Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thank you, Elena Delle Donne

I was homesick once. I mean really, really homesick. I wanted adventure in college, so even though I was a political science major at the time, why the heck would I want to stay in my hometown, Washington, D.C.? Of all places, I ended up in West Lafayette, Ind., at Purdue University, a school, some say, that sits in the middle of a cornfield. I went there alone on a plane from D.C. to Chicago and then a puddle jumper to West Lafayette. I arrived at Earhart Hall and before I ever saw the inside of my dorm room, I dialed home on the phone from the lobby. As I stared at my suitcase still sitting on the curb outside, I said to my mom, "I want to come home."

Elena Delle Donne was homesick once. She arrived in Storrs, Conn., seemingly so far away from the familiar back home in Delaware. She only stayed a few days, and the rest, as you know, is history. Not just Delaware history, women's basketball history.

Elena played in her final collegiate game on Saturday, leaving the sport as the fifth all-time leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,039 points. That's an amazing statistic, obviously, on its own merit, but more astonishing given the roller coaster best seller that became Delle Donne's career. Basketball burnout followed by a volleyball stint, stepping in a pothole and hurting her foot, mysterious illness that turned out to be Lyme Disease and then a recurrence of those Lyme symptoms this year, causing her to miss even more days, more games.

Many wanted EDD and the Hens to have one more game in them, as it seemed an uncanny possibility that she might find her team matched up against those very same Huskies who recruited her. Kentucky saw to it that it didn't happen.

I've heard harsh words from some fans in the CAA and still an occasional rant from the UConn folks about Elena, and to them I say this. We -- the CAA, women's basketball, women's basketball fans and us, LadySwish -- were lucky to have Elena Delle Donne for the last four years. What a joy she is to watch on the court -- guard skills on a 6-5 frame, unselfish despite her capabilities,  range from every spot on the floor and smarts. Off the court, she gave genuine answers to questions the media never tired of asking, including the ones about the Huskies. She's bright and witty and funny -- a mainstay on the CAA All-Academic team -- and genuine, a role model to young girls and young women whether they play basketball or never pick one up.

No doubt, her college career started rough. How many players can we count on our hands who have transferred for far lesser reasons than wanting to be closer to home, closer to their sister, who cannot see, hear or speak? Who can find fault with a hometown girl playing in her backyard, bringing pride to a program that became a nationally prominent one thanks to her presence?

Most of us lament what we've lost when it's gone. The real truth is we blame ourselves for not appreciating it while it was there. We at LadySwish have spent four years plus appreciating Elena Delle Donne -- (we even snuck in to her final high school game to get a glimpse of the special skills she had back then).

We're writing to say thank you, Elena. We can't wait to see you in the WNBA. We'll miss you in the CAA, but we're so glad that we enjoyed this ride.

Norfolk Regional: The things they said today

These NCAA Tournament day-before-game press conferences are in some ways necessary evils. The event wants the promotion, and media members need material to work with. Usually, though, very little news, or even interesting information, comes out of these things, and both parties are to blame.

Mindful of saying anything that might be taken out of context, coaches, and especially players, typically don't stray from a time-honored script:

"We're excited to be here. We're really focused. Our opponent is really good. It's going to be a tough game. If we give 100 percent and stick to our gameplan, we'll give ourselves a chance."

Media members, in turn, often ask unimaginative, cliche-friendly questions that make it easy for the participants to stay on message. And we're not exempting ourselves from this criticism. Although we pride ourselves on getting folks to loosen up in one-on-one sessions, we've asked our share of lemon question in these formats, too.

This is why, when the teams sat down to face questions Saturday before the Norfolk Regional, it was wonderfully refreshing and informative when Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins took a simple query - How do you define your game? - and ran with it:

"I'm instinctual. If it comes to where I need to score, I can put the ball in the basket. But really what I'm looking for is to set my teammates up. I want to make every player on the defensive end pay attention to me to set my teammates up. I'm trying to push tempo. I want to be aggressive on defense by pushing up trying to get steals. I want to be the smartest player on the court and that comes from preparation, understanding the game and being a student of the game. I want to be the most competitive person on the court, the most emotional player on the court and the most confident player on the court. I think that when you're all of those things, then your teammates are that, too. Then we become the most confident and the most competitive team. My job is to be the leader and follow all of those things."

It usually works well if you can ask a player something they weren't expecting. Judging by the huge grin that broke out on Duke's Elizabeth Williams' face, she hadn't prepared to answer anything about her last appearance at ODU's Constant Center (an AAU game circa 2006):

"Oh, man! Those were probably the days when I still had goggles. I don't remember much. I  do remember it's a really nice facility, and I definitely enjoyed playing here."

We're trying to dig up pictures of Williams wearing those goggles, by the way.

Players often brush off talk of individual matchups in these settings, preferring to talk about the team. So we appreciated Kansas star point guard Angel Goodrich taking the bait when asked about her head-to-head battle with Notre Dame's Diggins:

"It's going to be a great challenge between us. "(Diggins) is a great point guard. She's done a lot for Notre Dame. She makes her teammates look great, and I'm just looking forward to the matchup."

Sometimes, players get questioned about stuff they simply can't answer, like when Nebraska forward Jordan Hooper was asked to assess the shooting background in the Constant Center:

"We actually haven't had shoot-around yet so I'm not quite sure what it looks like out there. But I'm sure it'll be fine."

At least she was polite.

Other notable quotes:

Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, on recruiting Elizabeth Williams:

"She is an amazing person and comes from an amazing family. I feel like I got to know her very well. I read a book with her, you know. I don't want to read that book again. It was a terrible book. Anyway, the things you would do in recruiting, but I got to know her very well, what was important to her as a person. Her family is very important to her. She comes from a very happy family. They are probably the happiest family I know, in terms of just the way they live their lives and how they support their children. Thank God she is a sophomore and we can continue to develop and have a great time together. She is a very honorable player, she works very hard, and sometimes she puts too much pressure on herself, a little bit of a perfectionist. It's not about perfection, it's about giving your all and cutting loose. I haven't felt like she has cut loose yet, but I hope she does."

Nebraska coach Connie Yori, on Cornhuskers point guard Lindsey Moore:

"The first word that comes to my head when I think of Lindsey Moore is competitive. She is a kid who does not like to lose. It doesn't matter if we are playing a shooting game in practice, five-on-five, game time or monopoly. She does not like to lose."

Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson, on how Goodrich's background has shaped her (Goodrich is a Cherokee Nation citizen who has overcome ACL surgeries on both knees):

"She's had an impact throughout her Cherokee community as well as Lawrence, Kansas. She has more importantly had an impact on all the little guys who have been told all their life that they are too little to play, so she's had an impact on girls and boys. She's been able to impact people as well, because she has persevered through injuries and has been able to bounce back."

Duke guard Tricia Liston, on the impact of freshman Alexis Jones (Jones took over the starting point guard role nine games ago after All-ACC performer Chelsea Gray went down for the season with a dislocated kneecap:

"Whenever a player goes down on a team, the dynamic on the court is going to change. I think it took us a few games to get used to that but we've done a really good job getting back to the team we want to be and playing the game we want to play. It's certainly sad to see someone like Chelsea go down because she brings so much to the table, but as for Lex, she stepped up tremendously for us. Vocally she hasn't been the loudest one, especially playing with Chelsea because Chelsea did most of that, but she has grown so much. She has come out of her shell. She's talking, she's yelling on the court, demanding of us. But she's not trying to be Chelsea. She is still her own player. But she is our point guard now. She's the starting point guard and I think she does a good job. So many people have been comparing her to Chelsea and I guess you can do that because they're point guards, but they are two different players. I think she's done a great job staying true to herself and still being able to lead our team in the way we want to play Duke basketball."

Elizabeth Williams, Duke really at home for the Sweet 16

Sweet 16 is pretty special for Elizabeth Williams, who grew up 13 miles from the Constant Center, site of Sunday's NCAA Tournament matchup with Nebraska. Read our story on for the inside scoop of just how special Williams is to the folks of the Cypress Point neighborhood in Virginia Beach. We know who they'll be rooting for on Sunday, and admittedly, so will we. We thank Williams, her family and the entire Duke team for sharing with us.

NCAA Norfolk Regional: The teams are here!

The four competing teams in the NCAA Norfolk Regional - Notre Dame (pictured above), Kansas, Duke and Nebraska - are spending Saturday going through their paces and meeting the media in advance of Sunday's Sweet 16 games.

During Notre Dame's press conference, Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw was asked about the powerful cross-cultural impact of point guard Skylar Diggins.

"It started in the NCAA Tournament her sophomore year, when we played Tennessee in Dayton," McGraw said. "Lil' Wayne tuned in for the Final Four and of course, I didn't know who he was, but they were pretty excited. He started tweeting about her and instantly celebrity status came. Forty thousand Twitter followers that day, up to 300,000 now. She's a lot more than a basketball player. She brought visibility to the game and the program. She's someone who people want to follow. It's been exciting. Great for the game, great for the kids (girls). Phenomenal role model."

