TAMPA, Fla. - God's favorite song is "Rocky Top" and He smiled on Pat Summitt and her Lady Vols one more time as they extended their strangle hold on women's basketball with an unprecedented eighth national title in back-to-back fashion.
For all the prognosticators who picked the trendy Cardinal, Tennessee made sure they knew just how wrong they were. The Lady Vols came out determined to show the country just how silly they were to ever doubt them. This one was over early as Tennessee cruised to a 64-48 victory.
Candace Parker was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player as she scored 17 points to lead all scorers and grab nine rebounds. But make no mistake, tonight's game belonged to Nicky "Sticky Fingers" Anosike.
TAMPA, Fla. - Alexis Hornbuckle played one of the worst games in her four year career yet nobody deserves more credit for sending the Lady Vols to Tuesday's national title game against Stanford.
With 7.1 seconds to play in the game the senior guard's stat line read 0-for-7 from the field, 0-for-2 from deep, 0-1 from the free throw line for zero points. Not only that, in the game's waning moments, with the score 45-44 in favor of Tennessee, Hornbuckle missed a shot that would have iced it and then fouled Erica White while she was driving down court. White promptly hit two free throws to give LSU the lead and what looked like the victory.
What happened next nobody could have expected, especially not Hornbuckle.
TAMPA, Fla. - Candice Wiggins fell short of another 40-point performance.
Stanford didn't need it.
So much for that Tennessee-Connecticut national title game. The Cardinal crashed that party, 82-73, and was just too much for Connecticut to handle all night.
The Cardinal showed an incredible combination of size, strength and shooting ability as it didn't matter what UConn chose to defend. The Cardinal beat them in every way. And nobody, not Geno Auriemma, not Tara Vanderveer, not Candice Wiggins or the Stanford crowd really thought it was possible until it was over.
And as the clock ticked down to zero it was Wiggins with the ball in her hand ready for the celebration to begin.
TAMPA, Fla. - How many people out there thought Stanford would be up 40-33 at halftime? Come on, be honest.
Bottom line, Connecticut is having major trouble with Stanford's size. The front court duo of Kayla Pedersen - who has a game-high 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting - and Jayne Appel has been sensational in stopping Connecticut's power game.
The Huskies have been limited to jumpers and, frankly, aren't hitting them.
The entire nation assumes Tuesday national championship game will pit UConn and Tennessee. It's going to be Pat vs. Geno. Maya Moore vs. Candace Parker.
Wait a second...don't they have the semifinals still to play?
As great as the Huskies and Lady Vols are, and as much as they do deserve to meet in the national title game, and as much as that would be the culmination of a great season of women's college basketball, the LSU Lady Tigers would like to think that they have fate and luck on their side.
Greetings from Tampa, Fla., where the weather is a beautiful 85 degrees and clear.
At last year's Final Four in Cleveland, the media gift was a miniature guitar in tribute to Cleveland being the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This year's media gift...a big bag of oranges.
I kid. I kid.
It's practice Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum and all four teams got a chance to take the court. All four teams got a chance to talk to the press, too. Here's a little sampling of what went down behind the scenes.
Pat Summitt recently dislocated her shoulder while chasing a raccoon so she feels Candace Parker's pain.
Though it was suffered during Tennessee's Elite Eight game against Texas A&M and not chasing varmint off the porch, Parker's shoulder is the most important thing on the minds of Tennessee fans everywhere. And LSU would like to know if they have to prepare for the best women's player alive, too.
Well worry not. Her Airness says she's going to play. Of course she's going to play. She dislocated her shoulder twice against the Aggies and still came back to lead the Lady Vols. Didn't you realize? The Tigers aren't dealing with an average woman.
For the purposes of this blog, I guess I should mention so is LSU, Stanford, Tennessee and Connecticut.
Were the Lady Vols and Huskies so impressive in their regional final matchups? Not really, but that's what is so impressive about it.
It's like fate playing tricks on their opponents. Giving hope when there was none to give.
Everyone knows this is Connecticut and Tennessee's year to shine. The season where two teams who historically meet each year fail to find each other until the ultimate contest. But to say Texas A&M and Rutgers didn't make it interesting would be to disrespect God's design.
Candace Parker carried Tennessee on her shoulders all night - even after dislocating one.
Tennessee couldn't shake Texas A&M. More of a struggle than they could have hoped - Candace Parker dislocated her shoulder in the process - the Lady Vols couldn't be denied a return trip to the Final Four.
Playing in her last Elite Eight game Parker torched the Aggies for 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including one stretch in the first half where she scored 16 straight points for her team.
