From the "Cheap" Seats in St. Louis
Right off the bat, I have a confession to make. The job of the writer, even one who is really just a highly-biased Stanford sports fan pretending to be a writer, is to come up with a theme for these columns. Some unifying principle that can be woven into the text, to keep you, the reader, reading. It is no excuse that his beloved team got beat, or even that he is tired from a post-midnight drive halfway across his state and he has to teach three classes (or at least pretend to teach three times). That is the deal.
But I am not up to it. Try as I might with my few firing brain cells, I cannot come up with a theme for this piece. No perky little wrap-up of what was a darn good season, an impressive campaign that exceeded the preseason (and certainly the early-season) expectations of many of us fans of Stanford Women's Basketball.
Actually, I have another confession, concerning a matter more important than the first, since I am really just that Stanford sports fan who pretends to be a writer. I seriously considered not going to this game. After all, "Mini" and I had seen our other NCAA basketball tournament team (the Mizzou men) eliminated by UConn in suburban Phoenix just a week and a day before the Stanford women were set to play none other than UConn in St. Louis. As a fan of Stanford men's basketball, too, I have suffered enough at the hands of UConn. I am really starting to despise them, and I did not relish the thought of seeing their fans happy at my team's expense yet again.
Plus, let's face it: While MiniMizzouCard and I like to think we are helping our Cardinal by showing up to cheer for them, the evidence of our "reverse Midas touch" is starting to be nothing short of overwhelming. 12 times before this past Sunday we have taken a road trip to root for Stanford teams in NCAA post-season play (in baseball, softball, volleyball, both versions of basketball, and even football). How many times have we driven home celebrating a glorious Stanford victory? Not once. The 13th trip did not seem likely to end in a different result. And we really did not need to fork over even more of our money to the NCAA this year, especially for expensive Final Four tickets.
Then again, let's get real. Stanford was coming to our home state, and bad luck or not, we were going to support our Cardinal. Maybe our ladies could repeat the magic of the last Missouri game against UConn, a win in the 1995 Kansas City regional. As a bonus, for what would be the first time in our experience of rooting for Stanford, we were expecting to be the "crowd favorite". In the NCAA basketball tournament, everybody loves the underdog, and we were finally the underdog, as UConn was everyone's odds-on favorite to win the title.
In an offering to the sporting gods, we mixed things up by bringing "Mrs. MizzouCard" with us. She has a decidedly better track record than Mini and I do without her. She and Mini went to Omaha last spring to see Stanford win (before dad took over for the rest of the College World Series... and naturally Stanford lost). Even more significantly, she was with me for my own personal "greatest Stanford sports moment", 1998's men's regional final, the famed "And he was fouled!" game against Rhode Island, which took place in the very same building (though with a different name at the time) where Stanford's women would take on another foe from southern New England. Maybe Mrs. MizzouCard's good sports karma could overcome the curse of Mini and me.
The early signs were not good. When we got to the Stanford "will call" window, they had only one ticket set aside for us, not the three that the Stanford ticket office sold to Mrs. MizzouCard last week over the phone. Stanford fans often complain about their interactions with DAPER, but, as Mini pointed out on the way home after the game, you have to give them credit: They tried their best to keep Mini and me out of the game, so they obviously know what they are doing. And, as Mini pointed out, if we had just come alone the way we usually do, we would have never gotten into the place (because, as he noted, "Dad would have just thrown a huge fit and they would have kicked us out!") and Stanford might have had a chance. Thus, our well- intentioned plan to bring Mrs. MizzouCard backfired, as she was able to talk the folks out of two more tickets (though in row W, instead of Row F, which was promised by the Stanford Ticket Office last week).
So we entered the arena, a good two thousand miles or so since our last sighting of that ridiculous UConn mascot. I realize that a fan of a school with no official mascot should be the last to be critical, but who decided to dress some poor student up to look like an emaciated polar bear? Then again, what the heck, Stanford actually won the battle of the mascots. Given how the rest of the night went, I guess we should take some satisfaction in that.
The bad signs continued, even before the national semi-final game started. During the introductions of the starters, it became clear that the crowd was actually rooting for UConn. What was up with that? Rooting for Goliath to slay David? In the NCAA tournament? That settles it! I am now convinced that regardless of how long I live and how many Stanford games I attend at assorted arenas and stadiums, one thing will never happen: The crowd will NEVER back Stanford. If the crowd in Omaha backs Miami (a school generally loathed by Cornhusker fans) over us and a St. Louis crowd backs an east coast favorite over us, it will never happen. I might someday see Stanford win one of these events (probably not, but it is at least possible), but I will never see a crowd rooting for the Cardinal.
By the way, to my UConn friends and their front running wannabes, let me say this: Rooting for UConn in women's basketball is like rooting for the Yankees. There is no nobility in the endeavor. Happiness, yes, if seeing Goliath whip David turns your crank. But no nobility. I hate front-running sports fans.