Tournament schedule
Sunday, March 31
No. 1 Notre Dame (33-1) vs. No. 12 Kansas (20-13), 12:04 p.m.
No. 2 Duke (32-2) vs. No. 6 Nebraska (25-8), 2:32 p.m.
Tuesday, April 2
Regional final, 7 p.m.

Friday, March 29, 2013

SEC, meet the CAA

Officially, there's no such thing as a CAA-SEC Challenge. But as we get to the business end of the NCAA and WNIT, the two conferences are set to square off in three Saturday showdowns:

NCAA Sweet 16
Delaware (32-3) vs. Kentucky (29-5), noon
    - Delaware's 27-game winning streak is Division I's third-longest (Baylor's won 32 straight and Notre Dame's won 28 straight)...Elena Delle Donne ranks eighth on the Division I all-time scoring list with 3,006 points and is poised to pass Cheryl Miller (3,018 points), Chamique Holdsclaw (3,025) and Maya Moore (3,036) in today's game...Kentucky ranks second in Division I in forcing turnovers...The Wildcats are just 10-10 lifetime against CAA teams (3-8 vs. Old Dominion).

WNIT quarterfinals
Florida (21-14) at JMU (25-10), 4 p.m.
     - The Dukes are 16-0 all-time in NCAA (4-0) and WNIT (12-0) games played in Harrisonburg. ...Florida is the only WNIT team to have played and won all three of its tournament games on the road...Gators freshman guard/forward Sydney Moss, who made the SEC All-Freshman team, is the daughter of NFL star Randy Moss. Sydney Moss leads the Gators in assists and ranks second in points, rebounds and steals.

Drexel (25-10) at Auburn (19-14), 7 p.m.
    - Drexel's 25 wins are a program record...Dragons are 10-5 in road games and will be looking for their first-ever victory over an SEC program...Auburn is coached by Terri Williams-Flournoy (Boo's sister), who is in her first year with the Lady Tigers after a highly successful eight-year stint at Georgetown... Auburn is 15-3 at home this season, 10-0 against non-conference opponents.

If all three CAA teams were to prevail:

- Delle Donne would likely wind up playing against the program she originally signed with and fled because of a desire to be closer to home - UConn;

- JMU and Drexel would meet for the seventh time in the last two seasons in the WNIT Final Four.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

NCAA: Point guards on parade in Norfolk

Skylar Diggins
Who's the best point guard coming to town Easter Sunday for the NCAA's Norfolk Regional at Old Dominion University's Constant Center?

The answer may not be as clear-cut as you think.

Lindsey Moore
Of course, everyone knows about Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, the sport's tough-as-nails "it" girl/UConn killer who has led the Fighting Irish to back-to-back NCAA title games. But what about Nebraska's Lindsey Moore, the 5-9 consummate pass-first point guard and ex-high school teammate of Courtney Vandersloot who has developed into a go-to scorer as well? Or Kansas' Angel Goodrich, the pocket-sized (5-4) Cherokee Nation citizen who has overcome two ACL surgeries and has saved her best for NCAA play the past two seasons?

And then there's Duke, which is so loaded it has two point princesses. Blue Devils star Chelsea Gray was a serious candidate for ACC Player of the Year honors before a dislocated kneecap ended her season. The Blue Devils inserted freshman Alexis Jones, a smooth lefty, into the floor general's role. And two weeks ago, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell argued that Duke was a better team with Jones running the show instead of Gray. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But there's no question Jones looks like the real deal.

Last Sunday, the Duke rookie marked her NCAA Tournament debut by flirting with a triple-double before
Angel Goodrich
"settling" for 11 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds against Hampton, which came in with Division I's best defense.

Meanwhile, Goodrich averaged 17 points and 9 assists in NCAA victories over Colorado and South Carolina to book a Sweet 16 appearance. Moore carved up Texas A&M to the tune of 20 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes to advance to Norfolk.

And Diggins has been, well, Diggins in directing the 33-1 Fighting Irish to the Sweet 16 yet again.

Diggins. Moore. Goodrich. Jones. A veritable point guard paradise this Sunday at the Constant Center.

Pass the rock, and enjoy the show.

Tournament schedule
Sunday, March 31
No. 1 Notre Dame (33-1) vs. No. 12 Kansas (20-13), 12:04 p.m.
No. 2 Duke (32-2) vs. No. 6 Nebraska (25-8), 2:32 p.m.
Tuesday, April 2
Regional final, 7 p.m.

Statistics don't tell the whole story, but here's a look at some of the key numbers for the four point guards in action this weekend (Jones' stats are for her nine games as Duke's starting point guard).

Alexis Jones (left)
Assists per game
Angel Goodrich - 7.0
Alexis Jones - 6.4
Skylar Diggins - 5.9
Lindsey Moore - 5.7

Lindsey Moore - 2.51
Angel Goodrich - 3.60
Skylar Diggins - 3.61
Alexis Jones - 4.0

Assist-turnover ratio
Lindsey Moore - 2.17
Angel Goodrich - 1.95
Skylar Diggins - 1.62
Alexis Jones - 1.61

Skylar Diggins - 3.0
Angel Goodrich - 2.85
Lindsey Moore - 1.81
Alexis Jones - 1.33

Skylar Diggins - 16.8
Lindsey Moore - 15.2
Angel Goodrich - 14.4
Alexis Jones - 14.3

Free throw percentage
Skylar Diggins - 82.1
Lindsey Moore - 80.7
Alexis Jones - 76.7
Angel Goodrich - 73.3

Field goal percentage
Lindsey Moore - 47.8
Skylar Diggins - 41.9
Alexis Jones - 41.7
Angel Goodrich - 36.7

3-point percentage
Alexis Jones - 41.6
Lindsey Moore - 34.5
Skylar Diggins - 34.5
Angel Goodrich - 32.0

WNIT: Could JMU meet Drexel again?

Hey, JMU fans, want another crack at the team that knocked your Dukes out of the CAA Tournament the past two years, those pesky Drexel Dragons?


Now there's still a lot of WNIT basketball to be played before such a rematch could go down. But if both teams keep winning, we could be looking at an all-CAA - or what's left of the CAA - semifinal about a week from now.

On Wednesday, the Dukes stormed into the WNIT quarterfinals by thumping Fordham 77-61. On Thursday, the Dragons will try to book its spot in the final eight at Bowling Green. If Drexel wins, the Dragons will face Auburn, again most likely on the road, with a semifinal berth at stake. Meanwhile, JMU will host Florida for a spot in the semis.

No easy tasks for either team, for sure. But if they both get through,, we're looking at a JMU-Drexel Final Four matchup, which would obviously be great news for a CAA that could really use some these days.

Not sure how excited the Dukes will be about it, though. It's not that JMU can't beat Drexel. It's just that bad things tend to happen to the Dukes, particularly on offense, when they're on the court with these Dragons.

Consider that in the past two seasons, JMU has lost five games by 16 points or more. Three of those losses have come to Drexel. Two years ago, the Dragons held JMU to just 43 points, the Dukes' lowest point total in three seasons. This season, JMU's two lowest point totals (34, 46) have come against Drexel, and the 34 points they produced in the CAA semifinals represented their most meager single-game output in coach Kenny Brooks' 11 seasons.

The fact that JMU has beaten Drexel twice over this span proves the Dukes aren't necessarily doomed to another defeat. But Drexel strangling the points out of a JMU team has happened too many times for our tastes. We have a lot of faith in Brooks so we're sure he'll figure it out eventually. But as far as this WNIT run goes, if the Dukes get past Florida - a tough assignment, no doubt - we'd just as soon see them play someone else.

Margin of defeat in JMU's losses the last two seasons

21 – at Virginia (78-57), Nov. 9, 2012
18 – vs. Minnesota (Cancun Challenge, 80-62), Nov. 23, 2012
17 – Drexel (home, 60-43), Jan. 12, 2012
17 – vs. Drexel (CAA Tournament), 67-50, March 10, 2012
16 – vs. Drexel (CAA Tournament) 50-34, March 16, 2013
12 – Liberty (60-48), Dec. 4, 2012
11 – at Northeastern (61-50), Feb. 19, 2012
8 – vs. Richmond (neutral site, 74-66), Dec. 29, 2011
7 – at Towson (65-58), Dec. 4, 2011
7 – Delaware (home, 72-65), Jan. 29, 2012
7 – at Oklahoma State (WNIT final, 72-65), March 31, 2012
7 – Delaware (71-64), Feb. 10, 2013
6 – at Virginia (59-53), Dec. 20, 2011
5 – at Duquesne (62-57), Dec. 16, 2012
5 – Quinnipiac (65-60), Nov. 11, 2012
4 – Richmond (70-66), Dec. 12, 2012
2 – Drexel (48-46), Jan. 10, 2013
1 – Delaware (61-60), Feb. 24, 2013

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

JMU team of present -- and future -- meets Fordham in WNIT

One more time, James Madison is peaking in March.

