- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- We're all supposed to love upsets in the NCAA tournament, right? Cinderellas, giant-killers, bracket-busters -- all that unpredictable stuff. It's great for the sport, right?
Well sure. I guess. That's what everyone always says. But often in both the women's and men's NCAA tournaments, I find myself thinking of big upsets -- especially those before the Final Four -- as kind of like candy.
It tastes great when you eat it, and it gives you a rush. But long-term, it's not necessarily very filling or good for you.
A lot of folks will say it's fabulous that No. 1 seed Baylor, going for its second NCAA title in a row, was upset 82-81 by Louisville on Sunday. It surprised everyone, radically changed the tournament's storyline, opened up the field and ended any notion that the champion was a foregone conclusion.
All true. But is this just a sugar rush, or something more "nutritional"? Next week, when Baylor's Brittney Griner, the best women's college player this season -- and one of the best of all time -- isn't playing in the Final Four, won't it feel like something important is missing?
Frankly, yes, it will. Which is nothing against Louisville, a terrific program, and whatever teams end up in New Orleans. And there's no guarantee that if Louisville had not defeated Baylor that Tennessee might not have done it instead. But there is always a price to be paid when great teams/players are ousted before the last game of the season. That price is that we lose the opportunity to see them on that grandest of stages, and we never get the memories they might have created.
"It works both ways," said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, whose No. 2 seed Lady Vols, who now won't face Baylor for the third time in four years in the NCAA tournament. "I think that people enjoy watching great basketball, and Baylor is a great basketball team. And then they want to see the underdog win."
But sometimes when that happens, then that costs us the opportunity to keep watching the great team/player.
In this tournament, we've lost two of the season's best who had a realistic chance to be in the Final Four: Baylor's Griner and Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike. (Delaware and Elena Delle Donne's odds of being in New Orleans were extremely low.)
Baylor and Stanford, which both repeated as No. 1 seeds this season, were ousted by Louisville and Georgia, respectively. Some will suggest this is needed "proof" that women's hoops isn't just about a couple of teams.
But that proof already existed. For instance, it was just two years ago that Texas A&M surprised people by beating Baylor, Stanford and Notre Dame to win a national championship.
Texas A&M in 2011, Baylor in 2005, and Maryland in 2006 all won their programs' first NCAA titles in those years. In that same stretch over the last eight years, how many men's teams won their program's first NCAA title? One: Florida.
Certainly, the dominance of UConn and Tennessee in the period from 1995-2010 -- when they combined to win 12 of 16 NCAA titles -- cast a tall shadow over all other women's programs.
But Baylor, which was seeking its third championship overall, is one of the programs that has challenged the UConn/Tennessee claim on trophies. Successfully enough so that Baylor, this year and last, became a titan itself that other teams looked to topple.
However, it didn't seem like it would happen. So how are we to process what went on here Sunday at the Chesapeake Energy Arena? Last week, Baylor decimated Florida State before former President George W. Bush and a full house of admirers at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.
That night, the headline "Baylor Upset in Sweet 16" would have seemed like a future April Fools' Day joke that no one could possibly fall for. Yet that's exactly what happened Sunday, with Louisville shooting 3-pointers as if the Cardinals were dunking on a Nerf hoop.
Baylor's big sendoff at home in the NCAA second round was, in fact, the last game the Lady Bears would win this season. They're back in Waco far earlier than they expected to be. The team that had won 74 of its last 75 games prior to Sunday and was the overall No. 1 seed will watch the Final Four from home. Actually, they probably won't. The Lady Bears likely won't even be able to stand to turn on their televisions for those games.
Baylor had everyone back from a 40-0 season. The players talked about keeping their focus and how good their chemistry was. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of the squad on Saturday, "I use the word, 'mature.' When you have that many seniors, they're a lot more mature. I think they're a lot more relaxed because of the experience that they now have. Certainly more success than failure. But they've experienced it all."
Including a previous devastating NCAA tournament loss, when they fell to Texas A&M in 2011. But nothing like that was supposed to happen again with this group. So why did it?
