Super Sophomores Shine Saturday

By Jeff Lippman - March 16, 2008

Traditionally, in women's basketball, the more exciting conferences play their tournaments early. Unlike the men, who save their best for last, as the ACC and SEC crown champs on Selection Sunday, the ladies dole out those league titles days before the brackets are finalized.

This season, though, it seems the women did save their very best for the penultimate day of action, as the Big 12 concluded its season Saturday with two teams who had never before even advanced as far as the title game, but who both came out looking like champions.

It may have been a battle between the league's three and four seeds, but after last night's epic showdown, it's plain to see that Texas A&M and Oklahoma State were the best two teams in the conference.

"The two bottom teams in our conference have gone to the top, at least for today," said Texas A&M coach Gary Blair after the game. "This is what parity is all about, and this is what hard work, coaching and good recruiting will do for you."

But Gary, it helps when you have Takia Starks and Andrea Riley trading punches, doesn't it?

Both just sophomores from Texas, A&M's Starks and the Cowgirls' Riley are two of the best players in the Big 12 and both put on a show this week in Kansas City, culminating with Saturday's masterpiece.

Riley, a Dallas native, is not only one of the best in the Big 12, but standing just 5-foot-5, I think she's the best player her size in the entire nation. No other player that small can get loose and drain shots as she does, or go hard to the basket amongst the bigger girls like Riley.

And on the biggest of stages, Riley came up huge for coach Kurt Budke and her teammates. She tied a Big 12 Tournament record with 28 points, including 10 in a row at one point that single-handedly brought her Cowgirls back into the game with just minutes to play.

A&M led for most of the night. Riley decided to take matters into her own hands. Down 50-44 with just under six minutes remaining in the game - and OSU's season - Riley would score 13 of the Cowgirls next 15 points, and with 26 seconds left, with her team down four, she hit one of the most amazing shots I've ever seen.

After dribbling around the top of the key and finding an opening in the corner closest to the Oklahoma State bench, Riley, with her back to the basket, turned and fired and fall away three from right in front of her coach. When the ball was devoured by the net, Kansas City, Budke and A&M coach Blair could not believe their eyes.

"Mighty Mouse nailed that 3 in front of Coach Budke and he just willed that thing in," Blair said. "That was one of the most incredible shots."

But Riley wouldn't score again after that, and neither would her teammates, as Texas A&M took to the league title, 64-59. And who was named Big 12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player? The other super sophomore, Takia Starks.

Starks only scored 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting, well below her team-leading average of 17. It was Starks' defense, however, that did the job, as she held - yes, I dare say held - Riley down for most of the night.

And that's just a testament to how good Riley is. She scored a tournament record for points and the player guarding her is lauded for her stellar defensive effort. In the end, Starks would rather have the hardware than the stat sheet.

Both teams have a lot of basketball left to play. A&M may have landed themselves a No. 2 seed with the win, according to Debbie Antonelli, who did a wonderful job of calling last night's game, a 10 p.m. ET start that had the nation watching.

And with the country tuned in, OSU and A&M did not disappoint. All Big 12 teams consider each other rivals, but with Riley and Starks leading the way, the OSU-A&M matchup could become a very highly anticipated game over the next few years.

The Big 12 showed America what conference tournaments are all about this week. There was upsets and individual feats, and in the end, the best team won and the losing team showed lots of heart. It's really all anyone could ask for.

And, as Blair put it, "That was special! All of America was watching! We're the last game in town, just about, with all the major conferences."

Sunday's Conference Championships

Colonial Athletic Championship
No. 3 VCU vs. No. 1 Old Dominion (12:30 p.m.)

This is the most intriguing matchup of the final day of action because it involves the last team still playing that could be considered "on the bubble."

Virginia Commonwealth has a fantastic record at 25-6, their schedule is just devoid of any big wins over solid teams. Old Dominion, on the other hand, is a lock for the NCAA Tournament regardless of whether they win or lose today.

That creates a bubble problem. If VCU loses today, which I expect them to do, then do they get into the NCAAs as an at-large? They would be the bubble team with the most victories on their resume, but others with less wins might deserve it more because of strength of schedule.

And I don't even want to think about what happens if VCU should win the CAA title. That means both teams would be into the NCAAs. Two CAA teams in the Big Dance is not a good sign for an Auburn team hanging on for dear life.

Horizon Championship
No. 3 Cleveland State vs. No. 2 Wright State (1 p.m.)

Big South Championship
No. 1 Liberty vs. No. 2 Radford (2 p.m.)

Missouri Valley Championship
No. 1 Illinois State vs. No. 3 Drake (2 p.m.)

NEC Championship
No. 4 Long Island vs. No. 2 Robert Morris (3 p.m.)

Tournament host Long Island looks to upset another NEC team en route to an NCAA Tournament automatic bid.

America East Championship
No. 1 Hartford vs. No. 3 Boston Univ. (5 p.m.)

Boston upset the two seed Vermont Saturday to earn the right to meet the Hawks for all the marbles in the last conference tournament of the season.

Posted by Jeff Lippman at 11:26 AM on March 16, 2008

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