Now, if we could only get the Dukes to that other tournament ...

JMU (24-10), WNIT runner-up a year ago, will host Fordham (26-8) in the WNIT's round of 16 at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The Dukes have already won a pair in the tournament, defeating North Carolina A&T and North Carolina State.

JMU is 15-0 in postseason play when playing at the JMU Convocation Center, and credit the JMU administration for rewarding its women's team by continuing to bid and receive home WNIT home games. A year ago, the Dukes became the darlings of Harrisonburg thanks to five postseason victories in front of their rowdy supporters and a band that has no rival in the CAA.

What the Dukes are showing us in this tournament -- in addition to being a threat to win the whole thing -- is how strong they will be next season despite the graduation of CAA first-teamer Tarik Hislop. Kirby Burkholder, another first-team all-CAA selection, will return, and Nikki Newman, sidelined the majority of the season with a foot injury, was granted another year by the NCAA. Sophomore Toia Giggetts emerged as an offensive threat last year and shoots  a team-best 50 percent.  Freshmen Jazmon Gwathmey, Angela Mickens and Precious Hall are each carving their place on JMU present and JMU future. Mickens scored double-digit points against the Wolfpack; Hall (9.5 ppg) is the CAA Rookie of the Year; and Gwathmey is good for 6.1 ppg and 5.5 rpg. Toss in sophomore Crystal Ross, who has started the last seven games for the Dukes, and you've got the makings of the CAA preseason favorite for 2013-14.

But while this season is still alive, w'd beat on the Dukes snagging another WNIT win. Admittedly, we like this unheralded Fordham team, which fell by a point to St. Joseph's in the Atlantic 10 championship game. Marah Strickland, who 100 years ago played at Maryland and then South Carolina, is finishing out her career at the New York school, while 6-2 freshman forward Samantha Clark, five times the A-10 Rookie of the Week, continues to impress.

Winner meets either Charlotte or Florida in the quarterfinals. We like JMU to get there.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hampton, Liberty bow out of NCAAs

Obviously not the results we were hoping for in the NCAA Tournament Sunday, as No. 2 Duke downed No. 15 Hampton 67-51 when No. 4 Purdue took care of No. 13 Liberty 77-43. But there were a few things to smile about. Here are some of the local angle winners from the day of NCAA hoops:

Hampton fans: Not sure how many of the folks at Cameron Indoor Stadium were Lady Pirates supporters, but from the amount of applause that rang out for every Hampton success, it sounded like close to half of 'em. No joke. Hampton fans turned out loud and proud, and combined with the always-vocal Duke rooters, provided the type of big-game atmosphere often lacking at these NCAA first-round games. Sounded great on TV, too.

Devon Brown: The Lady Flames senior began play needing 20 points to reach 2,000. She dropped 21 on Big Ten tournament champion Purdue, meaning she will end one of the most illustrious careers in Liberty history with 2,001 points. The performance also continued Brown's habit of coming up big against the Lady Flames' toughest opponents. Brown scored 23 points against SEC tournament champion Texas A&M and 20 against defending national champion Baylor.

WatchESPN: Thanks to the cool online feature allows you call up four different games on the same screen, we were able to simultaneously monitor Hampton-Duke, Liberty-Purdue, Delaware-West Virginia - Elena's a beast! - and, just for kicks, the Virginia-St. John's men's game. Nice.

Keiara Avant: Undersized at 5-11 against Duke's quality bigs, Avant still managed to do business against the Blue Devils to the tune of 18 points and 7 rebounds in her final college game.

Ashley Rininger: Pressed into service with Jasmine Gardner sidelined with a knee injury, Liberty's 6-4 redshirt freshman responded to her first career start by grabbing a team-high 13 rebounds.

Second-half adjustments: After settling for jumpers and being forced on their heels defensively by the Blue Devils in the first half, Hampton attacked the paint and got more aggressive defensively after the break. This, along with a few big jumpers from Olivia Allen, helped the Lady Pirates whittle a 17-point halftime deficit to six and inject some real drama into the proceedings. "I felt like we gave Duke a moment of pause," Hampton coach David Six said. For what it's worth, Hampton outscored Duke in the second half 36-35.

Elizabeth Williams: Although it was kind of tough seeing the Duke sophomore dealin' at the expense of the Lady Pirates, hats off to our Hampton Roads homegirl for her 18 points, 6 boards and 3 blocks. One more victory and we'll see ya in Norfolk, Liz.

Hampton's desire for respect: While they didn't make a big deal of it, Six and the Lady Pirates would tell anyone that asked there's no way they should have been seeded 15th. After the game, Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie made their case for them. "I'm sorry for Hampton that they were a 15 seed because they were trying to get their first NCAA Tournament victory, and they should have been a higher seed. They earned that by what they did over the season. They earned that by who they beat. They did everything right, and then they had to come and play Duke at Duke. And my heart goes out to them because they're trying to build a special program just like we all are. It's just too bad because they're a fantastic team. Some of those women could play on any team. They might be the most athletic team we've played including our ACC teams."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

No March Madness for NCAA Women's Tournament; it's maddening instead

It's hard to find March Madness in the Women's Tournament.

NCAA Tournament, day one. It should be Christmas Day, right? Can't say I'm feeling March Madness at the moment, just anger.

These aren't new gripes, they just resonate at the moment having watched Florida Gulf Coast upset Georgetown in the first round of the men's tournament. That's March Madness. Women's basketball, which has long claimed it wants to take the good parts of the men's game while restoring what it does well, is doing just the opposite.

It's utter nonsense to continue compromising the integrity of the field by making a higher seed play on a lower seed's home court. Notre Dame's reward for its Big East championship and one loss is to play in Iowa with a potential matchup against the Hawkeyes? North Carolina, a 3 seed, gets slotted for Newark, home to Delaware where the Blue Hens could await in the second round?

Then there's the matter of why Delaware is a 6 seed at all or Hampton a 15. Yes, it's a tired argument that the mid-majors get slighted, better word screwed, but LadySwish wonders why. Is anyone arguing that the current format is "growing the game"? Toledo, 29-3, is playing in the second round of the WNIT instead of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Is there really a need to reward West Virginia and Kansas, teams with 13 losses apiece? The Jayhawks slide includes losing five of their final seven. So much for the NCAA committee evaluating a team's final 10.

In this era of what conference are you in this week?, isn't it time to drop the word mid-major from the discussion? It's a condescending label and one that prevents the so-called growth women's basketball contends it wants. The only route for a "mid-major" getting to the tournament with a respectable seed is to sweep its conference and stack up wins against the "majors." Now how hard can that be?

Consider this. When Wendy Larry was at ODU, she was lucky. "Majors" -- Tennessee, UConn, Texas Tech, North Carolina, Rutgers -- were regulars on the schedule, but what a novelty that was. "Hello, BCS school. This is Kenny Brooks calling. Can we get a home-and-home series? Hello? Hello......."

The entire tournament seems to be geared to the "predetermined" Final Four, the Notre Dame, UConn, Baylor and Stanford. Great teams. Awesome players. But other schools have great teams and awesome players, too, names that should be household ones but aren't. Yep, you probably know Elena Delle Donne, but Ally Malott, Niveen Rasheed and yeah, if you're reading this blog you probably know Keiara Avant, but how many others do?

Next weekend Norfolk hosts a regional. Teams hold press conferences and practices in the Constant Center, and guess what? These practices are closed. Why is this a big deal? Let's go back to 2008. Practices were open. My son, a budding fan of the game at the time, watched all of them and can recount the details of meeting Tar Heel Erlana Larkins. What a treat it was for fans to get up close to a team practicing in hopes of earning a trip to the Final Four, a concept the men's tournament embraces. Seems to me it's a good way to grow the game, and as most know, the real practice comes later at an undisclosed site.

There is opportunity for greatness in the NCAA women's tournament, and I retract my earlier statement that there is no madness. This current format is just that --sheer lunacy.

Duke: "Hampton's like an ACC team"

Wondering if Hampton might sneak up on Duke in the NCAA Tournament?

Forget about it. During her day-before-game press conference Saturday, Blue Devils coach Joanne P. McCallie made it clear she understands exactly what kind of team Duke will be dealing with Sunday at 12:05 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

"Hampton is the greatest No. 15 seed I've ever seen in my life," McCallie said. "Absolutely terrific. They were completely untested in the MEAC. They belonged in the ACC. They're an ACC team."

