NCAA Championship: Robbed of a Classic

We were robbed. 

A 35-32 lead by the Gonzaga Bulldogs over the North Carolina Tar Heels was shaping up to be a classic NCAA Championship. Two heavyweights, two #1 seeds battling it out on the hardwood, exchanging baskets and stellar defensive play. 

Fans and media alike buckled themselves in for what should have been a tremendously well-played second half. 

On one side was Gonzaga. The no-longer-Cinderella behemoth out of the West Coast Conference. A program that has earned its way to the top through hard work, dedication and smart recruiting. 

On the other side was North Carolina. A legendary program lead by a legendary coach in a legendary conference. A program that has won multiple championships with top flight recruits, hard work and dedication. 

Cinderella no more, having long ago shed that label, Gonzaga showed no signs of intimidation. There were no deer-in-the-headlight looks on players faces. They played like they belonged. 

Redemption was on the minds of the Tar Heels. Having lost in heartbreaking fashion in 2016 to Villanova, they fed off of that all season long to get this chance tonight. They played like they belonged.

Two teams going to toe-to-toe, in great rhythms offensively and defensively. Why wouldn’t we get a great second half? 

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I’m not one to blame officials for the outcome of a game – just don’t ask me about the Tuck Rule. Opportunities are presented throughout a game or match for a team/player to make plays to help their team win. 

However….

if the demand is that players should stop fouling – like that’s real simple to do – then the equal demand is that officials should be consistent. 

They weren’t.

Fouls that should have been called on both teams in the first half weren’t. Referees let them play leading to an expectation that they would continue to do so in the second half. Players get that mindset and expect to continue in the same rhythm as before, only to find that the referees have suddenly tightened the reins of the game. 

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Yes, it’s easy to blame officials in sports. They are an easy target, an easy scapegoat. Gonzaga fans aren’t happy about what transpired tonight.

Basketball fans aren’t happy either, though. We wanted a great game and we had it for a half. What could have been, though, 

Whistle, whistle, whistle. 

I’ll repeat: Fouls that should have been called on both teams in the first half weren’t. They were called in the second half and whatever hope fans had for a classic flew out the window. As ESPN’s Myron Medcalf put it:

This officiating crew robbed two of the most talented frontcourts in America of the rugged scrap we’d anticipated. 

It’s not a job for the meek. It’s not a job that is easy, by any means. Fans who (inexplicably) find their identity through their teams, react in terrible ways toward officials when a call or game goes against “their” team. But, I believe they get it right more often than not – Tuck Rule, not withstanding. 

As a college basketball fan, I wanted this game to be settled by two teams on the court. The referees didn’t settle it, but man, it sure feels like we missed out on something special. 

Congratulations on another championship, Tar Heels. Congratulations, Bulldogs. 

I hope you meet again on the hardwood someday soon. The circumstances might be different, but I hope you are able to just play. 

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Side note: Proud of the state where I grew up. Well done, Arizona. 

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Terps, Lady Vols Moving On In Spokane Regional

The last time I watched a women’s basketball game at the Spokane Arena, a gal named Jackie Stiles set the arena on fire. Stiles’ hot shooting brought the crowd to their feet in Spokane that weekend. It became a must-see event.

That was in 2001.

And, it would blaze the trail for women’s hoops events in Spokane. Events like the Spokane Regional semi-final and final this weekend. With names like Duke, Maryland, Tennessee and Gonzaga, it was sure to be a stellar weekend of basketball. 

And, for the semi-finals, it was indeed. 

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DUKE vs MARYLAND 

And the senior shall lead them.

Or maybe it’s a junior.

Or, a sophomore.

The Maryland Terrapins are moving on to the Elite 8 after their 65-55 over the Duke Blue Devils. In the first half, senior Laurin Mincy led the way for the Terrapins with 15 points. Her steadiness and confidence paced Maryland to a 31-23 lead at the half.

