Spartans, Baylor reveal level of play in women's game
Posted: Monday April 4, 2005 1:36AM; Updated: Monday April 4, 2005 1:36AM
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Tennessee coach Pat Summitt has been talking about parity in women's basketball for years.
On Sunday night, she finally saw it play out -- at her own expense and in front of a national audience. Most figured this year's national title game would be another version of the SEC title game between LSU and Tennessee, two programs with deep-rooted traditions, once the women's Final Four was set.
Instead, two newcomers -- Michigan State and Baylor -- threw a surprise party.
"I think it does speak well of parity," Summitt said after her Volunteers lost 68-64. "You have two teams here for the first time and those are the two teams that are playing for the national championship."
Summitt, whose 882 wins are the most by any Division I coach said what Sunday showed is that the gap is closing between the traditional powerhouses -- Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford and Louisiana Tech, to name a few -- and the newcomers.
In five seasons, Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie has turned the Spartans (33-3) from a moderately successful program into a national contender. But she always had her eye on the ring.
The Spartans' two seniors, Kristin Haynie and Kelli Roehrig, both said McCallie showed them rings on recruiting trips and she promised they'd get one. Now, after rallying from a record-tying 16-point deficit, they are one win from winning a national title in the same venue where the Michigan State men did it in 2000.
"I think Tennessee is a great program, but I it's very exciting because people are learning what's happening with other teams," McCallie said.
Like Baylor (32-3). The Bears may have had an even more difficult task -- overcoming the scandal in the men's program that seemed to stigmatize the entire university.
But after rallying from 15 points down to stun LSU with a 68-57 victory, Baylor is one victory away from winning just the second national title in any sport in school history.
"Whew! We are playing for a national championship," coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said almost trying to convince herself. "My players are warriors, and this is something else."
HOT AND HOTTER
Michigan State and Baylor got to the national championship game by playing their best basketball when it mattered most.
Entering Tuesday night, Baylor has won a school-record 19 straight games. The Spartans have now won a school-record 17 in a row.
It's the kind of run coaches and players dream of.
"We're still living a dream and it's still unreal to us," said Baylor's Chelsea Whitaker. "I can't believe we're in this position."
The Spartans never stopped believing.
After sharing the Big Ten regular-season title with Ohio State, the Spartans won the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis and promised themselves they'd return for a little more hardware a month later.
"We always give a fight and we never give up," said Spartans forward Victoria Lucas-Perry. "That's what makes us so great. ... There's nothing this team can't do."
LSU had the nation's top player, Final Four experience and the expectation of winning a national title. But for the second straight year, LSU left the women's Final Four early.
Baylor wasn't intimidated, eliminating the Lady Tigers with a loss that left the usually high-scoring Lady Tigers in tears and nearly speechless.
"It's anger and frustration, for me," Teemed Johnson said afterward.
Teammate Seimone Augustus, the national player of the year, was just as bitter.
"You can't ever be happy when you lose, especially on a stage like this," Augustus said.
The Tigers hardly resembled themselves after building a 15-point first half lead. They threw the ball away, had a layup bounce off the bottom of the backboard and when they had a chance to break the game open midway through the second half, they failed.
LSU Coach Pokey Chatman blamed her own players. She thought the Tigers (33-3) made some rare mistakes -- not staying with the game plan, not forcing the action, not burying the Bears when they had a chance.
But what upset Chatman most was the way LSU handled itself in atypically close game.
"We still had our opportunities, several possessions, to swing the momentum, to cut into the momentum, to neutralize some of the things we didn't do well," she said. "We didn't seize the opportunity."
Two of Indiana's biggest Tennessee fans -- Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings -- both attended Sunday night's semifinal game.
Manning, the NFL's two-time MVP, sat four rows behind the Tennessee bench dressed in an orange sweater. One reason he showed up was his admiration for Summitt, who Manning called a mentor and said helped advise him to stay at Tennessee for his senior season.
"We've maintained a friendship and she's one of the people I talked to when I was trying to decided whether to stay or go," he said. "I've tried to support the program as best I can over the years."
Catchings, one of Summitt's former players, still attends classes at Tennessee and plans to be back in Knoxville, Tenn., on Tuesday as she pursues her master's degree. She's also working as an analyst for an Indianapolis television station during the tournament.
Baylor has reached the title game only two other times. The men's basketball team lost to Kentucky in the 1948 championship, and the men's tennis team won the national title in 2004. ... LSU was ranked No. 1 for 11 weeks this year and never dropped below No. 3. ... Michigan State assistant coach Al Brown is the only person ever to be on the coaching staff of Final Four teams in both the men's and women's tournaments. Brown helped lead Purdue to the men's Final Four in 1969 and helped the Tennessee women make Final Four runs in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2000. ... Mulkey-Robertson is the first woman to win a national championship as a player and coach in the title game. ... The Volunteers have never won a national championship in April.
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