She injured her left shoulder with 18 points and proceeded to miss her first two shots following the injury, wincing each time. But like great champions do, she bottled up her pain and pushed on and will her team to Tampa.
With Stanford and LSU doing damage and eliminating their region's top seeds to advance to the Final Four, you can only imagine the ideas running through Texas A&M and Rutgers' heads.
Not so fast, ladies. Maryland and North Carolina are no Tennessee and UConn.
This is the side of the bracket that everyone cares about. We all want to see the best two programs in the history of the sport meet for the national title on April 8.
Before that can happen, though, the other matchup everyone wants to see has to take place. And that matchup is coming tonight at 9 p.m. when two Big East rivals tangle for the third time on the season. Rutgers and UConn's season series is tied at one game apiece, and tonight we find out what kind of nerves they have.
I'll never underestimate Kristi Toliver's fire and courage again. But with all due respect, tonight belongs to Candice Wiggins and Stanford.
Once again, for some reason, many doubted Stanford against the mighty Terrapins. Not I. How could you doubt Wiggins? Well, Wiggins made all her doubters eat crow tonight. Stanford's resolve was too much for the Terps. They played well.
Maryland shot over 60 percent in the first half and was still down 10 at halftime. Tonight was just Stanford's night.
On Sunday, as the Sweet 16 drew to a close, it became brutally obvious that if the little number indicated your seed was lower than your opponents, you were probably going to advance to the Elite Eight.
One seeds Connecticut and Tennessee cruised past 5-seeded Old Dominion and Notre Dame, respectively. Each team's star led the way. Freshman Maya Moore finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds and, not to be outdone, Candace Parker dropped 34 and 13 for the Lady Vols.
As for the two seeds, they both advanced with Texas A&M topping Duke handily, 77-63, and Rutgers holding off an upset bid from George Washington for an 11-point victory.
The Lady Vols, Huskies, Scarlet Knights and Aggies join two seeds LSU and Stanford and ones Maryland and North Carolina as the eight teams remaining in the Big Dance.
Yup, so much for parity. All eight top seeds remain.
Well, I said that Maryland needed a big game from Kristi Toliver to get out of their recent funk and advance to Monday's Elite Eight.
I was wrong. Maryland got just 8 points out of Toliver and the junior missed every three-pointer she took. She's now shooting 2-for-16 from long range. And the Terps still breezed into the round of eight.
It was obvious watching Oklahoma State play LSU that the Tigers were simply physically superior.
Were it not for Andrea Riley over the first few minutes, LSU would have been shutting out the overmatched Cowgirls.
And to make things worse, the one thing LSU needed to become even more dangerous, the emergence of point guard Erica White's scoring talents, happened. White led the Tigers in scoring with 18 points and that total isn't as high as it should be. In the first half, White, usually the team's assist person, was looking for her shot. She would weave inside defenders and have open layups, but several rimmed out. In the second half, they started to drop.
Told you Angel McCoughtry was going to need to score 40 points for Louisville to beat top-seeded North Carolina in Saturday afternoon's regional semifinal game from New Orleans.
McCoughtry, though, didn't heed my advice. She only managed to score 35. And guess what? The Cardinals lost by just four points. Had McCoughtry's total been 40, Louisville would still be dancing.
The Cardinals star was on fire in the first half and Louisville, who's men's team is also playing North Carolina in the Elite Eight later tonight, rushed out to an early 18-point lead over the Tar Heels.
The first four of eight Sweet 16 games commences Saturday with the New Orleans and Spokane Regionals playing their semifinals.
In what can only be described as a weird and annoying schedule, North Carolina and Louisville and Louisiana State and Oklahoma State meet early with noon and 2 p.m. ET starts, respectively, while the Spokane games begin late at 9 and 11:30 p.m. ET.
That means that Pitt and Stanford won't declare a winner until the early morning hours on Sunday. But of course, She's On Fire will be here to let you know what happened.
Raise your hand if you simply can not wait for the Tennessee-Connecticut national championship matchup.
Well, if Van Chancellor, Sylvia Fowles and LSU have anything to do about, those hand raisers will be waiting for something that never comes.
People seem to forget about the Tigers, who are the only remaining team playing their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in their home state. That's right, the Tigers have under a two-hour drive to get from their home in Baton Rouge to the New Orleans Arena where they will meet 3-seed Oklahoma State on Saturday.
Connecticut beat Texas by 34 points. Tennessee spanked Purdue by 26 on the Boilermakers own home court and trust me, it could have been worse.
The point I'm trying to make here is thus: It is unacceptable for Maryland, if they hope to win their second national championship in three years, to be beating Coppin State by 14 and Nebraska by 12.
