Underdogs sealed their own fate
It took three days instead of two hours for it to fully transpire. But Europe's victory over the United States in the Solheim Cup this past weekend had me flashing back to another very surprising upset I was covering earlier this year: Baylor's loss to Louisville in the women's NCAA basketball tournament.
I wouldn't necessarily say they were equally stunning. Defending national champion Baylor being knocked out in the Sweet 16 was something no one saw coming. Whereas with the Solheim Cup, I at least went into it thinking the Europeans had a 20 to 25 percent chance of winning. But the odds I would have given on the Solheim result being an 18-10 blowout by the Euros? Probably zero.
When there are big upsets, there's also a tendency to credit -- or blame -- a lot of things other than the so-called underdogs' talent/performance.
After the Baylor loss, there was discussion about the officiating (was Louisville allowed to be too physical?), the Lady Bears' mindset (did they overlook the Cardinals?) and coaching adjustments. There was also talk that Baylor's players had been lulled by so much success into believing theirs was a preordained coronation.
Meanwhile, after the Solheim Cup, similar things have been said about the U.S. team's loss. There was criticism of the officiating (specifically, rulings on Friday and Saturday that each took an inordinate amount of time and appeared to rattle Team USA), the Americans' mindset (did they underestimate Europe?), captains' decisions and the perception by some that the U.S. players devoted more time to fist-pumping and primping than to practicing.
Fair or not, it is the nature of upsets in any sport that during the so-called "autopsy," the favorites are criticized about whatever they're perceived to have done wrong.
If Baylor had repeated as NCAA champs, things like Brittney Griner tweeting in the early rounds about dunking would have been seen as evidence coach Kim Mulkey had successfully kept her team relaxed and loose despite the pressure of being the overall No. 1 seed again. But the loss meant everything Baylor's players and staff did got second-guessed retroactively.
Similarly, if the United States had won the Solheim Cup, little would have been said about how the Americans dress and their demeanor. But after a loss? Everything became a target.
I've covered the Solheim Cup five times, and I didn't really see anything all that different this time from U.S. players in regard to playing to the crowd. But they are taking some hits for that now. As for another criticism that I've heard -- that the Americans spent too much time and energy getting "dolled up" -- I have to say it often can be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario for female athletes.
We've heard critics say LPGA players were too plain Jane in their playing attire/appearance. Now some of them supposedly are too glamorous?
Ultimately, the single biggest reason Baylor fell to Louisville is the Cardinals shot 3-pointers exceptionally well that game. Louisville made 16 treys -- and won by one point. An average -- or even a little above-average -- day from Louisville from behind the arc wouldn't have won the game.
As for the Europeans, while they officially clinched the Solheim Cup during Sunday singles play, realistically they won it with a fabulous performance in four-ball play Saturday afternoon. The Euros swept all four points -- giving them an all-but-insurmountable 10½ to 5½ lead -- while their three most experienced and successful LPGA players were sitting out that session. And in every session, the Europeans, in general, putted much better.
So however much you might be willing to criticize what Baylor and the U.S. Solheim team did or didn't do, the biggest factor in both upsets was what the "underdog" did right.
Again, this isn't to say the favorites didn't make mistakes they can learn from. I'm pretty certain that "Remember what happened to Baylor" is a cautionary statement that will be used by coaches of favored seeds in the next few NCAA tournaments.
As for the U.S. Solheim Cup team, almost certainly several of the players who experienced a stinging loss will be on the 2015 team in Germany. They've no doubt heard and read the criticism that they went overboard responding to and orchestrating cheers from the pro-USA crowd at Colorado Golf Club.
That won't be an issue in Germany, where the Americans will be the visiting team. But will this loss impact the Americans' crowd interaction during future Solheim competitions here in the United States? Will there be a more "businesslike approach" that is similar to their normal tournament demeanor? Is that really what fans want to see?
It's unlikely a future U.S. Solheim captain might borrow from a basketball coach's playbook by telling the players they get to keep all their swag from the event only if they win. (Kind of like "threatening" to kick hoops players out of their fancy locker rooms.) That would be amusing, actually, but it wasn't the many participation gifts that derailed the USA, either. Europe did.
The emotions shown by the defeated favorites were different between Baylor and Team USA, as would be expected. It's more traumatic for the "full-time" team that saw its season (and some college careers) end after so much effort together. It was a hard to scene to witness in the Lady Bears' locker room in Oklahoma City.
For the weeklong team of independent contractors, the reactions on Sunday evening in suburban Denver were disappointment, some bewilderment, and even embarrassment. The Americans were humbled and surprised. This was not at all what they were expecting.
As for what it meant to both events, the Baylor loss generated far bigger headlines than if the Lady Bears had advanced to the Elite Eight. But had Baylor survived, would it have gone on to win another title? Would a UConn-Baylor championship game have been more competitive than UConn-Louisville ended up being? We'll never know.
Europe had never won the Solheim Cup on U.S. soil, so the upset also generated more buzz than a U.S. victory would have. Furthermore, it added more intrigue to an event that looked lacking in that just four years ago. The U.S. victory in the 2009 Solheim Cup was the Americans' third in a row. And Europe seemed overshadowed both by the United States and the Asian nations that don't compete in the Solheim. Now it's the United States that is facing losing the Cup for the third consecutive time.
And how about the "surprise" victors? Louisville embraced its underdog status without actually conceding anything to Baylor and played aggressively. Europe did the same thing, prompting Norway's Suzann Pettersen to say afterward, "We took it to them, and they couldn't answer."
Ouch, but also … touché. She'd been on the losing end of the Solheim Cup four times and now has three victories. She wasn't going to hesitate reveling in it.
"Why not make it three in a row?" Pettersen later added with a grin, already looking to 2015.
Lastly, for those who watched the Baylor-Louisville game and the Solheim Cup, both were reminders of this: Just when you think you know exactly what's going to happen ... you find out you don't.