You can always see where some vulnerability might have been after the vase is shattered on the floor. Confidence is crucial, but was Baylor overconfident? Some will point to Griner jokingly saying on Selection Monday -- when asked who could beat Baylor -- that maybe it would take the Miami Heat. But that suggestion already had been made by TV announcers. Griner was just echoing it. Still, perhaps it showed that Baylor was starting to believe it probably couldn't be beaten.
I noticed, in covering Baylor this season, a few times when players let slip phrases about "when" they got to New Orleans, not "if." But that's because Baylor fully embraced the favorite's role both last season and this one. The Lady Bears didn't sandbag or try to manufacture any underdog malarkey.
Think about what expert tightrope walkers say is the reason they don't fall: because they never entertain the possibility that they can. If they tumble, nobody is more surprised than they are.
Baylor was trying to become the fourth women's program in the NCAA era -- which began in 1981-82 -- to win back-to-back titles. Southern California did it in 1983 and '84. Tennessee won three straight from 1996-98, and then two in a row in 2007 and '08. Connecticut three-peated in 2002-04, and then won consecutive titles in 2009 and '10.
Along the way, some of those teams faced challenges, but still found a way to win. Many champions have to pull out at least one game during the postseason when they're not at their best.
Which Baylor clearly wasn't Sunday. In a devastated, tearful Baylor locker room after the loss, senior Destiny Williams was actually dry-eyed and analytical, which fits her personality.
She said she had sensed from tipoff that Baylor was not focused or energetic enough. And with Louisville playing physically and aggressively, plus shooting so well from the perimeter, the Lady Bears were knocked back on their heels.
"You pat Louisville on the back," Williams said. "Their coach did a great job of throwing different defenses at us. But I also felt we were off mentally. We left some shooters wide-open. I feel like our defense really did kill us. I don't know why, because we've been in tough situations before."
Indeed, despite their large pile of victories -- most of them not that close -- Baylor had been tested. The Lady Bears lost to Stanford in November, a game that Williams said most reminded her of how Baylor played Sunday.
In December, Baylor held off Notre Dame, winning by 12. In February, the Lady Bears prevailed over UConn after trailing at halftime in a hostile environment in Hartford, Conn.
And in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, after Oklahoma State got within three points with a minute and a half left, Baylor held on and won by eight. The Lady Bears then proceeded to blow out Iowa State in the Big 12 title game, and then do the same to Prairie View and Florida State in the NCAA early rounds.
Were they feeling invincible, especially against a No. 5 seed that most people didn't expect to compete with them? Yes, they probably were.
Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Baylor was if it had lost that Big 12 tournament game to Oklahoma State. That would have shaken up the Lady Bears, but it was a blow from which they could have recovered. It might have been just what they needed.
They can't recover from this NCAA loss to Louisville, at least not this season. Baylor loses seniors Griner, Williams, Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden, Jordan Madden, and Brooklyn Pope from this team. Point guard Odyssey Sims is back and there are promising underclassmen and a strong recruiting class.
But will there ever be another player quite like Griner at Baylor or anywhere else? Her teams went to the Final Four twice, winning one of them. A great career, but not the ending she hoped for.
As for Mulkey, despite so much success, she has endured some big disappointments as a coach, too. When she was an assistant at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech, the team lost the 1994 NCAA final against North Carolina on Charlotte Smith's improbable 3-pointer with seven-tenths of a second left. In 2004, her Baylor squad fell in the Sweet 16 to Tennessee on free throws with two-tenths of a second remaining. And the 2011 Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M was particularly galling to her. But Sunday's loss, emotionally, was probably the worst.
The women's tournament got its big shocker, and the buzz that it generated. Louisville received a much-deserved spotlight. But now the Women's Final Four won't have the greatness of Griner and Baylor. That's the price of a major upset.
"Unfortunately, we have to move on -- you take this as a life lesson," Williams said. "You hope the younger girls here look at our mistakes and learn from them. As veterans, we had everybody back. I don't think that we should have been in this situation. Mentally, we weren't here. We stood around too much on offense, and Louisville did not. They came ready to play, and they made us pay."
16dBonnie D. Ford