On the Court
Stiles, Lady Bears run out of gas against Purdue
Updated: Saturday March 31, 2001 8:34 PM
By Kelli Anderson, Sports Illustrated for Women
ST. LOUIS -- The anticipation was palpable.
When Southwest Missouri State and Purdue tipped off the first national semifinal at the Savvis Center in St. Louis on Friday night, most of the 20,000 or so of us in attendance sat there grinning stupidly, as though we were waiting for a great comedian to deliver the first slaying joke of his routine. Just wait till Jackie Stiles puts the ball in the basket! It's going to be great!
The media frenzy around the 5-fott-8 guard from Claflin, Kan., the leading scorer in NCAA history, had been relentless all week. After years of being a superstar that no one knew about, Stiles had been overheated by a national spotlight that had followed her from Springfield, Mo., to Piscataway, N.J., to Spokane, Wash., and then to Minneapolis (to pick up ESPN award and the Wade trophy) before finally fixing on her in St. Louis.
Everyone who had watched two minutes of TV in the last week knew about her uncanny ability to score. She had averaged 35 points in her last three tournament games, and many figured that here, on a national stage that was practically a homecourt, she'd do better than that.
Everyone around her did their part. The Maroon Platoon, as the innumerable SMS boosters are collectively known, had taken up close to half the Savvis seats, or so it appeared, and were shouting and hoisting all manner of homemade sign, banner and thing-one fan brandished a skunk pelt every time the officials made a call he didn't agree with-in support of the Lady Bears.
SMS coach Cheryl Burnett, wearing the same grey suit she had worn throughout the tournament, whistled, clapped, stamped her feet and, when necessary, glared daggers at the ref. And Stiles did score -- a layup here, a pull-up jumper there, lots of free throws -- despite being double-teamed most of the night.
But little of it was as awe-inspiring as we had all hoped.
Given the exhausting pace and non-stop travel of the last three weeks (SMS had to travel 6000 miles to get to St. Louis), Stiles couldn't find her legs and couldn't match the show of Purdue All-American Katie Douglas, who finished with 25 points.
"I just ran out of gas tonight," said Stiles.
As a phalanx of St. Louis's finest stood guard outside the SMS locker room after the 81-64 rout -- this is the first time I have seen real cops involved with media security enforcement at a women's Final Four -- Stiles sat teary-eyed among her equally devastated teammates and talked about the abrupt end of a very wild ride.
"You can never prepare yourself," she said, "for the moment when it all ends."
Meanwhile out on the court in game two, Notre Dame was making motions to pack it in early, too.
The Irish had come in fully armed for a title run, or so they thought. Coach Muffett McGraw had painted her nails lucky green, and the players had all applied removable leprechaun tattoos on their left arms. The stands behind the team bench were peppered were priests and nuns. But in the first half, UConn outscored, outrebounded, outshot and outshone the Irish to take a 49-37 lead.
In the Notre Dame locker room, superstitious center Ruth Riley scratched her little leprechaun off because she hadn't worn him before and didn't like the effect he was having so far. How much did that little exorcism have to do with what followed? Hard to know, but it should be noted that for a good five minute chunk of the second half, the mighty Huskies seemed to be plagued by some weird voodoo from which they never recovered
They fell over lines and shoelaces, bumped into each other, made bad passes, couldn't make their shots. The contrasts between halves was stunning: the Huskies dropped their field goal percentage from 43.6 to 30.8, while the Irish improved theirs from 36.7 to 66.7. In the second half, the Huskies made just 12 percent of their 3-point shots, while the Irish made 80 percent of theirs.
Everything in the second half seemed to go Notre Dame's way, including the result of a collision at midcourt that left point guard Niele Ivey, the veteran of two ACL surgeries, clutching her left knee. (It turned out to be an ankle sprain.)
With 1:24 left in the game and the Irish up 84-73, an ESPN TV crew ran from their spot behind the Connecticut bench to a spot where they could capture Notre Dame's exit, a sign that even they had given up on the Huskies. When the game finally ended at 90-75, McGraw allowed herself a small smile and fist pump.
Inside the jubilant Irish locker room afterward, reserve Meaghan Leahy allowed herself a small boast.
"I'm good at predicting," she said. "I predicted we'd win this by 10 or 12 points."
What does she foresee for Sunday's matchup against Purdue?
"Us by 12 or 15. It's going to be great."