I've never been much for style points or pouring it on but let's get one thing straight. There is a difference between coasting to victory and grinding out a win. Don't fool yourselves; the Terrapins were hanging on for dear life in that game against Nebraska. When Yvonne Turner converted on the four-point play to pull the score to 65-61 with the game clock winding down, I don't think Brenda Frese was feeling breezy about the situation.
With about 20 seconds to play in the game and Virginia down by three. The Cavaliers had one last chance.
Playing on Old Dominion's home court, the Cavs missed once, twice, three times, four times, five times and finally...when they probably should have just taken a three-pointer with the clock rocketing towards zero...finally they hit a lay up. And the whistle indicated the foul. Aisha Mohammad hit the foul shot to send the game into overtime.
And in the extra period it was Virginia who took the early advantage. But at home, Old Dominion still had fight left in them.
Up one, they put the ball in Jazzmin Walters hands and she delivered with a long three to ice it for the Monarchs.
Old Dominion has now not lost in its last 26 games at home. They advance to the Sweet 16 where they will face top overall seed UConn.
By the end of today there will only be 16 remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament. And boy will that be sweet.
Monday saw the 2-seeds and most of the 3-seeds in action. While the 2-seeds - Rutgers, Stanford, Texas A&M and LSU - had little trouble advancing, the 3-seeds weren't as fortunate.
Both Cal and Baylor dropped their matchups with George Washington and Pitt, respectively. And 11-seeded Florida State took Oklahoma State to overtime before losing by a single point to the 3-seeded Cowgirls.
There is only one more 3-seed left to play, and if Monday's games are any indication, it won't be an easy night for Duke.
While the 3-seeds had a lot of trouble on the day with both Cal and Baylor losing their second round games, the 2-seeds had no such trouble.
Rutgers, LSU and Texas A&M all won easily and advanced to the Sweet 16 Monday. For them, it all went according to plan. For the other 2-seed, Stanford, it went according to plan, but with a special Palo Alto send off for Candice Wiggins.
Andrea Riley may be the resident superhero of Stillwater, Okla., but Maria Cordero deserves a heroes welcome whenever the Cowgirls' dance ends as well.
But thanks very much to both players, it didn't end Monday night against Florida State.
It started with Cordero. With just under two minutes remaining in the overtime, Cordero looked visibly tired as she stumbled back onto the court after a time out. But then, moments later, from the Oklahoma State offensive corner a three-pointer was launched by none other than the embattled senior and when it swished the Cowgirls had a 70-65 lead with 1:38 to play. She would finish with just nine points, but that might be the biggest 3-pointer in Cowgirls history.
They never looked back. Of course, it did get hairy thanks to Florida State's Mara Freshour.
Do you know how many upsets there were in the first round of this year's NCAA Tournament?
Three. Just three.
And 9th-seeded Purdue - the Big Ten Tournament champs - beating 8th-seeded Utah - a team that didn't win its smaller conference tournament - can hardly even be considered an upset.
No, in reality, there are only two teams remaining who even draw the slightest resemblance to anything considered a Cinderella remaining. OK three if you count 7th-seeded UTEP, but they were the higher seed in their first round game.
When Vanderbilt lost in the second round to Bowling Green in the NCAA Tournament last season, coach Melanie Balcomb probably thought her Commodores had missed out on a golden opportunity.
The Commodores were a senior-laden team who had just come off an impressive run to win the SEC Tournament. This was supposed to be their time. Instead, little Bowling Green ended their run prematurely.
With the season's end, so did the careers of Vandy stars like Carla Thomas, Caroline Williams and Dee Davis. The Commodores' two leading scorers and their best ball distributer gone, they weren't expected to compete at as high a level this season. How could they? Who would score the ball?
Well, as her 'Dores prepare for a second round matchup with the 5-seed West Virginia out of the Spokane regional, Balcomb and her team are back and looking for second-round redemption. And they're doing it with defense.
Eight of Sunday's 16 opening round games are over and eight more teams are firmly implanted into the second round. And the resounding theme of the second day of NCAA Tournament action was double-digit wins.
Five of the eight games ended up with lopsided margins as only Nebraska and Xavier could play a close game until the buzzer sounded. The 8th-seeded Cornhuskers won that matchup, 61-58, as did all of the higher seeds in the morning and afternoon sessions.
There have been no surprises yet today.
Here's a look at some of the early actions top stories:
Illinois State gave a wonderful effort, but in the end, Oklahoma had too much firepower for the 13-seeded Redbirds to handle.
Point guard Kristi Cirone proved to be a stone-cold Goliath killer and showed the heart of a champion but it wasn't enough against the likes of Courtney Paris and the Big 12's Sooners. Oklahoma won 69-61 and advances to the second round.
