m.: Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley is among the most heralded players in University of Virginia history. ... We doubt Eagles assistant coach Liberty del Rosario was named for the school in Lynchburg, but just the same, it's a connection. Another: del Rosario was an assistant at Morgan State, which is in the MEAC, home to Norfolk State and Hampton, which plays in the Constant Center this weekend.

No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 13 San Diego State, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.: Blog writer Vicki L. Friedman, who lives in Virginia now, went to Purdue her freshman year (1984-85) ... Former ODU assistant Cindy Fisher coaches at the University of San Diego, which is near San Diego State. This is the second reference to Fisher in this all-Virginia post.

Lloyd Noble Center, Norman, Okla. (Oklahoma)

No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 Michigan, Sunday, 7:30 p.m.: Sooners coach Sherri Coale writes a wonderful blog on the team's website. LadySwish is a wonderful blog. .... Michigan played in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas this year, as did ODU (opposite brackets, but again, details, details).

No. 3 St. John's vs. No. 14 Creighton, Sunday, 5:05 p.m. ... St. John's freshman Mallory Jones, who chose the Red Storm over, among others, James Madison, starred at Blacksburg High before transferring to Oak Hill Academy ... Assistant Jenny Vickers resides in Omaha, where Norfolk State and Virginia will be playing in the other NCAA Tournament. A second, the UFL's Virginia Destroyers opened their inaugural season in Nebraska in a stadium across the street from Creighton.

Memorial Gymnasium, Nashville, Tenn. (Vanderbilt)

No. 7 Vanderbilt vs. No. 10 Middle Tennessee State, Sunday, 5:10 p.m.: Liberty played in the Thanksgiving tournament in Vandy's gym. ... Middle Tennessee, lower RPI and strength of schedule than James Madison, lost to the Dukes in December.

No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Samford, Sunday, 7:30 p.m.: Duke's freshman Elizabeth Williams is from Virginia Beach. ... Samson senior forward J'Quita Babineaux is from Springfield, Va., and Robert E. Lee High School.

Raleigh Region

Joyce Center, South Bend, Ind. (Notre Dame)

No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 16 Liberty, Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
VCU coach Beth Cunningham has Irish in her blood, having been an All-American at Notre Dame in the late '90s. ... Liberty? Well, there's the whole Lynchburg thing....

No. 8 Cal vs. No. 9 Iowa, Sunday, 12:10 p.m.: Where was Virginia coach Joanne Boyle before Charlottesville? Cal. ... Iowa freshman Virginia Johnson averages 1.7 ppg.

Tucker Center, Tallahassee, Fla. (Florida State)

No. 5 St. Bonaventure vs. No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast, Sunday, 2:30 p.m.: The Bonnies are 2-0 versus Virginia teams with wins over Norfolk State and Richmond. ... This is our favorite connection. Florida Gulf Coast links to LadySwish on the front of its women's basketball website. Go Eagles!!!!!

No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 13 Marist, Sunday, 12:05 p.m.: Georgia Director of Operations La'Keshia Frett-Meredith played high school ball at Phoebus. ... ODU sports information director Kim Zivkovich was a former sports info director at Marist.

 Reed Arena, College Park, Texas (Texas A&M)

No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Dayton, Saturday, 4:05 p.m.: Arkansas beat SIU-Edwardsville. SIU-Edwardsville is coached by former Lady Monarch Amanda Levens. ... Former ODU men's coach Oliver Purnell was head coach at Dayton and was an ODU classmate of Monarchs sports info director Carol Hudson,

No. 3 Texas A&M vs. No. 14 Albany, Saturday, 6:30 p.m.: Aggies associate head coach Vic Schaefer was an assistant at UT-Arlington. Arlington is a city in Northern Virginia. ... Albany's nickname is the Great Danes. Delaware's Elena Delle Donne had a Great Dane until she realized apartment life wasn't fair for him. Delle Donne has played in Virginia 14 times.

Comcast Center, College Park, Md. (Maryland)

No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Michigan State, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.: Louisville freshman Bria Smith, a McDonald's All-American who started every game for the Cardinals, initially signed with Virginia but requested and was granted a release after former coach Debbie Ryan stepped down ...The Spartans (whose nickname is the same as Norfolk State's) have a player named Jasmine Thomas (whose name is the same as Jasmine Thomas of Fairfax, Va., who played for Duke and is now on the Washington Mystics).

