Every team wants to play deep into the madness of March. So here’s a new strategy:
Yes, this would amount to something of a Jedi mind trick. There is no Community Chest card to be drawn that cedes a no-roll advance to Go, or the Elite Eight. All real estate must be won, from the beachhead of the bracket’s first round inland.
Still, as the first game of the Spokane Regional of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship churned to disposition Saturday evening, a faint sensation could be detected.
One team giving off the vibe of, hey, the journey’s been pretty good.
And the other insisting, this journey’s not good enough.
Or it could have just been the law of averages, the tournament grudgingly bowing to the need for a transfusion at the top, lest the whole enterprise collapse in a collective national shrug.
In any case, Stanford – on a roll of five straight trips to the Final Four – won’t be making a sixth. The Cardinal, the No. 1 seed here and No. 1 in the nation at an earlier stage of the season, looked around during the proceedings at the Spokane Arena and discovered something else about themselves summed up with the same number.
If the remarkable Chiney Ogwumike couldn’t do it for the Cardinal, it couldn’t be done. Which is largely why Georgia’s Lady Bulldogs were standing at the end with a 61-59 victory and their first advance beyond the Sweet 16 since 2004.
To pull this off, the Lady Bulldogs had to erase a deficit that still stood at eight points with 10 minutes to play and overcome not one, not two, but three insane stretches of offensive nothingness when, added together, they missed 30 of 31 shots.
But did someone suggest this was supposed to be a beauty pageant?
“Look, we play well together, we’re gritty and we stay the course,” said coach Andy Landers, who’s 34 years into staying the course at Georgia. “If you give us a chance, even if you’re better than we are, we’ll beat you.
“We can tough it out. We’re not beating people on talent, are we? What do you think?”
Well, the Lady Bulldogs are ranked No. 14, and they didn’t get there on four flat tires.
Bent rims, maybe.
Their stretch run against the Cardinal was an exercise in grim inevitability – first grinding Stanford to an offensive halt (three points in 10 minutes), then choking off the 6-foot-4 Ogwumike (she got up exactly four shots in the game’s last 17 minutes) and finally coming up with shot after offensive rebound after block after steal until Stanford was simply out of answers, even after briefly righting the ship with a four-point lead.
“We hit them in transition a couple of times,” Landers said. “It was kind of like somebody had popped them in the back of the head. They didn’t see it coming.”
Or maybe they did.
Back in the fall, the Cardinal was riding pretty high – an 11-0 start, an upset of No. 1 Baylor, road wins in the deep South over two other ranked teams. But then came a 26-point undressing at home against UConn, and while they lost just once thereafter (and were rarely pushed), this was not the regal Stanford teams of late.
“In some ways,” said coach Tara VanDerveer, “I think it created a little bit of fool’s gold.”
It was a team with a single senior. Injuries began to chip away at the depth. Even Saturday night, the Cardinal lost forward Taylor Greenfield to a freakish hand injury on, of all things, a kicked ball.
“It really became a little bit of mission impossible,” VanDerveer acknowledged. “If someone in the beginning of the year had said to me, ‘This team will finish up 33-3 in Spokane,’ I would be like, ‘How?’ ”
At Georgia, meanwhile, that question was being asked in a different way. The tournament ceiling the Lady Bulldogs have been bumping their heads on isn’t uncommon; in the last decade, the 40 Final Four slots have been occupied by all of 16 schools.
Of course, this is the women’s tournament, where people haven’t lost their brains yet about reaching “only” the Sweet 16.
Which isn’t to say that hasn’t crawled under Georgia’s skin.
“We have those seniors (Jasmine Hassell, Jasmine James, Anne Marie Armstrong) who get it,” Landers said. “They’ve been here twice. This time, when we got back to the Sweet 16, it was like, ‘Hey, this isn’t where we finish. This isn’t the finish line. It’s the starting line.’ ”
You’d think, at least, that Landers might allow himself a sigh of relief after being stuck on 16, or short of that, for almost a decade.
“This,” he said, taking his smile back into the Georgia locker room, “isn’t the feeling I want.”