McCallie referenced Hampton's nine-point victory over LSU, which is seeded sixth in this tournament, and the Lady Pirates' one-point loss to 10th-seeded DePaul, which will play No. 7 Oklahoma State in Sunday's other first-round game at Duke. Hampton led DePaul by 13 points with less than 10 minutes to go.

"There are no seeds here," McCallie said. "The seeds are gone."

Asked for specifics about the Lady Pirates, McCallie couldn't stop gushing.

"They're extremely well-coached, have tremendous athleticism," she said. "They got guards that are shooting it but also play great off the bounce, can gap you to death. Great in transition. Their defense is extremely disruptive.

"Hampton could have beaten a lot of our teams in the ACC, and they're as athletic as any of them, particularly 13 (Keiara Avant), 24 (Olivia Allen), 2 (Nicole Hamilton).... Interesting team."

Should be an interesting game.

The Six Pack: Hampton's assistants getting it done
Was Hampton hosed again by NCAA committee?

Liberty: a lucky No. 13 seed?

While we believe Hampton has every reason to gripe about its No. 15 seed, we couldn't be more thrilled for Big South champion Liberty, an NCAA Tournament regular and a No. 13 seed.

Liberty (27-6) meets Purdue (24-8) in a first-round game at 12:10 p.m. Sunday. A delicious matchup -- we couldn't resist the phrase -- the game will be played at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.and ESPN2 is broadcasting.

Don't get us wrong. Purdue is a daunting matchup for Liberty; the Boilermakers won the Big 10 Tournament for the ninth time and boast a balanced offensive attack led by 5-6 guard Courtney Moses (C-Mo), 6-2 forward Drey Mingo and 5-6 redshirt junior KK Houser. Mingo, awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, has had a tumultuous career, if you recall, that includes a transfer from Maryland, an ACL injury and a dangerous bout with bacterial meningitis.

Moses, putting in a magnificent junior year, buried nine 3-pointers in Purdue's last NCAA Tournament first-round victory a year ago against South Dakota State.

But we like the 13 seed for Liberty, which has won 14 straight since falling to High Point at home. We like the neutral court (remember, Hampton's reward for sweeping the MEAC and leading the nation in defense is a visit to Durham, where No. 2 Duke looms). We like the memory of Liberty getting a 13 seed in 2005 and upsetting another Big 10 Team (Penn State) for the biggest win in school history.

Likewise, that Liberty team was led by five seniors as is this one in Devon Brown, Terika Lunsford, Tolu Omotola, Brittany Campbell and LaKendra Washington. Defense and rebounding account for another successful season under Carey Green; the Lady Flames are the top rebounding team in the nation with a plus-17 advantage. Liberty has kept 28 consecutive teams below 50 percent shooting; Purdue ranks 25th in field-goal efficiency.

Another note on Brown -- Richmond Times-Dispatch's state player of the year and hint, hint, perhaps the LadySwish selection, too -- the senior needs 20 points for a career 2,000.

"They've got great height; they've got inside play; they've got good shooting guards," said Purdue coach Sharon Versyp.."They have the ingredients of a really good basketball team, and that's why they've won as many games as they have."

We'd like to see them win another on Sunday.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Six Pack: Hampton's assistants getting it done

 Hampton's David Six gets a lot of credit for the phenomenal defense - tops in Division I in points allowed - this year, but the Lady Pirates' head coach would be the first to tell you the praise shouldn't be his alone.

From Barbara Burgess' attention to detail to Brian Davis' strategic breakdowns to Ashlee Finley's talent for relating to players, Hampton has a team of coaches putting the Lady Pirates in position to do their thing.

So as 15th-seeded Hampton prepares to take its shot at No. 2 Duke in the NCAA Tournament first round Sunday at 12:05 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium, here's a look at the three assistants that help Six make sure the Lady Pirates keep on keeping on:

Barbara Burgess, 4th season

Official responsibilities: Post players, travel requirements

Unofficial role: Team disciplinarian. "She makes sure everyone's where they're supposed to be, pushes the kids pretty hard," Six said. "She provides toughness, discipline. Coach Burgess keeps everybody straight."

The many faces of Burgess: "Coach Burgess wears her emotions on her face," Six said. "You can always tell exactly how she's feeling. She has some of the most horrific expressions sometimes. We have to tell her, 'Burgess, your face!' Whatever she's feeling is worn on her face."

Before Hampton: Burgess was an All-MEAC performer at Delaware State, ranks second on the program's all-time scoring list (1,807 points) and is in the school's athletic hall of fame. She later coached against Six at Phoebus High (Six coached Hampton High).

Brian Davis, 4th season

Official responsibilities: Scouting, film breakdown, guards

Unofficial role: Fitness guru: "Coach Davis will get out there with the guards," Six said. "He's still quick, still has it."

Having the head coach's back: "When we were in the Virgin Islands, they had some like, I don't want to say belly dancers, but they were dancers," Six said. "They grabbed me and I said, 'no, no, no, no, no, no.' Coach Davis went in there and handled 'em for me. 

Was he good? 

"Oh, yeah, he was good. He was good."

Breaking it down: "Coach Davis is dedicated to getting us the information so we know what to do out there," Lady Pirates guard Nicole Hamilton said. "If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be where we are."

Before Hampton: Davis was a starting defensive back at Tennessee Tech and totaled 184 tackles and 9 interceptions in his college career.

Ashlee Finley, 3rd year

Official responsibilities: Academics, post players

Unofficial role: Player relations. "She's like another one of our sisters," Hamilton said. "It's like she's on the team, but she's not."

Not bashful: Finley had just finished her senior season when Six was hired as an interim coach. "When I first got the job, I asked all the seniors to come in and talk to me. So Coach Finley came in with her little swagger and was like, 'Look, they promised me a fifth year, with money. They just told me there's no money. So what's up?' I'm sitting there looking at her like, 'Who is this? Who are you?' But I did like the fact that she was aggressive. So I helped her out, got her a grad assistant job."

Landing the full-time gig: "Because she had just finished playing, she took such a vested interest in the program. And the kids actually gravitated more to her than they did the previous assistant coach we had, so I though, why not hire her? So I asked her if she wanted to be a coach and she said no and turned her face up. But I guess she went and talked to her mom, her parents, and came back and said yes, I think I want to try it."

Before coaching at Hampton: Finley was a two-time team captain for the Lady Pirates, led the team in rebounding in 2006-07 and racked up 154 career steals.

Under-seeded Hampton could surprise Duke

WNIT: And then there was one (JMU)

Three teams in Virginia began pursuit of WNIT glory Thursday night.

One survived. Thanks to the sparkplug efforts of freshman point guard Muff Mickens, JMU finally shook free of pesky North Carolina A&T 77-64 to move into the WNIT second round.

Meanwhile, Old Dominion and Richmond saw their seasons end.

The Dukes almost suffered the same fate. With Amber Calvin leading the way with 7 3-pointers, the North Carolina A&T's Lady Aggies shot lights-out, built a 13-point first-half lead and were still up nine with 12:46 left. But Mickens energized a Dukes surge with passing and scoring at one end and in-your-face defense on Calvin at the other. JMU coach Kenny Brooks said Mickens asked to guard Calvin, which is a pretty cocky thing for a freshman reserve to do. But she pulled it off brilliantly, even thrilling the crowd of 1,285 by blocking one of Calvin's shots and finishing off the possession with a contested layup. Mickens finished with career highs of 10 points, 5 assists and 5 steals in a performance that validated her standing as a national Top 100 recruit. Mickens endured an uneven rookie season. But if the light has indeed come on and this is the type of effort she will deliver, the Dukes have another major weapon.

By the way, Kirby Burkholder went off for 22 points and 14 rebounds and Tarik Hislop chipped in 17 points and a season-high 7 assists. Big-time numbers, no doubt. But with all due respect, this was the Muff Mickens Show - arriving at JMU just in time.

Next up for the Dukes is N.C. State on Sunday at 2 p.m., again at the JMU Convocation Center. Brooks praised his administration for continuing to produce successful bids to host these postseason games. Considering how well the Dukes perform before the home fans, it's been money well spent - JMU is 14-0 in home NCAA and WNIT contests.

Stay tuned for more on the season finales of Richmond and Old Dominion.

Jeri Porter resigns (?) at George Mason

George Mason announced Friday that head coach Jeri Porter is resigning after five seasons.

We don't know the details, but the school's statement has a semantics feel to it, especially since it included no comments from the coach. Did Porter really want to step down? Yes, 2012-13 brought poor results, but it was the first season under Porter that the Patriots failed to win more games than the previous season. Furthermore, a significant talent upgrade was already in place. Incoming Georgetown transfer Taylor Brown - the 2011 Washington Post Player of the Year - and experienced international performer Sandra Ngoie are projected as potential impact players in the Colonial Athletic Association. Also, 6-4 junior college transfer Ondrea Shaw led the nation in blocked shots two years ago. Not sure why Porter would want to step away from all this.

