Women’s NCAA outstrips dull men’s NCAA Final Four

John Gilbert

This weekend, we can compare NCAA winter sports tournaments. Last week, we had the highly promoted men’s basketball Final Four, and basically, all three games — the semifinals on Saturday and the championship game on Monday — were absolute snoozers.
I forced myself to watch as much as I could, and the semifinal when Villanova played powerful Kansas was a highlight. I though Kansas might beat Villanova, and who can’t enjoy the nickname Jayhawks? Instead, Kansas looked hopelessly inept and lost 95-79 to a Villanove outfit that shot about 65 peercent, and broke the Final Four record of 12 3-point buckets with 13 in the first half. The Wildcats wound up with 18, and could easily have had more, but eased off to let a 20-point margin slack off.

The other semifinal, Michigan easily routed Loyola-Chicago 69-57 in another game that promoted a few trips to the kitchen for a sandwich, maybe some popcorn, and anyh other task that could allow you to spend a few minutes not watching. Even though we wanted to see the Big Ten representative do well.
After a patient day-off wait for the Monday championship, basketball zealots were primed and ready. Although, one of my best friends, a basketball player and fan all of our lives, exchanged text messages with me beforehand and said he planned to do something else, because he can’t stand to watch basketball any more.

I was curious about that, but before I could question him further, the bright lights came on at the San Antonio Alamodome and it was game time. Soon, I was looking for alternatives, and fortunately the Minnesota Wild provided relief with a 3-0 victory in their home finale against Edmonton. That allowed me to only click back occasionally to see if the announcers were still awake, as Villanova completely embarrassed Michigan 79-62 in one of those games that was “not as close as the score indicated.”

This week, we can turn our full attention to the NCAA men’s hockey tournament, where UMD faces Ohio State and Michigan takes on Notre Dame Thursday night in the semifinals at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul. The winners play Saturday for the championship. My inclination is to predict that the three hockey games cannot be as boringly uncompetitive as basketball’s finest.

There is, however, another couple of diversions from last weekend’s basketball competition. And that was the women’s Final Four, which held semifinals Friday and the championship on Sunday.
My now-long-distance friend says he much prefers watching women’s basketball to men’s these days, and he’s particularly drawn to Connecticut, the No. 1 team and carrying a 36-0 record into the semifinals against Notre Dame.
First, however, Mississippi State opened the first semifinal with an 0-10 shooting display that put the Bulldogs hopelessly behind Louisville — until they made 25 of their final 52 shots, including a 3-pointer by Roshunda Johnson with 7 seconds left to tie the game and, when Louisville missed what looked like a routine shot, force overtime. Once there, Mississippi State won 73-63.

That brought about a very competitive Notre Dame-UConn second semifinal. Notre Dame led in the first half, but once Connecticut got the lead in the second half, the unbeaten Huskies opened up a 10-point lead. Again, I was provoked to channel switching, and when I switched back to check, the most dramatic part of the weekend was happening. Notre Dame’s spirited comeback closed the gap. A 3-point shot closed it to 2, and a stolen inboounds pass and layup forced overtime. Jackie Young scored 32 for the Irish, but the heroics came down to the end of overtime, when Arike Ogunbowale got the ball near the right sideline with the score tied 89-89. She let fly a jump shot from near the 3-point line at the right corner and the ball went in — with 1 second remaining for a 91-89 victory.

UConn, their 36-0 record suddenly 36-1, was shattered. Then came 37-1 Mississippi State for the title on Sunday night. The game raged back and forth, and it stood 58-58 when Mississippi State’s 6-foot-7 Teaira McGowan fouled out at midcourt preventing a promising Irish chance with 3 seconds remaining. The Irish had trouble throwing the ball in from the right sideline until Ogunbowale burst between defenders and caught the inbounds pass, cutting left and dribbling up the sideline before twisting and flinging an off-balance shot — extremely high arching — that came down and hit nothing but net. An incredible 3-point shot that gave Notre Dame a 61-58 victory.

Or did it? The clock showed 0:00, and there followed about a five-minute examination of all the timer and scorer devices before it was determined that 00.1 — one-tenth of a second — remained when the bucket went in.
You can’t make that stuff up, and I have to say I was really happy I watched it, because no amount of retelling could capture the sheer emotion of the moment. Or, make that, moments.

Wild go on without Suter

The Wild have made the NHL playoffs, and they have high hopes for advancing past the first round, at least. But they will have to do it without the bottom-line force of defenseman Ryan Suter, who was hit from behind in Dallas and broke his ankle when he went awkwardly into the boards.
Much of the Wild’s hopes seemed to hinge on how well they could play until they get defenseman Jared Spurgeon back from an injury. Spurgeon, a quick igniter from the point, usually partners with the supremely defensive minded Suter, but before Spurgeon could return, Suter went out and required surgery to fix the ankle. He is out for the rest of the season, no matter how long it goes.

Coach Bruce Boudreau handled it well. What could he say? The team must persevere. Zack Parise scored twice and the Wild won their final home game 3-0 over Edmonton Monday, then they hit the road. Good news for Duluth fans is that Carson Soucy, the 6-foot-5 standout who was one of five UMD defensemen last year, and signed with the Wild to play in Iowa all season, came up as a replacement for Suter. Soucy, who has a fantastic wingspan, did a very good job of handling all his duties, and Boudreau was impressed.

Now the Wild hits the road to finish up with three games in California. Winning will be important, to improve the Wild’s playoff stature, and also to establish some semblance of order in these days without Suter. Ironically, when Spurgeon comes back it will help the Wild offense, but Soucy might be a surprise bonus to aid the defense.

Meanwhile, the Twins, off to a good start on the road, will try to play their home-opening 10-game homestand Thursday. Great idea for an early promotion: Get Ace Hardware to kick in and provide each fan with a snow shovel so they can clear off their seating area!