No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 15 Navy, Saturday, 11:15 a.m.: Terps senior Kim Rodgers is from Virginia Beach. ... Navy? Well, Hampton Roads has the biggest military contingent in the nation.

Kingston Region

Arena at Harbor Yard, Bridgeport, Conn. (Fairfield)

No. 1 UConn vs. No. 16 Prairie View, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.: The Huskies won the subregional in Norfolk in 2010. ...UNC Wilmington coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, whose team plays in the Virginia-based CAA, formerly coached at Prairie View.

No. 8 Kansas State vs. No. 9 Princeton, Saturday, 11:20 a.m.: Kansas State assistant Shalee Lehning was a finalist for the Lieberman Award. We all know where Lieberman played. ... Tigers sophomore Alex Rodgers went to high school at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.

Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge, La. (LSU)

No. 5 LSU vs. No. 12 San Diego State, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. LSU coach and new mother Nikki Caldwell, who helped Tennessee nip Virginia in the 1991 NCAA national title game, was a Cavaliers assistant from 1999-2002 and was in serious play for Virginia's head job last spring before she accepted LSU's offer ... Cindy Fisher is head coach at the University of San Diego, which is close to San Diego State. This is the third mention of Fisher in this post.

No. 4 Penn State vs. No. 13 UTEP, Sunday, 5:15 p.m.: Penn State junior forward Mia Nickson (7.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg) was born in Germany but grew up in Ashburn ...UTEP has a senior guard named Whitney Houston. Singer Whitney Houston performed at Naval Station, Norfolk in March 1991.

 McCarthey Athletic Center, Spokane, Wash. (Gonzaga)

No. 6 Rutgers vs. No. 11 Gonzaga, Saturday, 4:15 p.m.: Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer was the coach of Cheyney State when the Wolves reached the Final Four in 1982 played at the Norfolk Scope. ... Only two players have 2,000 career points and 1,000 career assists. That would be ODU coach Karen Barefoot and former Gonzaga sensation Courtney Vandersloot.

No. 3 Miami vs. No. 14 Idaho State, Saturday, 6:30 p.m.: Hurricanes junior Chanel Williams is from Chesapeake ((Indian River High), Va. ... Virginia football, which had never played a team in Idaho before, beat Idaho 21-20 (dubious connection, we know).

Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa (Iowa State)

No. 7 Green Bay vs. No. 10 Iowa State, Saturday, 6:30 p.m.: Just like Hampton got jobbed with a 16 seed, so did Green Bay, a 7 seed. ... Iowa State won its only meeting with Virginia, spanking the Cavaliers 66-48 in the 2010 Paradise Jam.

No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 15 McNeese State, Saturday, 4:20 p.m.: Hampton nearly upset Kentucky a year ago in the NCAA Tournament, losing in OT. ... McNeese State's last trip to Virginia wasn't a pleasant one - on Dec. 10, 2010, the Cowboys fell 75-70 at Norfolk State.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Clean sweep for Virginia's WNIT teams

Sure, they'd all rather be in the NCAAs. But credit the state's four WNIT entrants for shaking off their disappointment, digging in and getting it done Thursday in the first round of that less-glamorous but still highly competitive other tournament.

WNIT bracket

Thursday's results

VCU 72, Bowling Green 71: Rams fans partying hard after the VCU men's basketball team's NCAA victory over Wichita State may not learn about this until Friday afternoon. They missed a classic, though, as Andrea Barbour went coast-to-coast for a layup at the buzzer to complete a spectacular Rams comeback. After taking a 2-0 lead, VCU fell behind, stayed there and were facing a 12-point deficit with 4:51 left. Five straight points by Carleeda Green kick-started the Rams rally, and Barbour (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Courtney Hurt (30 points, 17 rebounds) sent it into overdrive by scoring all 14 of the Rams' points over the final 2:42. A Hurt layup with six seconds left put the Rams ahead 71-70; two free throws from Bowling Green's Jessica Slagle gave the Falcons the edge. One mad dash by Barbour later, the Rams were winners. Seniors aren't always that stoked for WNIT action, but VCU's upperclassmen weren't going out like that and were at their dominant best when it mattered most. Anyone out there have a tape of this game? For while we enjoyed watching the Rams men take down Wichita State, we'd sure like to see this one, too.
Second round: Sunday, 2 p.m. at St. Joseph's