But, Mincy would be shut down by Duke after that. As the Blue Devils keyed on Mincy, Maryland sophomore Shatori Walker-Kimbrough took over. Walker-Kimbrough scored 18 of her 24 points in the second half. She was 10 for 15 shooting (2-2 from 3).

While Walker-Kimbrough was shooting lights out, junior Brene Moseley provided a spark off the bench. Moseley’s contribution won’t show up in the box score. Pushing the ball up the floor, driving and dishing as well as her tight defense helped restore confidence for the Terrapins as Duke was making their push. Coach Brenda Frese, “I think you were able to see our depth when we were able to call on Brene off the bench when Lexie was struggling in this game.”

Duke had no counter for Maryland’s depth. Senior Elizabeth Williams was a workhorse pouring in 18 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal in a 39-minute effort. Every time the Blue Devils needed a basket, Williams was there. Said Coach Joanne McCallie spoke about her All-American senior, “She’s been  a  rock. She’s truly the embodiment of what  a  student-athlete is all about. Not enough is written about that. I guess it’s not sexy enough. Premed, great  grades, a person who is doing all the right things.” 

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For Maryland, it was win #27…in a row. “It’s just taking one day and one game and one practice at a time. But, obviously, I’m extremely proud of this group. I thought they did a phenomenal job with the scout and just locking in to what we wanted to be able to do today,” said Coach Frese. 

Will they make it to #28 on Monday night? They’ll have to do it against a resilient Tennessee Volunteer team. 

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GONZAGA vs TENNESSEE

The number 27 is also a special number for the Lady Vols of Tennessee. Their 73-69 overtime win over the Gonzaga Bulldogs earned them their 27th trip to the Elite Eight. As sweet a victory as could be for Coach Holly Warlick and her Lady Vols team. “To date, this is the biggest victory for me and absolutely in the tournament. It is a sign of kids that are resilient and a great staff,” said Coach Warlick. 

The win came at the expense of another valiant effort by the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Zags appeared to be on their way to ending their three-loss streak to Tennessee. With 6:34 left to go in the game, Gonzaga held a 17-point lead on the Spokane Region’s second seed. A stingy, high-pressure defense employed by Tennessee forced turnovers and shot-clock violations from a normally reliable Zag offense.

Senior Cierra Burdick, “We were down what, 17 at one point and we came back to win in overtime. I think that just goes to show that no matter how many punches you throw at us we’re going to continue to get up and we’re going to keep fighting. We never thought we were out of this game. That’s just Tennessee basketball. That’s our mindset.”

That mindset was never more evident than in the play of freshman Alexa Middleton. Much like Maryland’s Brene Moseley, Middleton’s contribution won’t show on the stat sheet. But, her defensive pressure on Gonzaga guard Georgia Stinton was a sign of the havoc to come for the Bulldogs. “Our goal today was to put pressure on the ball. We felt like we could affect them with ball pressure. Before Lex came in we didn’t. Andraya Carter did it a little bit but got in foul trouble. Lex came in and did exactly what we wanted her to do,” said Coach Warlick. 

A virtual home game for the Bulldogs did not intimidate the Lady Vols one bit. Freshman Jaime Nared, “It was just a great environment to be around. I was proud of everyone and it was game that I’ll remember  forever  because  of  how  hard everybody played. And, how we all came together when we were down by such a large amount.”

For the Gonzaga Bulldogs and first-year coach, Lisa Fortier, it was an achievement and a learning experience. “It’s a tough way to end the season. I realize that all but one coach has to come up here as  the team that didn’t win, but it’s tough with this group, especially my first year. I love these players and the way that they fought for each other and fought for us as a coaching staff this entire year, but especially the last couple of weeks.”

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And so, it will be the Big 10 versus the SEC on Monday night in Spokane. If these two regional semi-final games were any indication, it will be a physical battle between Maryland and Tennessee.  When a trip to Tampa and the Final Four is on the line, to borrow a cliché, it’s time to leave it all on the court. 

