April 10, 2010

Final Four reflections – so very close

First of all, let me express my deepest respect and admiration for the Stanford women’s basketball team, coaches and staff for everything they’ve accomplished this season. Even though the season didn’t end as they had hoped, they have every reason to hold their heads high.

In addition, my congratulations to center Jayne Appel for being drafted to the San Antonio Silver Stars. I’m sure she’ll have a successful WNBA career. She, too, has my respect and admiration for all that she accomplished during her four years at Stanford and especially for her gutsy performance throughout the NCAA tournament and at the championship game. She played through pain, but – in the unselfish manner in which she has always conducted herself – she didn’t give up. She gave her all – a true warrior.

Friendly people in San Antonio

Now some impressions of San Antonio: The weather was hot and humid, but the people were friendly. They were impressed with Stanford, especially after forward Nneka Ogwumike’s 38-point, 16-rebound performance in Stanford’s 73-66 victory over Oklahoma in the semi-final game on April 4. At lunch the next day, two restaurant employees commented on her talents and the fact that she had set a Final Four semi-final record for scoring.

Prior to that game, fans gathered at the Hotel Contessa, where the team was staying, for a social and send-off. Red-clad fans were arrayed along balconies on the second and third floors of the hotel, which has a lofty atrium and outdoor seating along the famed River Walk.

Joined by the Tree, the cheerleaders and Dollies, the band played for about 10 minutes until the team began to assemble. Forward Joslyn Tinkle arrived first, waving to her family and taking photographs. As her teammates joined her, the fans chanted, “Just two more wins.” The band continued to play as someone carried a box of Easter baskets to the bus.

Three whistles and a drum roll led to “All Right Now,” with the players doing a little dance before high-fiving the fans who formed an aisle as they walked to the bus. Once all were aboard, the bus took off, escorted by two motorcycle officers with lights flashing and sirens sounding.

The semi-final game against Oklahoma

The Alamodome atmosphere was noisy and electrifying as the fans of Stanford, Oklahoma, Baylor and Connecticut milled about wearing their teams’ colors. Being relatively close to San Antonio, Oklahoma and Baylor seemed to have the largest turnouts, but UConn drew a large crowd, too. Mostly seated behind the Stanford bench, Cardinal fans filled about two sections and made plenty of noise.

One nice feature of the Alamodome is that in addition to showing how many points and fouls each player had, the Jumbotron showed her rebounds and the percentages for each team’s shooting, 3-pointers and free throws. Displays at each end of the arena recorded assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.

However, before and after each game and during halftimes, there were long lines at the concession stands, souvenir stands and women’s restrooms.

Few Stanford and Oklahoma fans left after their game. They were eager to see the matchup between undefeated UConn and Baylor with its 6'8" freshman, Brittney Griner. Stanford players arrived about 10 minutes into the game and sat where the band had sat. Of course they were loudly cheered by their fans. They stayed for the rest of the first half of this highly physical game, then left. UConn won, 70-50

A day off for sightseeing

Monday was a day off, a chance to go sightseeing along the River Walk and at the Alamo. While strolling along the River Walk, Stanford fans waved and smiled at each other. When my walk took me past the team hotel, I saw Joslyn, who was wearing her practice uniform, sitting with her family under an umbrella at an outside table.

That evening, most fans were caught up in the men’s Final Four championship game between Butler and Duke. It was an exciting, tight game that came down to a missed Butler basket at the buzzer before Duke finally won. Most non-Duke fans were hoping for a repeat of “Hoosiers” as the Indianapolis team nearly pulled a major upset.

On to the championship game

Tuesday, April 6, was game day – Stanford vs. UConn for the national championship. Once again Cardinal fans assembled for a rally, this time at the Rio Rio Cantina restaurant near the team hotel. When the band and its contingent arrived, the Tree guy was wearing a “Fear the Tree” T-shirt.

The restaurant was decorated with red and white balloons and banners provided by staff members from the Stanford athletic department. Staffer Heather Owen, ’98, served as emcee.

After enjoying Tex-Mex appetizers and other refreshments, the fans walked to the hotel for the send-off. As the band played, the players came down to the lobby, where forward Ashley Cimino had been chatting with her family. There were lots of hugs among other families as her teammates joined her.

Standing outside the entry, all the players smiled, clapped and took pictures as the band played. Fans chanted “One more win” as the players posed for pictures. They joined in on another chant, “This is our year. This is our team.” Forward Sarah Boothe pretended to conduct the band for the team’s traditional entry fanfare, and all the players joined the band as it spelled out Leland Stanford Junior University, etc. Then, once again, the smiling players danced to “All Right Now” before heading for the bus and their police motorcycle escort to the Alamodome.

Hopeful at the half

The game was preceded by an impressive flag presentation by military personnel from nearby bases. At the half, they stood along the sidelines as Vice President Joe Biden shook hands and chatted with them. His presence explained the added security such as metal detectors at the entry gates.

Since UConn was the first No. 1 seed and Stanford was the second No. 1 seed, the Cardinal wore their red road uniforms for the first time in either the Pac-10 or the NCAA tournament. The first half was an exceptionally low-scoring affair. Neither team had much luck shooting, but Stanford led 20-12 when the buzzer sounded, giving its fans reason for cautious optimism.

The second half saw UConn begin its rally. The Huskies perhaps had an advantage because Jayne fell awkwardly and aggravated her ankle injury. She hobbled to the bench for retaping and, we learned later, a pain shot, and returned to the game a few minutes later. She gritted it out but finished the game scoreless for the first time in her college career. Still, she had seven rebounds and two assists in her 30 minutes of playing time. When she was on the court, she diverted defensive attention from her teammates and no doubt inspired them with her toughness.

The final score was 53-47 in UConn’s favor. It was the closest margin of victory in the Huskies’ 78-game winning streak and its first by single digits – stark evidence of how close Stanford came to claiming the championship trophy.

After the game, I drowned my sorrow in chocolate ice cream at Amy’s Ice Cream (the name has a familiar ring) at the Alamo Quarry shopping center north of downtown. Two men who are fans of the Southern Methodist University women’s team and who had been at the game struck up a conversation. Both said they believed the outcome might have been different if Jayne hadn’t been injured.

That was the consensus of the dozen or so fans I chatted with at the airport the next day. And we all agreed that things are looking good for a fourth consecutive Final Four appearance next year.

In the meantime, we enjoyed a great ride this year thanks to an exceptional group of young Stanford women.

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