But the underlying story in this game, to me, is Oklahoma's vulnerability. All season I've given them the benefit of the doubt. Surely, with a force like Paris, how could the Sooners go wrong?
It's Sunday. The weekend is nearing an end. Thankfully, because the locations of today's first round games - College Park, Md., West Lafayette, Ind., Norfolk, Va. and Bridgeport, Conn. - are all in the Eastern Standard Time Zone, these games will be over at a normal hour.
There are 16 more games of opening-round action today, and just as all four No. 2s played on Saturday, Sunday sees the four top seeds hit the court.
I'll tell you right now. I'm predicting four victories by the top seeds. No need to even go over them.
Like Saturday, many of today's games have already been predicted and studied here. And the first game of the day falls under that category as we start in the Spokane Regional where Xavier (9) and Nebraska (8) get set to tangle.
It must be something about the NCAA Tournament that awakens a sleeping giant within Kia Vaughn's 6-foot-4 frame.
The last time Vaughn saw 20 points next to her name on the stat sheet was in last year's National Championship game. She went this entire season without putting up the magic number, and at times looked visibly uncomfortable on the floor for the defending national runners-up.
She just wasn't the same Kia that dominated on Rutgers' journey to Cleveland last year. As if the regular season was nothing but a long waiting period between moments to shine, Vaughn rose to the occasion in the tournament once again.
Often times, the difference between being lauded as the hero and chided as the goat can be entirely insignificant, yet altogether catastrophic.
For Georgia Tech junior Jacqua Williams, today's opening round game against Iowa State was one of those times.
And unfortunately for the ACC's leader in steals, it was one steal she didn't get that cost her team the free throws that increased Iowa State's lead to three and took the stinger out of the Yellow Jackets' chances. The 10th-seeded Buzz lost to the 7th-seeded Lady Cyclones, 58-55, in Des Moines, Iowa.
There are 16 games on the first day of NCAA Tournament action. One of the best things about the women's NCAA Tournament is that teams who never get much publicity get to stand out in the spotlight for at least one game.
This country is full of excellent women's talent that most people have never heard of. Shoot, some of the best players on the best teams in the country slip the minds of even the most knowledgeable sports fan.
I couldn't believe my ears when my good friend and big-time sports enthusiast - he's a Buffalo Bills fan, though - asked me, "Who's this Candace Parker?"
So with 16 games today, I will highlight a player the country should be aware of in each.
Tennessee begins its quest for an eighth national championship in just a day, but Connecticut is the top overall seed and has designs on Geno's sixth. And Rutgers is ready to scrap, claw and defend their way past both of them.
North Carolina sets heel on the road to their third straight Final Four tomorrow, and LSU prowls for their fifth consecutive national semifinal.
Or was it Maryland trying to win its second national championship in three years. Or Stanford trying to prove they deserved the top seed while re-establishing dominant women's basketball on the West Coast.
Whatever the story, the NCAA Tournament will be a fantastic journey, but one that will ultimately reveal one of the aforementioned schools as the true champion.
Which school, you ask? Well, that is where I get to have my fun.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee had 63 teams already ensconced within the bracket. They just needed one more...
They went with experience.
Overlooking teams like Michigan State, who struggled under new coach Suzy Merchant, and Green Bay, who finished with 26 wins on the year, the committee went with a team that has been to the last three NCAA Tournaments and has advanced past the first round in all of them.
Last year, Florida State surprised Stanford in the round of 32 and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. At 18-13, the 'Noles grabbed that last at-large bid as the 11 seed and will face the six seed, Ohio State, in the opening round Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa out of the New Orleans region.
If Rutgers' coach C. Vivian Stringer had a motto for her team, Robert Frost would be the author.
Frost penned the famous words, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
Coming off a 2007 NCAA Tournament run in which nobody expected the Knights to advance much further than the Sweet 16 yet found glory as national runners-up, this was supposed to be Rutgers' year.
The season was up and down, but it wouldn't be a Rutgers team if that were not so. At times they were spectacular, at other times not so much. Their secret weapon, the 55 defense, can only be used if the team in playing at all cylinders. And unfortunately for the Knights, that didn't happen often this season.
Perhaps it was the fact that Tennessee sidled through the tournament without much hype. After all, Duke was the favorite, Maryland was the defending champs and UNC and LSU has been there before. Maybe coach Pat Summitt used that to her advantage. Fly under the radar and quietly beat the snot out of the opponents you face until there are no opponents left standing.
And now amazingly, after year in which the Lady Vols were No. 1 and looked indestructible for a good chunk of the season, Summitt has the Lady Vols as underdogs once again.