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Athletes Watch, Learn On Social Media

Not all athletes get in trouble for what they say publicly or on social media. 

But, when it happens to someone else, it reinforces the lessons learned for other athletes.

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Thursday night, the men’s basketball team from West Virginia was crushed by Kentucky 78-39 in a Sweet Sixteen game of the NCAA tournament. This came on the heels of a prediction by WVU Mountaineers freshman guard, Daxter Miles, Jr. Earlier in the week Miles Jr had predicted that the undefeated Wildcats of Kentucky would be 36-1 after their game with WVU. As the Wildcats proved, talk is cheap if you can’t back it up. 

It is that premise that brought me to the Spokane Regional of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. With the WVU loss fresh in minds, I asked coaches and players about predictions, social media and more Friday during media day at the Spokane Arena. 

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We do a great job of when we do post (2)

MARYLAND

Lexie Brown: We have relationships  with a lot of these players that we play against but, we’re at that age where you know not to say too much on social media. Like you said, yesterday, the Kentucky game, that completely back fired on that  player’s  part.  But, Rose does a great job with helping with us know what to say, what not  to  say on social media. And, starting tomorrow, we’ll be off social media completely until we win both of our games or until our season is over. So, we’ve got to stay locked in. You can’t let the outside world influence how you play.

Laurin Mincy: Just piggybacking on what she said, we know what and what not to say. And from the fun aspect, we do a great job of when we do post something, it’s about the team or about Maryland, period. So, we usually stay positive on social media.

Shatori Walker Kimbrough: Just be smart. I know when I’m looking on the outside, if someone says something about our team, that would just be added motivation. I guess the other night he was using that as some confidence that he had, but, like Laurin and Mincy said, just knowing how to be smart and a time and place for everything.

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DUKE

Amber Henson:  I  wouldn’t say I have intentionally stepped all the way away from it but, I do make a point to kind of block out things that are going on about  the women’s tournament or our team. We kind of have tunnel vision right now.  But, I do keep up with the men’s team on social media.

Ka’lia Johnson:  I would have to agree. We’re just going  to  watch  the games, the games are on in our hotel, and I  just  watch  the  games  on  TV.  But, definitely when  it’s  game day we go straight  into  tunnel  vision. And, that happens with practice  today,  we’re  in tunnel  vision  now.  Maybe take a step back.

TENNESSEE

Ariel Massengale: Some of our coaches instilled in us from the beginning of the season, we have social media rules, curfew times, where you shut that stuff off and things that we just don’t talk about on social media. So, you kind of look at other players and some mistakes and whatnot that they made but, yes, it’s something we’re very conscious about and if we see a teammate tweet or put something out there, we are very quick to call them text them like, hey, you need to take that down as soon as possible.

Some of our coaches instilled in us from

 

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GONZAGA

Sunny Greinacher:  I  actually just heard about this incident that kind of got a lot of attention about social media and athletes. But, I  don’t think it’s necessarily a problem for our team.  I know that all the girls on the team are more reserved when it comes to that.

But, what we use social media for is for more of getting ourselves hyped and just maybe spreading the word of where we play,  encouraging other people to watch us and stuff.  But I don’t think it’s a problem for us to be inappropriate on social media, those kind of things, just knowing the girls on our team.

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FINAL THOUGHTS: Opportunities to learn from others mistakes is one thing. Learning from your own mistakes is…humbling. Daxter Miles Jr will (hopefully) learn that braggadocio doesn’t win games. But, his experience is a reminder for not just athletes, but all of us. We all need to be mindful of what we say publicly and yes, even privately. 

As the ability for mobile devices to take pictures, record video and share instantly on social media, so will the likelihood of people getting in trouble. It is imperative for each of us to be mindful of how we conduct ourselves publicly and on social media. Act naturally is always a safe way to go.

Unless, of course, you’re a natural jerk.

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Teachable Moments Via Daxter Miles, Jr

What are words for?

Words can motivate. And, they can also teach. 