On the other hand, if the school wanted to go in a different direction, it could point to the fact that Porter's teams went a combined 51-100 in her five seasons and were coming off a 9-21 campaign that ended with a first-round loss in the CAA Tournament to five-win UNC Wilmington. Coaches have lost jobs with much stronger five-year resumes. And if there's anything to rumors that George Mason may be a candidate to move into a retooled Atlantic 10, perhaps the school simply felt the timing was right for a coaching upgrade.

Still, the view from here was that Porter had the Patriots poised for a resurgence. Seems unfortunate she won't be around to see it through.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

WNIT starts for ODU, JMU, Richmond

There's a satisfying, season-saving, fan-multiplying, championship run out there for one of the 64 teams set to tip off in the 2013 Women's National Invitational Tournament.

Can James Madison, Old Dominion or Richmond be that team? We'll begin finding out Thursday night as all three teams enter first-round play.

One big key when breaking down WNIT matchups - home court is huge. The home team went 26-6 in first-round WNIT games last season; 25-7 the year before. The last two WNIT champions, Oklahoma State and Toledo, thrived at least in part from winning all six games without leaving their own gym. And of course, last year JMU ripped off five straight victories at the Convocation Center en route to the tournament final.

 A look at the games involving state teams:

North Carolina A&T (22-9) at James Madison (22-10), 7 p.m.

Last season JMU believed it belonged in the NCAA Tournament - "Middle Tennessee State? C'mon. We beat them!" - and Tarik Hislop and Co. played with a "we'll show them" chip on their shoulder throughout their run. We're not sure the same mojo is in play this year. This year's Dukes went into the CAA Tournament knowing they'd need to win it in order to qualify for the NCAAs. The emphatic semifinal loss to Drexel simply sealed their fate. It will be interesting to see what theme unifies the group this time.

Speaking of that loss to Drexel, we were struck by how similar it was to the 2012 CAA Tournament semifnal loss to the same Dragons. Consider:

2012: The Dukes trailed by six at the half, endured a stretch of nine minutes without a point after the break and lost by 16.

2011: Dukes trailed by eight at the half, endured a stretch of nine minutes without a field goal after break and lost by 17.

Something about Drexel....

Anyway, while playing at home will help, the Dukes will definitely need to take North Carolina A&T seriously, though. The teams at the top of the MEAC - A&T finished second to Hampton - are a lot better than most folks realize. The Lady Aggies' non-conference victims included Liberty, a team that beat JMU. Also, the Lady Aggies coaching staff is well-acquainted with JMU hoops. First-year head coach Tarrell Robinson spent the past three years as an assistant at VCU, and A&T assistant Shavon Earp was in a similar role the previous two seasons at William and Mary.

Davidson (21-12) at Old Dominion (19-11), 7 p.m.

The Lady Monarchs haven't played a game since March 3, and that long a layoff is a concern no matter how hard you've gone in practice. But in addition to benefiting from playing at home, the Lady Monarchs should be aided by the fact that they're really excited about a WNIT appearance. Many teams have to re-energize themselves for this tournament after having their NCAA hopes dashed. But ODU has been targeting this event for weeks.  Shae Kelley, Jackie Cook and the rest of the Lady Monarchs figure to take the court with as much or more enthusiasm as any team in the field.

Davidson, by contrast, is coming off a devastating one-point loss in the Southern Conference title game on March 11. The Wildcats led Chattanooga by five with less than two minutes remaining, only to fall on an offensive rebound putback - the Moccasins' third o-board of the possession - with seven seconds left.

Now, the Wildcats may show up at the Constant Center hell-bent on avenging that loss, and if so, the Lady Monarchs will have a fight on their hands. No one knows this better than ODU coach Karen Barefoot, as she had some tense battles with Davidson, which featured much of this same personnel, during her days as the head coach at Elon.

It would also help if the Lady Monarchs can enhance their home-court edge with a good turnout. Two years ago, only 450 fans came to the Constant Center for ODU's last WNIT appearance, a 68-67 loss to Loyola (Md.) that turned out to be head coach Wendy Larry's last game. There were mitigating circumstances, as the ODU men's basketball team was scheduled to play in the NCAA Tournament the following afternoon in Washington D.C. Still, we're sure this time, Monarch Nation can come a lot stronger than 450.

Richmond (16-15) at North Carolina State (16-16), 7 p.m.

As we mentioned earlier, road games are tough in this tournament. But at least the Spiders have some nice history in N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum. Last season, Richmond traveled to Raleigh and torched the Wolfpack 72-58. Now, no one should expect the Spiders to flat-out dominate the way they did that night, as while N.C. State underachieved by ACC standards the Wolfpack still has some big-time talent. We're pretty sure Richmond will be competitive, though, and odds are the Spiders will find themselves deep in the second half either in the lead or within a possession or two of it. Of Richmond's 15 losses, 12 have come by single digits. It's amazing how close these Spiders have been to a much better overall record.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

William and Mary's Debbie Taylor was a class act

I've never wanted to be in a hiring -- and therefore a firing -- position. I'll never make the big bucks, but I can sleep at night.

Debbie Taylor was fired by William and Mary on Tuesday. Anyone who saw the Tribe play last week had to be troubled by the dismal 32-point outing William and Mary strung together in the CAA Tournament. What a a contrast they were to Drexel -- a team that had clearly peaked at precisely the right moment. William and Mary looked as if it was playing a mid-November game.

I can't defend William and Mary's record the last few years, especially the three-win season of two years ago or frankly, the eight-win season this year with five seniors on the roster. By Jan. 24, the Tribe had one win over a Division I school.

But I like Taylor for the person she is and for the passion she brought to women's basketball and her own program. She graduated her kids, and she seemed to understand that Division I athletics shouldn't be a mix of practice, games and road trips where players see nothing but the airport, hotel and arena. Tribe players talk about going to New York City in December, visiting the fresh market in Seattle and seeing the Alamo in Texas. Following Friday's game, she called this season one of her most enjoyable given the bond her team had developed.

I'm not naive. College athletics is about winning, and it's cutthroat. But Taylor, an alum of William and Mary who likely wanted to stay there the rest of her coaching days, is out of a job. Losing a job is painful, sobering and nothing to celebrate. Division I athletics is corporate and corporate decisions are made coldly. That's one reason why you don't see Wendy Larry sitting at the Constant Center enjoying the program that used to be her life.

Like Larry, Taylor wasn't in her job as a steppingstone. She was on the landing pad. She, no doubt, feels as if she's lost a part of something she cared about deeply. I remember Wendy saying this sentence years before she got the ax at ODU: "It's my school." There's only one alma mater for Debbie Taylor.

Then there are the other casualties.

Head coaches who are let go tend to land on their feet. Nobody thinks much about the assistants, but they are also people, with families, with incomes, with passion, who are let go, left to scramble.

So it's a sad day for LadySwish. William and Mary certainly needed a makeover; it doesn't make sense that a school with a traditionally strong women's athletic program has a basketball team that hasn't won a CAA quarterfinal game since 2001.

But we're sad for Taylor, too -- a woman we have a lot of respect for who personified all the qualities any mother would be happy to have her daughter to emulate.

BREAKING: Taylor out at William and Mary

Debbie Taylor is out as coach at William and Mary.

Tribe athletic director Terry Driscoll announced Tuesday that Taylor's contract will not be renewed for the 2013-14.

Taylor departs as the program's all-time leader in wins with a 146-265 record. The Tribe had a dismal outing at last week's CAA Tournament, falling to Drexel 65-31 in the quarterfinals. Five seniors were on that team that had the lowest point total for a Tribe team since 2004.

William and Mary, which won three games two seasons ago, finished 8-22 overall.

A 1986 graduate of the college, Taylor has been head coach since 1986.

A national search will begin immediately.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Tough break - again - for Hampton in NCAAs

Did Hampton get hosed again?

The Lady Pirates aren't saying it. But for the second straight year, the NCAA selection committee didn't do Hampton any favors when it came to setting up the brackets. A year ago, Hampton was relegated to a No. 16 seed and assigned a first-round game against mighty Stanford.

Monday night, the Lady Pirates were seeded 15th - they were hoping for a 13 - and matched up against No. 2 Duke in Durham.

"It's not what we wanted," Hampton coach David Six said. "But it's what we've got."

Six said he was disappointed less by Hampton's seeding and more by the fact that the Lady Pirates must face Duke on its home floor. The Blue Devils went 14-0 last season at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

"It's one thing to play them on a neutral floor. But at their place? C'mon," Six said. But hey, we'll be ready."

The bracketing worked out better for Liberty, which is seeded 13th and will open against No. 4 and Big Ten tournament champion Purdue at Louisville.