As if that were not enough bad omens, I saw to my horror at the opening tip that the ball was in the hands of none other than Melissa Barlow. If one took a quick poll of Stanford Women's Basketball fans for the person they despise the most, Missy would surely be in the lead pack with, depending on who answered the poll, Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma. And we have to put up with two of our three foils in the same game?
I have a proposal. As a former resident of North Dakota, once the world's third-largest nuclear power, I remember well the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty. How about a new ABM treaty, the "Anybody But Missy" pact, for Stanford Women's Basketball? Instead, every time Stanford is in a big game, there she is. Then again, every time Stanford has a post-season game in the Midwest or South, Mini and I show up.... Either way, Stanford is in trouble. Maybe Mini and I should agree to stay away in exchange for Missy agreeing to keep her distance.
To be fair, the officiating in this game was not entirely one-sided. After watching Tina Charles beat on Appel's back as if Jayne was a drum at junior high band practice, I started counting the shots she was taking at Jayne. My theory was that they would not blow their whistle until Charles smashed Appel five times. Just to bug the UConn fans in front of us, who deserved it for sitting in the Stanford section, I started counting whacks by Charles rather loudly. One time I only got to four, and they blew the whistle on that fourth whack. Charles had a legitimate gripe on that one. After being allowed four freebies per trip down the court, that sort of inconsistency in officiating is bothersome. Of course, her team was up by about 25 at the time. But still, she was entitled to gripe about the inconsistency, and she did.
Once the game started, the bad omens continued. Perhaps the worst was Connecticut's All-American Renee Montgomery picking Stanford's point guard Jeanette Pohlen's pocket for an early 7-2 UConn lead. Have to admit that Jeannette had a tough night. But I am a Stanford fan, so I refuse to dwell on that. In case it has not been said enough, let me say it here, for what little it is worth. Jeanette was playing out of position at the point, as she had for the last half of the season. When her team needed someone to step up and take on the responsibility of the point guard position, she did so without complaint or hesitation. Even more impressively, she played that position darn well for a long time. None of us should let one tough night diminish our admiration for the incredible run that Jeanette went on while playing out of her natural position.
Jayne had some difficulties, too, especially at the free throw line, but overall she had a serviceable night, what would have been a spectacular night for a mere mortal. It was not the superstar outing she had against Iowa State, and we probably needed something like that to happen for us to beat UConn, but Jayne had her moments against a tough (in more ways than one) interior defense. Until you see it in person, you do not really appreciate how fast Jayne gets down the court (to play both offense and defense). She did not slow down, even when the game was out of hand in the second half.
Although UConn salted the game away early in the second half while playing its best basketball, we probably lost the game in the middle of the first half (more precisely, during the period from the first media timeout to a bit past the second). For quite a while during that part of the game, the Card defense stifled UConn's offense, and our rebounding limited them to a single shot on most trips. Unfortunately, our struggling, stifled offense had just as many empty trips. The score was stuck on 11-6 for a long time. That was probably our chance to make a run. When it did not happen (despite the brief 14-13 Stanford lead), the Cardinal was probably doomed.
In the second half, UConn became UConn. In case I did not mention it, I really hate UConn. Both their men's and women's coach have that east coast "We are great and I, in particular, am great!" attitude that we folks from the Midwest detest. To give Geno a tiny bit of credit, at least he can be funny. His men's coach counterpart is not capable of humor (Ed.: unless you enjoy recruiting violation humor!) Even worse, as Mini points out, he is the worst sort of humorless person - the type who actually thinks he's funny. The only thing worse than a self-impressed egomaniac is one who has ample evidence to back the claim. UConn is indeed really good. And I hate them for that, too.
In the end, UConn was just better than we were. To add to that, they had a very good night (or, at least, a good last thirty minutes of the game), while we had an off-night. As UConn learned against us last year, this is far too late in the tournament to survive an off-night. For Stanford to defeat UConn, we needed to have a strong performance and we needed them to have at least a somewhat off-night. Instead, the opposite occurred, and that made the difference in the two teams look bigger than it truly was. Our terrific kids fought to the end. I was proud of that. It is not as easy as we fans think to get whupped and still keep fighting. Senior Jillian Harmon was a leader in that fight. We are definitely going to miss her and Morgan Clyburn. There is no shame in getting beaten by a better team that is playing extremely well, even if it does have a sickly polar bear as its mascot. While it is no fun to watch (and even worse to participate in), that should not diminish the 2008-09 Stanford team's impressive accomplishments. Quite a few years ago, Mini saw a news items saying the Final Four was going to be in St. Louis in 2009. "Just our luck," he said, "that we finally get a Final Four near us, but in a year when we have no chance of getting there." We got there, and that was quite an amazing accomplishment. Thanks for a great season, ladies! Get there again...in 2010!
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