Virginia 59, Howard 56 (OT): The Cavaliers were anticipating an NCAA bid so we're not sure how keyed up they were for this. And they almost paid for it against an underrated Howard team that had gone 23-3 - including a win at Wake Forest - since early December. As it was, the Cavaliers had to sweat out three missed shots by the Lady Bison in the final seconds of regulation before taking command in overtime. Virginia hadn't played in 13 days, and again, they thought they deserved better than the WNIT. Enough with the excuses, though. The Cavaliers are good enough to win this tournament if they have their act together. But they're going to need better performances than they turned in Thursday night.
Second round: Monday, 7 p.m. vs. Richmond

Richmond 76, Miami (Ohio) 54: Vintage Spiders basketball, from the four players in double figures to the 22 assists on 28 field goals to the 14 steals. Genevieve Okoro led the way with 19 points and sophomore Kristina King tied her career high with 13 for the Spiders, who broke things open with a 17-0 run in the first half and cruised from there. Next up is a rematch with Virginia; the Spiders fell 69-56 to the Cavaliers in Richmond on Dec. 4.
Second round: Monday, 7 p.m. at Virginia

James Madison 64, Davidson 49: Lauren Whitehurst scored 10 of her 12 points during a decisive 19-7 second half run for the Dukes, who trailed by a point with 14:15 left before surging in front. Whitehurst also had two blocked shots and now has 56 for her career, the most for a single season in JMU history.  Tarik Hislop led JMU with 15 points.
Second round: Sunday, 2 p.m. vs. Wake Forest

Other WNIT results:

Drexel 57, Fairfield 41
Harvard 73, Hofstra 71
Appalachian State 79, UNC Wilmington 73

N.C. State 88, High Point 78
Wake Forest 72, Charlotte 61

Atlantic 10
St. Joseph's 67, Boston University 56
Temple 75, Quinnipiac 60

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

16 hardly sweet for Hampton

LadySwish already noted the snub of the Hampton Pirates receiving a No. 16 seed in our initial post when the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled. Despite a school-record 26 wins, Hampton must face No. 1 Stanford at the Constant Center (game time approximately 1:30 p.m.).

The Daily Press reports that Rodney Smith, HU's vice president for administrative services, sent a letter to Greg Christopher, chair of the Division I basketball committee, noting the seed was "disgraceful" and "grossly unfair."

The letter notes Hampton's RPI of 63 and road record of 13-3, both better than several teams seeded ahead of them.

You know our feeling. The Pirates deserved better. We could write a whole sermon on the mid majors getting the shaft as if the BCS schools needed extra advantages (Florida Gulf Coast (29-2) vs. St. Bonaventure (29-3) in a first-round game -- why? Why pit two elite mid major teams against each other so early?)

The rich keep getting richer in a sport that claims it needs parity. Let's hope Hampton -- which sold out on its allotment of tickets on Monday -- can make some noise despite the unacceptable slight.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Former ODU guard coaching in the postseason

Hey, ODU fans, remember Amanda Levens?

The former Lady Monarch point guard, who transferred to Arizona State after two years at ODU, is now the coach at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. The Cougars (18-11), playing in the Ohio Valley Conference, had their first winning season in Division I. As the team is in its final transition year in making the move to Division I, SIU Edwardsville was ineligible for the conference tournament and therefore the NCAA Tournament.

In Levens' first year, the Cougars were 5-24. Then 8-21 and last year, 11-19. The Cougars were finished to pick eighth in their conference. Instead, Levens was voted Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year.

On Tuesday SIU Edwardsville was invited to the 16-team Women's Basketball Invitational Tournament. They will host Wright State (20-12).

Prior to being named coach of SIU Edwardsville, Levens was an assistant at Nevada-Las Vegas.