And the news is great for the folks at Old Dominion, who will be hosts to one of the four regional sites in a couple of weeks. As expected, Notre Dame, featuring charismatic star Skylar Diggins, is the top seed in the Norfolk region. Duke is No. 2, Texas A&M is No. 3 and South Carolina, which is coached by Virginia legend Dawn Staley, is the fourth seed.

The Hampton-at-Duke first round scenario also played out in 2010, Six's first in charge of the Lady Pirates. Duke rolled to a 72-37 victory. Six expect HU to give a much better accounting of itself this time around.

"We're much longer, more athletic now," he said.

NCAAs, WNIT on tap for state teams

The victorious Liberty Lady Flames

OK, now that the conference tournaments are over, which of Virginia's Division I schools will get to keep playing?

First, a few particulars:

NCAA Selection Show:  Monday, 7 p.m. on ESPN

WNIT selections: Monday, "late in the evening" via the tournament's website. Expect word to come down somewhere between 11 p.m. and midnight.

Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI) selections: Also at some point this evening. Check the tournament website for updates.

Who's still in play:

Hampton (28-5) - The Lady Pirates cruised to their fourth straight MEAC tournament title and will hear their name called on tonight's NCAA show. Most projections have Hampton seeded somewhere between 13-15.   Lady Pirates coach David Six said a 13 seed would be fair, and we agree. Let's see how it plays out.
Celebrate with the Lady Pirates: The team will host a selection show party Monday beginning at 6 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom.

Liberty (27-6) - The Lady Flames invited themselves to the NCAAs by winning the Big South title for the 15th time in 17 years. As is the case with Hampton, a 13 seed for the Lady Flames would certainly be justified in our opinion.
Celebrate with the Lady Flames: Liberty's selection show celebration event will be held Monday beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the third-floor Club Pavilion at Williams Stadium.


James Madison (22-10): The WNIT automatically invites a conference's highest finisher that doesn't receive an NCAA bid. While the Dukes are technically in play to be selected at-large by the NCAAs, they will almost certainly wind up in the WNIT. A year ago, faced with this same scenario, the Dukes rattled off five home WNIT victories en route to the tournament final.

Richmond (16-15) - The Spiders have an RPI of 103, well within the range of teams typically selected for the 64-team WNIT. We would be stunned if they don't get invited.

Old Dominion (19-11) - We've been saying for weeks that ODU was likely to get a bid, again, based on the profiles of teams typically selected by the WNIT in years past. Furthermore, on Doug Ripley's "Inside Monarch Nation" radio show Saturday, ODU athletics director Wood Selig said the school has bid to host "several rounds" of the WNIT. This makes sense, as ODU is usually proactive when it comes to bringing national events to town. So there's a decent chance that, if the Lady Monarchs do indeed get a bid, they'll get to play in the friendly confines of the Constant Center.

Note: Virginia (16-14) would almost certainly have received a WNIT bid, but last week, Cavaliers coach Joanne Boyle announced that her team would decline any postseason possibilities because of a rash of injuries.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Four--ward progress - Hampton does it again

David Six keeps insisting that when the 2012-13 Hampton Lady Pirates first assembled last fall, they weren't very good.

Sure didn't take 'em long to catch on. Or catch fire. Or leave the rest of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in their wake once again.

In a never-in-doubt MEAC title game, the Lady Pirates smoked Howard 59-38 Saturday at the Norfolk Scope to complete a perfect conference schedule - 16-0 regular season; 3-0 tournament - claim their fourth straight conference crown and book yet another ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

"I'm not going to say where we should be seeded, but I don't think we're a 15 or 16 seed," said Six, who along with many others felt Hampton was underseeded at 16 last season. "I haven't seen all the other teams play, but we've got some quality wins. I certainly don't think we're a 15, 16. I think 13 is fair.

"We don't control what the NCAA does. But if we're given the seed we're warranted, we're very dangerous."

Evidently it didn't start out that way. With injuries and several players adjusting to new roles - most notably off guard Nicole Hamilton shifting to the vital point guard slot - Six said these Lady Pirates started off bearing little resemblance to the juggernauts of the previous three years.

"If you saw our first scrimmage, you'd have said, 'No,' Six said. "No."

Hamilton put it even more succinctly: "We were terrible."

We'll have to take them at their word, because the rest of us never saw Hampton in disarray. In the Lady Pirates' season opener, the won at Southern Mississippi by 37. Two games later, they stomped LSU. And while they endured a few hiccups over the next several weeks, they regained top form midway through the conference slate and tore through MEAC foes the rest of the way.

"This is the most improved team I've had probably since I started coaching," Six said.

Howard became the latest victim in Saturday's lopsided final. Thanks in large part to Hampton's always-voracious defense, the Lady Bison connected on just 5 of 27 first-half field goals and managed just 15 points in the opening 20 minutes.

As usual, Lady Pirates junior Alyssa Bennett led the defensive assault by neutralizing Howard star Saadia Doyle. The MEAC's leading scorer, Doyle began play averaging over 20 points per game was coming off a 27-point performance in Friday's semifinals. On Saturday, when Bennett shadowing her every move, Doyle produced only 9 points on 2 of 8 shooting.

Howard boasts a quality defense, too, and it coerced enough Hampton turnovers to keep things from getting completely out of hand at times. But Hampton has a variety of offensive weapons as well, and Howard simply couldn't guard them all.

Bennett burned them early with a handful of sweet jump shots. Late in the first half, with Hampton up 10, Olivia Allen broke the game open by scoring 9 straight points in a 63-second span - 2 3-pointers and 3 free throws after being fouled in the act of launching another.

"The funny thing about that is we actually were running that play wrong," Six said. "It was actually supposed to go to (Hamilton) in the corner. I guess Olivia felt like she had something. So I won't take the credit for that, the credit goes to her. She was able to knock down some big shots and give us some cushion."

Add in 12 points from tournament most outstanding player Keiara Avant and 10 more from Hamilton and the result was a comfortable working margin on the way to MEAC title No. 4.

"Obviously it's sweet," Six said. "What's even sweeter is there were four kids from this area who started today, all from the same area code, the 757 (Hamilton and Bennett are from Hampton, Ariel Phelps is from Virginia Beach and Avant is a Chesapeake native).  They went 28-5, beat some big schools out of the conference and got a chance to show how this area is so rich in talent. And, they got a chance to win it at home."

It's not over yet, either. Hampton will host an NCAA Selection Show Party on Monday beginning at 6 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom. The selection show will air live on ESPN at 7 p.m.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Hampton, Howard meet in 3rd straight MEAC final

Over the past two seasons, there has been only one team standing between Howard and MEAC championship gold - Hampton.

Guess who's standing in the Lady Bison's way once again?

After dropping the last two MEAC title games to the Lady Pirates, Howard will try its luck for a third time in the conference title game Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Norfolk Scope.

History isn't on Howard's side. In addition to dropping the last two MEAC finals to the Lady Pirates, the Bison lost both meetings with Hampton this season and have dropped nine straight in the series. Of those setbacks, none was more excruciating than the 2012 MEAC title game when the Bison were unable to convert on three shot attempts in the final seconds and lost by one point.

Howard star Saadia Doyle certainly remembers. And judging by the intensity of her remarks a few minutes after the Bison dispatched No. 2 North Carolina A&T in Friday's semifinals, Doyle seemed prepared to play the title game right then.

"This is more important than Christmas, your birthday....," Doyle said. "This isn't about the battle of the HUs or anything like that. It's about you've deprived me of something I've wanted to be associated with my whole life, and that's being part of a championship team."

Problem is, three-time defending tournament champion Hampton has a well-earned reputation for crushing the dreams of all MEAC rivals. The top-seeded Lady Pirates (27-5) were at it again Friday, when they surged past No. 5 Coppin State 78-52 to book a spot in Saturday's final. It was Hampton's 29th straight win against MEAC opposition.

"It's a great feeling being one game away, but we haven't reached our goal yet," said Hampton's Keiara Avant, the MEAC Player of the Year. "So we still have to focus in and take care of business tomorrow."

The score is a bit misleading because for the first 30 minutes or so, the fiesty Lady Bears gave as good as they got and were down by just six with a little under 11 minutes to go. Hampton's intensity, athleticism and talent ultimately won out, though, as the Lady Pirates outscored Coppin State 30-10 the rest of the way.

Nicole Hamilton poured in a career-high 26 points and ol' reliable Avant added 20 points and 12 rebounds. Ariel Phelps added 10 boards, most of which she ripped down with frightening authority.

"Phelps gave us great energy, great rebounding," Hampton coach David Six said. "I thought she had a fantastic game."

 And then there was Hampton's Alyssa Bennett, whose numbers (12 points, 9 rebounds) barely hint at her impact. The MEAC's Defensive Player of the Year, Bennett showed why Friday by shutting down Coppin State's leading scorer Leola Spotwood (5 points on 2 of 8 shooting) when simultaneously creating havoc for Coppin State's other players.

