Tired of getting overlooked by a majority of pundits, the Pac-10's five tournament entrants -- Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona, USC and Oregon -- did something that couldn't help but receive a few extra lines in newspapers and a television mention or two. They all won. For the first time in conference history, five teams advanced into the second round.
Take that, East Coast bias! "How about that Pac-10?" said Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne. 'We are feeling very good about ourselves right now. I couldn't be happier for our conference, yet this is not unexpected at all.'
Placed in the same Fresno subregional, Stanford and Arizona State took the extra step and vaulted themselves into the Sweet 16 with second-round victories. Early-arriving Stanford fans at the Save Mart Center began chanting "Go Pac-10. Go Pac-10," and "A-S-U, A-S-U," as Arizona State put the finishing touches on its victory over Notre Dame. As she walked off the floor with her jubilant team, Turner Thorne received a high-five from Pac-10 coaching compatriot Tara VanDerveer of Stanford.
"The Pac-10 is one of the more physical and talented conferences in the nation," said Arizona State guard Kylan Loney. "We really beat each other up during the Pac-10 season, and it shows how much it has helped us with all the other schools."
Every year it seems the Pac-10 and other West Coast conferences play the Rodney Dangerfield card of getting no respect when it comes to tournament entries, recognition and postseason awards. While many viewers are tucked into bed and Bristol-based ESPN runs UConn highlights on SportsCenter, West Coast teams are battling for conference supremacy with little notice from the rest of the nation. And many teams have never been able to make their case stick when it mattered most: tournament time, when early exits and big-game meltdowns were the lasting impression.
That hasn't been the case so far this year. Although Oregon and Arizona suffered second-round drubbings to Baylor and LSU, respectively, USC turned some heads by taking top-seeded Michigan State down to the wire. The Women of Troy, making their first tournament in appearance since 1997, lost on a last-second scramble near the MSU basket that resulted in a layup. Having USC grad Lisa Leslie in the ESPN studio to remind viewers that not all blue-chip prospects and quality teams play east of the Mississippi has helped the West Coast's case this season.
Turner Thorne attributed part of the Pac-10's early success to having more veteran players, and teams remaining relatively free of injuries. And, although she displayed a bit of reluctance as if it could change its mind, Turner Thorne credited the tournament committee with an assist. "I don't know if I should say this, but I think that the committee really believed in us and really gave us good seeds and gave the teams opportunity," said Turner Thorne. "That is something we haven't always received."
But on Selection Sunday, that same committee appeared to send the Pac-10 a bit of a mixed message. It gave Stanford -- the top-ranked team in the nation -- a No. 2 seed in the Kansas City Regional, yet granted the conference its five berths.
"Would I have liked to see Stanford get a No. 1 seed? Yes," said Turner-Thorne. "But I think the committee probably had more than four No. 1 seeds out there, and I think they looked at that and tried to balance things in terms of how they positioned teams.
"Stanford may be a two seed, but they are in Fresno, and in terms of who they are playing. I think Tara likes their position to advance in their matchups. Tara and I said all along we don't care what seed we get, ust get into the tournament and make the most of it."
VanDerveer best exemplified what the NCAA Tournament can do for conference camaraderie. Aside from high-fiving Turner Thorne and cheering for ASU's players during its game, VanDerveer displayed her conference loyalty in other ways. She left a congratulatory message on USC coach Mark Trakh's cell phone after his team's first-round victory over Louisville and she scrawled words of encouragement on the grease board in Arizona State's locker room. And, to the startled surprise of her coaching staff, she screamed at the television as Arizona battled first-round opponent Oklahoma.
While the success has provided the Pac-10 with a jolt of energy and pride, UC Santa Barbara head coach Mark French issued a word of caution before the tournament began. "We have something to prove on the West Coast, and the NCAA keeps giving us an opportunity to do that," said French, whose Gauchos lost to Notre Dame in the first round. "We have to do it on the court and over a consistent period of time. One good year is not going to do that."
But one good year is a start, and the Pac-10 plans to ride the West Coast wave a little longer. "I have been saying for years that we are on the cusp of getting six teams in because this conference is continually improving," said Turner Thorne. "Hopefully we can continue to do well in the postseason."
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Sweet 16 home cooking: Arizona State had some added motivation in reaching its first Sweet 16 since 1983 -- the chance to play in front of its home fans at the Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, where the Sun Devils are 12-1 this season.
"I'd be lying to you if I didn't say we have as big a carrot as anyone in terms of advancing," said Turner Thorne before her team's second round game against Notre Dame. The Sun Devils demonstrated their excitement on the court in playing with more energy and enthusiasm than Notre Dame. Receiving widespread contributions, ASU rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit to make its dream a reality.