Levens was named All-PAC 10 in her two years at Arizona State, where she was an honorable mention All American. The Belvidere, Ill., native played for Old Dominion from 1997-99. When Levens signed with ODU in 1996, she anticipated Ticha Penicheiro not returning for a final year. Penicheiro played a fourth year and Levens transferred to Arizona State.

Norfolk's own Stepney talks about coming home for NCAA Tournament

Virginia schools well-represented in WNIT

Lots of reasons to pay attention to the Women's National Invitational Tournament this year as four schools in Virginia are included in the 64-team field. The key first-round matchups:

VCU at Bowling Green, 7 p.m.: The Falcons (24-5) won the Mid-American Conference regular-season title before getting upended by Central Michigan in the MAC semifinals. Key players include first-team All-MAC forward Alexis Rogers (12.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg) a redshirt sophomore transfer from Duke.
The winner plays: Boston University or St. Joseph's.

Miami (Ohio) at Richmond, 6 p.m. Thursday: RedHawks went 21-9 this season and are led by junior guard Courtney Osbourn, a first-team All-MAC performer who averaged 19.8 points and 4.9 assists and dropped a conference single-game record 48 points on Akron in early January.
The winner plays: Virginia or Howard.

Howard at Virginia, 7 p.m.: After getting off to a 1-5 start, the Lady Bison went 23-3 the rest of the way, with all three losses coming to Hampton. The third of those losses was a 54-53 setback in Saturday's MEAC championship game. The Cavaliers sent off former coach Debbie Ryan with three victories in last year's WNIT before falling in the quarterfinals.
The winner plays: Miami (Ohio) or Richmond

Davidson at James Madison, 7 p.m.: The Wildcats (22-9) were the Southern Conference co-champions and the No. 1 seed in the SoCon Tournament. They are led by 6-4 junior forward Sophia Aleksandravicius who earned conference player of the year and defensive player of the year honors.
The winner plays: Charlotte or Wake Forest.

Three of the teams identified among the last four out of the NCAA at-large pool are in the WNIT - Virginia, Temple and Oklahoma State. The fourth, USC, apparently declined a WNIT bid. So did North Carolina.

Click here for the complete WNIT bracket.

Also, the 16-team Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI) field was announced. Participating teams are Seattle, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, North Dakota, Wright State, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Northern Iowa, Rice, Robert Morris, Manhattan, Holy Cross, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Charleston Southern, Bradley and Tennessee Tech.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tough night for Virginia's schools in NCAAs

NCAA bracket

Local entrants

No. 16 Hampton vs. No. 1 Stanford, Saturday, 1:40 p.m. at Old Dominion

No. 16 Liberty at No. 1 Notre Dame, Sunday, 2:40 p.m.

NCAA Selection Monday was a tough one for Virginia's schools, a night when even the good news wasn't really all that good.

Three-time MEAC champion Hampton and perennial Big South heavyweight Liberty both made the NCAA cut, but as No. 16 seeds, the seeding of death for tournament hopefuls. Teams seeded 16th are 1-71 in the first round since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994.

Relegating Hampton to this spot seems particularly harsh. With a 26-4 record and, more importantly, an RPI of 62, the Lady Pirates may be the strongest 16th seed in the history of the tournament. We wonder if the committee didn't drop the Lady Pirates down a line or two to keep them close to home. If so, here's hoping that next time, they refrain from doing Hampton any favors. The players loved traveling to Albuquerque, N.M. last year, where as a No. 13 seed they took Kentucky to overtime in the first round.

Maybe the Lady Pirates will do the same thing with Stanford. We know they'll expend themselves trying. It's just a shame that the NCAA gave them one of the four toughest draws possible.

But at least Hampton and Liberty are in the field. Virginia and James Madison are awaiting further instructions from the WNIT after being bypassed by the NCAA folks. The Cavaliers were revealed as among the last four teams out.

For Virginia, apparently a victory over Tennessee doesn't mean quite what it used to. In explaining the decision to omit the Cavaliers, NCAA committee chairman Greg Christopher noted the win over the Lady Vols but said essentially Virginia had little else in terms of quality wins relative to the other bubble teams. As we've pointed out before, the Cavaliers went 9-0 against the teams seeded below them in the ACC Tournament but 0-7 against the five teams seeded above them.