"When she gets out there and spreads her arms, she's like a condor," Six said.

Added Coppin State coach Derek Brown: "She's a WNBA prospect, without a doubt."

Howard's Doyle may get a few pro looks, too. The MEAC's all-time leading scorer, Doyle tallied nearly half the Lady Bison's points (27) and added 10 rebounds in the 55-42 victory over A&T, which is now guided by first-year head coach and former VCU assistant Tarrell Robinson.

This second semifinal played out similarly to the first, as Howard (20-10) broke open a close game with a late second-half spurt. Red-hot 3-point shooting (10 for 21) was pivotal as well.

Now comes the hard part - finding some way to dethrone the Lady Pirates. Odds are the final won't feature a ton of points as both teams rank among Division I's best defensively. Hampton has a greater array of offensive weapons, though, and if two or three of those weapons are firing accurately, we could be looking at something similar to the 67-45 pasting the Lady Pirates handed the Bison on Jan. 28 at Hampton.

Still, the Lady Bison insist that this time, they're ready.

The thing is, when it comes to MEAC Tournament play the past four years, Hampton has always been ready.

Enjoy the CAA Tournament with LadySwish

Can't make it to Upper Marlboro, Md., for the CAA Tournament? LadySwish is there blogging for the CAA all weekend. You'll find the CAA blog here.

Read about James Madison's quarterfinal, a Nikki Newman update and we'll sneak in a few words about Elena Delle Donne every now and then.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Radford fires Ngongba

Radford head coach Tajama Abraham Ngongba has been fired after five seasons, the school announced Thursday evening.

"I would like to thank Coach Ngongba for her efforts the past five seasons in leading the Radford women's basketball program," Highlanders director of athletics Robert Lineburg said in a release. "At this time, however, I feel it is in the best interest of the program to seek new leadership."

With a roster featuring six seniors, four of whom were starters, Ngongba guided the Highlanders to a 16-14 record in 2012-13 and a second straight appearance in the Big South Tournament semifinals before losing to Longwood. Her overall record in five seasons was 62-85.

A former star at Kecoughtan High in Hampton, Ngongba went on to become George Washington's all-time leading scorer before spending a year in the WNBA. She began her coaching career as a graduate assistant at George Washington and spent time on the staffs at Richmond and VCU before returning to GW as an assistant for four years. Ngongba began her stint as Radford's head coach in 2008.

MEAC report: Hampton's toughest test?

After thoroughly chewing through all comers of late, top-seeded Hampton could be poised for its stiffest challenge in weeks when the Lady Pirates take on No. 5 Coppin State in the MEAC Tournament semifinals at noon Friday at the Norfolk Scope.

The Eagles are that rare MEAC team that has consistency challenged the three-time defending tournament champion Lady Pirates in the four seasons since David Six became Hampton's coach. Both of Coppin State's losses to HU this season have come by single digits - 8 and 9 points - commendable results in a year where Hampton's average victory margin over conference foes is 20.8 points.

Coppin State also handed Hampton its last MEAC defeat, a 69-66 overtime decision at Hampton on Jan. 28, 2012. The Lady Pirates have won 28 straight against conference foes since. Coppin State also dealt Hampton a loss during the 2009-10 season, Six's first in charge of the Lady Pirates.

What's Coppin State's secret? Eagles coach Derek Brown wasn't about to dole out many clues.

"I guess we just match up well with them," he said.

A big key for Coppin State in this season's two meetings with Hampton has been the Eagles' ability to get to the free throw line. The Eagles' combined shooting percentage in the two games was a measly 31.3 percent. But they made 52 trips to the line in the two games, a key reason why Coppin State was able to score at least 50 points against Hampton's vaunted defense in each of the two games.

Brown's Eagles needed to pull out all the stops just to get another crack at the Lady Pirates. In Thursday's quarterfinals, it took Shawntae Payne's driving layup with 1.5 seconds left to life Coppin State over No. 4 South Carolina State 55-53.

It was the second great escape in as many tournament games for the Eagles, who on Monday a late four-point deficit to nip No. 12 North Carolina Central 44-41.

Despite their recent competitive showings against Hampton, the Eagles expect to be viewed as huge underdogs in Friday's semifinals. In fact, they're counting on it.

"Hearing that actually helps us," Payne said. "It just makes us want to play harder."

Added senior forward Leola Spotwood: "It's definitely going to be a good game, because neither one of us wants to go home."

Friday's other semifinal, scheduled for 2:30 p.m., pits No. 3 Howard against No. 2 North Carolina A&T. The Bison advanced when senior Nicole Deterville's putback at the buzzer lifted them past No. 6 Morgan State 62-60. A day earlier, N.C. A&T ended No. 10 Norfolk State's season with a 78-47 victory in another quarterfinal.

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Hampton's defense - it's a beautiful thing

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hampton on defense - it's a beautiful thing

Poor Delaware State.

The Lady Hornets have a fine women's basketball team. But when Hampton unleashes its rangy, springy, determined Lady Pirates in defense mode, it's over.

The end came quickly for Del. State Wednesday, as the Lady Pirates nearly forced more turnovers (27) than they allowed points en route to a 63-28 beatdown in a MEAC Tournament quarterfinal at the Norfolk Scope.

For the game, the Lady Hornets shot 25 percent. But it wasn't because they can't shoot. The problem was they barely had room to breathe with Lady Pirates smothering anyone with the audacity to catch the basketball.

If you get a chance to watch Hampton, focus on how relentlessly Lady Pirate defenders keep their feet moving. All five defenders, all 10 feet. And each sub enters the game with that same intensity. Double-teams are applied with a fury, in conjunction with rotations that demand split-second decision-making from the opposing ballhandler. The Lady Hornets couldn't make these decisions anywhere near fast enough.

The Lady Pirates also defended with equal ferocity whether they were up five or 35. And even when things seemed to work out, Hampton coach David Six was quick to point out how it could have been better. On one occasion we watched the Lady Pirates finish off what we thought was an excellent defensive series by forcing a turnover, only to look over and see Six barking at one of his players. We're like, "What, that wasn't good enough?" But the player nodded her head in agreement with the coach as she sprinted back downcourt.

Former UConn star Maya Moore used to say her Huskies were in search of the perfect game. These Lady Pirates operate as though they're hell-bent on shutting someone out.

"Coach Six "has found a way to get athletic, talented players to play hard and buy into a defensive philosophy," Delaware State coach Tamika Louis said. "You do that and you're going to win a lot of ballgames. We just weren't ready for it."

In Louis' defense, few teams are. Hampton ranks second in Division I - not the MEAC, all of Division I  - in scoring defense (48.0 ppg allowed), and lately they've ratcheted things up even more. Wednesday's quarterfinal marked the third straight game an HU opponent has been held to 30 points or less.

Thirty or less, in a 40-minute game? Get outta here!

For the record, Alyssa Bennett and Olivia Allen each scored 13 points to lead Hampton's offense, and MEAC Player of the Year Keiara Avant added 11. But frankly, it's hard to remember much about the points the Lady Pirates scored, and that's not something we usually say. Typically we prefer a good offensive show, with lots of fastbreaks and 3-point shots.

But after spending a couple of hours watching the Lady Pirates dig in and downright suffocate yet another foe, we have to admit that defense can be a beautiful thing, too.

The three-time defending tournament champion Lady Pirates will have a day to fine-tune things before returning to action for the semifinals Friday at noon. Hampton will face the winner of Thursday's quarterfinal pitting fifth-seeded Coppin State against No. 4 South Carolina State.

Norfolk State opens MEAC tourney in style

Norfolk State's Ebony Brown
Where has this been?

That was the main takeaway from Norfolk State's 72-55 thrashing of Florida A&M Tuesday in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament opener at the Norfolk Scope.

After stumbling to a 6-21 record over the regular season, the Spartans produced their best effort of the season at win-or-go-home time. For the season the Spartans' average shooting percentage was 35.5. They shot 57.1 percent against FAMU (66 percent from 3-point range). After averaging about 12 assists per game during the regular season, they doled out 20 dimes in their MEAC opener. They also won the rebounding battle, defending without fouling (10 fouls all game) and racked up their second-highest point total in a non-overtime contest.

Led by post players Rachel Gordon, Batavia Owens and Quineshia Leonard, the Spartans exploited their size advantage and continually burned the Rattlers with nifty high-low action. Trice racked up 12 assists.

And then there was exciting sophomore Ebony Brown, who was simply the best player on the floor at both ends of the court. On offense she made the Rattlers pay for trying to protect against NSU's inside attack by splashing five of her rainbow 3-pointers en route to a game-high 23 points.

And on defense, she shadowed Florida A&M star Jasmine Grice, the MEAC's leading scorer (22 ppg) and a player who had dropped 42 points on NSU the previous week. Grice managed just 13 Tuesday, on 5 of 14 shooting.