"We are so excited to play at home and have our fans. Our goal was to get back home and win," said Loney. "On senior night we said it was not really senior night because we were going to be back."
Turner Thorne knew from 'Day 1' ASU had the potential to make a deep NCAA run. "People teased me at Pac-10 media day when I said we could get to the Final Four, but I really think that," said Turner Thorne. "We can compete with anybody in the country."
Arizona State played a strong preseason schedule, which included victories over Connecticut and Georgia and a loss to LSU. But Turner Thorne made sure to remind reporters that those games are not what truly hardened her team for postseason play. "I would just like to echo it for you guys. We were probably more prepared by our conference schedule than our preseason schedule," said Turner Thorne. "Our conference is truly one of the best in the country, especially this year. It was really tough."
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Farm report: It has been a very special season on The Farm at Stanford. While being the top-ranked team in the nation would be enough to make anyone smile, the Cardinal have enjoyed just spending time with each other. The players and coaches are trying to savor the final few days and stretch it out as long as possible.
"This team has been a joy to work with, and I think that our team all feels the same way, that we are playing for more time together and playing for each other and working hard for each other," said VanDerveer. "In our minds it doesn't feel like six games would be enough, so we really value every practice and value each game. We are starting to do everything with no regrets ...
"This is a really magical time for us and we want to keep it going."
Stanford freshman Candice Wiggins made her own magic in her NCAA debut, wowing the Save Mart Center fans with her athleticism, unrelenting activity and savvy. The 5-11 guard scored 29 points in 27 minutes in a victory over Bay Area neighbor Santa Clara. Wiggins, a San Diego native, was the first freshman women's basketball player to be named Pac-10 Player of the Year, the first of many prestigious awards she is sure collect before she graduates.
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Fennelly returns to Fresno: Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly brought his team to the city where he developed much of his early coaching acumen. Fennelly was an assistant at Fresno State in the '80s, and Iowa State played Utah in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Save Mart Center.
Although his team left two days earlier than he wanted after blowing a 15-point first-half lead to a hot-shooting Utah team, Fennelly enjoyed his trip down a memory lane. "That is one of the unique stories that makes the tournament special," said Fennelly, "coming back to the place I started my coaching career and my family. It was hard to leave Fresno State because of the people that were here. That is what you miss the most. The great thing about college athletics is the relationships you make."
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Mann leaves her mark: The emotions that percolate throughout the arenas during the tournament are part of what makes it so endearing. But for every euphoric moment, there is an equally compelling sad one. The storybook endings can't happen for everyone, and saying goodbye to seniors who end their career with a loss is always tough.
UC Santa Barbara fans swallowed hard when the final buzzer sounded on Kristen Mann's career when the Gauchos lost in the first round to Notre Dame. Bottled up by the Irish zone, the 6-2 all-American forward finished with only seven points on two for 14 shooting.
The frustrating performance, though, was not the lasting memory Mann should keep with her. She should remember all the clutch shots she hit, the gritty rebounds she battled for, and the leadership she provided. Mann capped her career with 1,700 points and 28 double-doubles, and will likely be a coveted pick in the upcoming WNBA draft.
Although sometimes overshadowed while playing in the Big West, Mann has caught the eye of several professional scouts. UCSB fans may have to bid Mann farewell, but another city is waiting to embrace her tenacious play and gregarious personality.
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Attendance office: The spacious 16,116-seat Save Mart Center in Fresno had more open seats than ESPN cameras had time to show. The afternoon session of the first day drew only 2,108 and the evening session drew 2,768.
This is the first year the tournament has moved toward a more neutral-court format of having eight teams at eight sites. Most coaches in Fresno were willing to sacrifice playing in front of sparse crowds with an eye on the bigger picture of the betterment of the game.
"I think it is the way it has to move and the committee is trying to move the championship forward in that regard," said Utah coach Elaine Elliott. "Obviously it is not highly attended at this point in time, but it is a process. I think it is still good that they are going to venues like this."
Turner Thorne hopes the NCAA doesn't make any rash decisions based on only one year of attendance figures. "I don't want the women's committee and the NCAA to go back to where we were. I want to keep progressing and I want it to be like the men's tournament and have all neutral sites," said Turner Thorne. "I don't think we can expect in the first year to be this major money maker and maybe filling these arenas."
Turner Thorne said she has faith that more fans will eventually see the value in attending. "I think Fresno has the potential to be a really good neutral site. I think there are many cities around the country, including our own in Tempe, that really love women's basketball and they will embrace it and come out and support it whether we have a home team there or not," said Turner Thorne. "It is still the right decision, and I hope we keep moving forward with it."
Seated beside her smiling contingent of players, Elliott wanted to ensure everyone was aware of Fresno's hospitality. "There is absolutely nothing about what has happened here that has been disappointing. It has been great," she said.
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