Christopher didn't break down the reasons why JMU missed out, but the fact that Middle Tennessee, a team the Dukes defeated earlier this season, did get picked triggered this humorous series of tweets from JMU coach Kenny Brooks:

"Man, I wish our RPI was better than Middle Tennessee St. Oh was."

"I wish our strength of schedule was better than Middle Tennessee St. Oh was!!!"

"I wish we had played Middle Tennessee St. head to head. Oh wait...we did!!! JMU 60, MTSU 46. C'mon NCAA. smh"

We gotta admit, the man has a point.

BFFs Stepney and Leary coming home for NCAA Tournament

BFFs Linda Stepney and Crystal Leary have played basketball together since they were 11 years old.

On Saturday they'll get to do it in the NCAA Tournament in their hometown.

The Lake Taylor High School (Norfolk) graduates will be at the Constant Center for first and second rounds. The high school buds are both freshmen at West Virginia University, which meets No. 9 Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 11 a.m. Saturday.

22 is Linda; 32 is Crystal
From Stepney's Facebook page (which has piles of pics of Leary....) "I need all my #757 people especially NORFOLK to come show some love Saturday!!!!!"

The Moutaineers received an at-large berth from the Big East after finishing fifth in that conference with a 23-9 record. That record includes one of the biggest wins of any team this season -- 65-63 at Notre Dame on Feb. 12. (The Irish, by the way, are a No. 1 seed.)

Just an FYI: LadySwish spoke to Stepney a few weeks ago and after initial homesickness, she said she is enjoying West Virginia except for the weather.

"It's always cold here," she groaned.

West Virginia will be playing a Texas team that could have easily been left out of the bracket were it not for a pair of wins over defending national champion Texas A&M, which received a 4 seed. The Longhorns are 18-13 and surely Gail Goestenkors remembers the last time she was in the Constant Center. Her Duke team fell to Minnesota in the Elite Eight in 2004.

Also in Norfolk, No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 16 Hampton (note our post about the Lady Pirates being "rewarded" for their 26-4 season by receiving a date with The Cardinal, albeit one across the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, not across the country).

Led by NCAA assist leader Jericka Jenkins, Hampton won its third straight MEAC title on Saturday.

Stanford is 31-1 (the early-season loss is to UConn), and the act that is Nmemkadi Ogwumike and younger sis, Chiney, is pretty awesome up close. Nnemkadi averages 21.8 ppg; Chiney averages 15.8 ppg. Stanford beat Texas 72-59 in its season opener.

Stanford/Hampton tips off at approximately 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.

Monday's subregional final is at 7 p.m.

Why not JMU?

We have no idea whether James Madison will be invited to the NCAA Tournament later tonight. But you know what? ESPN's Charlie Creme doesn't, either.

The man certainly does his homework. But he's offering one opinion, the opinion of a man who is not on the NCAA selection committee. His mock bracket has JMU on the outside looking in. But the people with the actual say-so may see things an entirely different way.

The Dukes' resume certainly has flaws, the most recent one being Saturday's beatdown at the hands of Drexel in the CAA Tournament semifinals. The loss to Northeastern a couple of weeks ago may have been even more damaging.

But they also have points in their favor. JMU's RPI is a robust 35. That's higher than Temple (46), Virginia (50), Texas (54), way better than North Carolina (89). Better than any of the so-called bubble teams. In most years, an RPI of 35 is an NCAA at-large RPI.

JMU also has a win over Middle Tennessee State, a team some folks think has a stronger at-large case. Since JMU also has better strength of schedule and RPI numbers, we're not sure why. But if MTSU gets in the field, why shouldn't JMU?

Here's the thing - when you get down to the last 2-3 at-large spots, every team under consideration has flaws. Each committee member has factors it weighs more heavily than others. If this particular committee is a sucker for RPI, the Dukes may be going dancing. If it wants to see a lot of wins over high-profile opponents - or a team that finishes strong - hello, WNIT.

But make no mistake, even with Saturday's tournament loss, the numbers argue the Dukes ought to still be in the mix. No one should be surprised if JMU gets left out tonight, though.

Just don't be shocked if they're not.