Grice would later reveal she was slowed by a back injury sustained in FAMU's regular-season finale against Morgan State. She did appear to be tentative, particularly in a first half in which she attempted just three shots. Still, on this day it was clear the Spartans were not about to get lit up by this young lady again. Brown - and occasionally Trice or Jazamine Gray - pursued Grice relentlessly throughout the contest, and help materialized instantly on the rare occasions the FAMU star broke free.

The question now is, was this performance a one-time thing, or can the Spartans sustain this level in Wednesday's noon quarterfinal against North Carolina A&T? Top form figures to be required against second-seeded A&T, which spanked NSU by 15 points six days ago in the regular-season finale.

A big key will be the health of Brown, who took a hard fall late in the second half after being fouled and spent the game's final seconds sitting on the bench with her head in her hands. Brown spent her postgame getting the once-over from medical personnel.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Liberty claims yet another Big South title

For the 15th time in the last 17 seasons, Liberty is your Big South tournament champion.

The Lady Flames ended the magical run of Longwood on Sunday by carving out a 54-46 victory in the title game at the HTC Center in Conway, S.C. Senior Devon Brown earned tournament MVP honors for the second time in her career (2010), and Tolu Omotola and Brittany Campbell joined her on the all-tournament team.

Making the Lady Flames' victory even sweeter was the fact that Liberty's men's basketball team also captured a Big South crown, marking only the second time in league history one school has swept both title in the same year.

Next up for the Lady Flames is the NCAA Tournament. The bracket will be unveiled at 7 p.m. on March 18 on ESPN.

Longwood, which as a No. 7 seed won three games in four days - including a stunning upset of No. 2 Winthrop - to reach the championship round, fell despite a 14-point, 7-rebound performance by all-tournament selection Chelsea Coward.

Avant, Bennett help Hampton sweep MEAC awards

Hampton cleaned up on MEAC awards as senior forward and double-double machine Keiara Avant was named MEAC Player of the Year, junior forward Alyssa Bennett earned Defensive Player of the Year honors and David Six took home the Coach of the Year award.

Avant averaged 16.3 points and a league-best 10.3 rebounds in leading the Lady Pirates to a 16-0 conference record. Bennett spearheaded a Hampton defense that has ranked among the nation's best all season. Six led the Lady Pirates to a third straight MEAC regular season title and the conference's first perfect regular season since 2006-07. It is the second conference coach of the year award for Six, who also won in 2010-11.

Avant was joined on the All-MEAC first team by Hampton junior guard Nicole Hamilton, whose 5.3 assists ranked third in the conference. Bennett was a second-team choice.

Also on the second team was Norfolk State junior forward Rachel Gordon, who averaged 10.6 points and 9.7 rebounds. Gordon became the first NSU player to earn All-MEAC first- or second-team honors since 2003-04 (Yomika Corbitt).

The 2013 MEAC Tournament runs Monday through Thursday at the Scope Arena in Norfolk. The three-time defending champion Lady Pirates will open in this year's event on Wednesday at noon against either Bethune-Cookman or Delaware State. The Spartans begin play on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. against Florida A&M.

Friday, March 8, 2013

ODU bids adieu to the CAA on Sunday; join us for the memories

TJ Jordan, Shareese Grant
On Sunday in Boston Old Dominion closes the book on a glorious chapter in its history: 22 years in the Colonial Athletic Association. For the first 17, the Lady Monarchs didn't just win the CAA, they owned it, dominating conference opponents at one point by winning 113 games in a row, in other words zero CAA losses between Feb. 22, 1992 and Jan. 9, 2004. Aubrey Eblin never knew what it felt like to lose a CAA game in her four years; Ticha lost just one.

LadySwish wasn't there for all of the glory years but chronicled many of them. In the '90s, frankly, conference games and conference tournaments seemed like an afterthought given the oppression foes suffered in CAA games.

What a run, Lady Monarchs! Here are 10 of my memories from it.

Old Dominion 78, Delaware 74 OT, CAA Tournament championship, March 12, 2005
You'd have bet the house and all its contents that the streak would end here. ODU had been swept by the Hens; the loss in Norfolk was only its second in conference history at the time. The Lady Monarchs looked like goners with their frontline fouled out and were reduced to using a walk-on at point guard. We know it's a team game, but we commend Shareese Grant for a one-woman show that brought ODU back. Grant scored 35 including 15 of ODU's final 18, and Tina Martin quipped that ODU won, "Because they had Shareese Grant and we didn't."

Old Dominion 68, George Mason 63 OT, CAA Tournament semifinal, March 8, 2002
Patriots coach Debbie Taneyhill never figured out the Lady Monarchs, but this team sure looked to be the winner in a CAA tournament semifinal at the Field House. Jen Derevjanik layup that almost was could have halted ODU's tournament win streak, but fairy dust took over -- no way ODU was going to lose its second to last game in the Field House -- and Okeisha Howard's 3 with a minute left allowed the Lady Monarchs to prevail one more time.

Old Dominion 82, George Mason 76 (3 OT), Jan. 27, 1994
I confess I didn't see it, only heard about it from Wendy. Shonda Deberry scored a career-high 29, including the last nine in the third OT.

Snow and ice storm in D.C.; heavy traffic forced ODU to arrive at the Patriot Center about 45 minutes before tipoff. ODU scored just 18 points before the break (trailed 30-18). Deberry was scoreless in the first half and missed all five of her shots before the break, then came alive. ODU survived the OTs without CAA Player of the Year Celeste Hill, who fouled out late in regulation.

Old Dominion 64, Drexel 63 CAA Tournament semifinal, March 10, 2005
ODU walked the tightrope again but owned the boards and overcame a 22-point effort by Narissa Suber to avenge an earlier-season loss the the Dragons and advance to its 14th straight CAA final.

James Madison 87, Old Dominon 80, Feb. 27, 1995
Meredith Alexis flanked by Tiffany Green
The streak started after this loss, a game that Wendy Larry used as a teaching tool. Postgame, she explained a talented Penicheiro-led team that letdowns against conference foes are unacceptable for the Lady Monarchs. Take nothing away from Sarah Schreib and Holly Rilinger, though, who challenged ODU with a fearlessness that most conference foes couldn't muster.

Reflecting on the ODU/JMU series, LadySwish can't remember individual games as much as moments and players. Simply put, these two teams have had an awesome rivalry in gyms so alive they rivaled Cameron Indoor Stadium. Loved the JMU band and attitude back in the day. Loved watching Meredith Alexis emerge from the tunnel looking ready to erupt. ODU brought out the best in Rilinger, Schreib, Lesley Dickinson and a mess of Dukes who reveled in matching up against the Lady Monarchs. Sad to see this rivalry become a casualty of decisions made on behalf of football.

Old Dominion 103, UNCW 22, Jan 21, 1996
Picking this game because it simply represents the kind of beatdown ODU regularly inflicted on CAA foes. There were several full seasons when the opponent's offense wasn't apparent because of a ridiculously aggressive ODU defense that kept the clamps on for 40 minutes.

Old Dominion 72, American 70, Feb. 19, 1999
American never did figure out ODU minus one win in 1992 but came achingly close on this night. Wendy Larry used to preach to her teams that CAA foes treated the Lady Monarchs like national title opponents, and an Eagles team trying to avoid the conference tournament's play-in game gave all ODU it could handle. The AU players left the court look happier than ODU, but Mery Andrade and Lucienne Berthieu refused to be part of a loss at Bender Arena.

Old Dominion 66, Delaware 58, CAA Tournament championship, March 15, 2003
Delaware looked primed for the title during a season when ODU suffered an unthinkable three consecutive regular-season losses. Allison Trapp brought out all her goods, but ODU played its best ball of the season behind Shareese Grant, tourney MVP, Monique Coker and Kim Giddens to win its 12th  league title.

Old Dominion 78, James Madison 70, CAA Tournament championship, March 11, 2007
The Dukes had five in double figures, outrebounded ODU and barely missed a free throw, but it all added up to Sweet 16 for ODU (remember TJ Jordan's insane 3 before the break?) This was such a gritty effort you wondered if the Lady Monarchs could ever lose in a CAA Tournament that belonged to them ever since they joined the league.

Drexel 61, Old Dominion 42, March 9, 2009
Yep, they finally lost in the CAA Tournament, and really, they were never in it against a Dragons team that went on to win its first conference tournament. LadySwish remembers none of the details, just that it would be the last ODU game she would cover in the traditional newspaper sense. Reporters must remain objective to do their job, and despite enjoying the team and coaches, I never lost mine. I walked into the locker room postgame expecting tears from them, but instead they were from me. Every single Lady Monarch gave me a hug that day as did Larry prior to going to the podium postgame. Class team, class act and something I've never forgotten.