West Virginia’s Daxter Miles Jr learned that the hard way after his 36-1″ prediction about the Kentucky Wildcats. Miles Jr’s prediction provided a little extra incentive for the undefeated Wildcats. Kentucky thumped West Virginia 78-39 in a NCAA Regional Semi-Final game in Cleveland, Ohio last night. 

Wildcat players took to Twitter to address the win emphatically 

It wasn’t just Kentucky players either. West Virginia’s horrendous shooting night and Miles Jr’s comments were a hot topic on Twitter during the game with media and fans yesterday. But, there was another group that was paying attention too. 

Coaches jobs have had to evolve over these last several years. Social media (monitoring and teaching) is very much a part of the job. Even if a coach is not on social media themselves, most of their players probably are. As such, it’s important for a coach to know what their players are doing. 

Teachable social media moment

The Miles Jr quote is a teachable moment for coaches here at the Spokane Regional for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. I asked coaches about discussing social media with their players during the tournament.

Maryland Terrapins, Coach Brenda Frese: I think our players are really well-trained and know, kind of, the approach in terms of talking. They all were talking about it (Miles Jr’s prediction) yesterday before that (WVU-UK) game, which I was glad to hear, just in terms of fueling Kentucky and getting them even angrier going into that game. So, I’m quite confident in our young ladies that they will be media savvy.

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It’s not about predictions. It’s about

Duke Blue Devils, Coach Joanne McCallie: I think for everything, people have to be clear thinking. We hope — at this point, I would like my team to be as clear thinking as they could possibly be. But, we talk to our team throughout the season and we would expect by now the leadership would come from our senior captains, reminding people not to spout such predictions. It’s not about predictions. It’s about what we do on the court.

I do Facebook because it’s nice, you get to like everything. Facebook is positive, you just press like on everything, for the most part. I was on Twitter and found myself disillusioned by it tremendously. I got off of that. I said, no, that can’t be a part of what I’m doing.

NOTE: Coach McCallie does have a Twitter account with recent activity. I am trying to clarify with Duke WBB to find out who actually runs her account. 

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Tennessee Volunteers, Coach Holly Warlick: Well, they better not do it (make any predictions, especially on social media). You  don’t  want  to  give  anybody ammunition.  I just prefer them not to say it.  It’s tough to back up. I  mean you’re  giving  people ammunition to get up just that much more.

I  think  we  always  — and  we  have always done this — I don’t care who you’re playing, you’ve got to respect your opponent, especially  at  this  time  of  year. They got here the same way we did. They’re here for a reason, because they’re playing great basketball right now. So,  I  don’t  think  that  anyone  can step up and say, we’re ready for you and we want you.  I tell them be careful what you wish for, because it can definitely turn on you just as easy as it can help you.

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Coach Fortier quote   Canva

Gonzaga Bulldogs Coach Lisa Fortier: We mentioned it again.  And during the season, we remind them often that they’re representing themselves, their family, our team — they’re representing a lot of people.

You want to make sure that you’re always humble, which I think we are by nature.  But, that you’re humble and that you make sure that you’re being smart and not giving anybody else any fodder for the bulletin board.  And hopefully, we managed to do that.  They are only 18 to 22 and they make mistakes and social media is a whole different animal now days, so it’s probably more common than it used to be.

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FINAL THOUGHTS: I don’t envy coaches, especially college coaches, these days. Social media has become so intertwined in every aspect of sports that it is impossible to avoid. It’s not enough to monitor what their own athletes are saying. Nor is it enough to tell them “think before you tweet”. Everyone thinks. But, not everyone evaluates and analyzes the repercussions of what we share on social media. 

There are teachable moments nearly every week on sports Twitter. Every single thing we say, whether verbally or on social media receives sound-bite scrutinization. Some athlete (pro, college, high school), media member, celebrity or fan gets in trouble for what they tweeted. Or, in the case of Daxter Miles, Jr, gets in “trouble” for what they said. 

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