NEWS, NOTES &
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
By Bethany Bradsher
These underdogs are on a mission
By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.
Here’s the image of an improbable contender
going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years: Thunderstruck
players, gazing in awe at the brackets and the top seeds like hillbillies on
a vacation to the big city.
Trouble is, nothing about that stereotype fits
the Lady Pirates (19-13) as they stare down
their first-round game against Rutgers
on Sunday in East Lansing, MI.
Sure, they may only be a 13 seed, but they are
riding in on a 10-game winning streak. And as for defying general
expectations, they covered that ground already when they won their first
Conference USA Championship after being picked seventh in the C-USA
Listen to sophomore guards Impris Manning and
Jessica Slack as they describe the events of recent weeks:
Manning: ‘We’re going to this little dance
thing, whatever you call it.”
Slack: “We got those first couple of wins,
starting our little 10-game streak, and it just seemed like everything was
kind of falling together.”
These are obviously not starry-eyed newcomers
who are just happy to be here. And even if the rest of the Pirate Nation
just started climbing onto the bandwagon when the victories began in early
February, head coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener said that she had a hunch much
earlier that this could be a special season.
“They were very disappointed when we were
losing, which is one reason I thought we would bounce back,’ said Baldwin-Tener,
who is going to her first NCAA tournament as a head coach. “I didn’t expect
that we would bounce back as strong as we did, but I knew we would bounce
back, because we were better than we were playing. They don’t like to lose.”
What do you get when you combine that unflagging
confidence with some of the best talent the Lady Pirates have seen in years?
You get Monday night at Harvey Hall, a room packed with hundreds of fans
gathered to watch the NCAA Selection Show on ESPN.
If this program becomes a national powerhouse
someday, it’s a night that will be remembered as a turning point.
Even in the aftermath of the news that her team
would spend Spring Break in East Lansing, Baldwin-Tener was giddy over the
way a big-screen television had just made an indelible memory for everyone
who showed up for the celebration.
“I was just so excited when it was up on the
board,” she said. “I didn’t hear anything they said about us, because
everyone was screaming so loud, but that’s OK. It just made it real.”
Their first-round opponent, Rutgers, is 22-8 and
the Big East champion, and the rest of the week will be devoted to putting
in a plan that can counter the Scarlet Knights' tendency to slow down any
offense they face, Baldwin-Tener said. But you can’t put a currency on the
attitude the Lady Pirates possess right now; this feeling that winning is,
for them, a natural instinct.
“We’re just going in thinking, we won our last
game, why not win another one?” Slack said. “I think we just know what we
have to do now.”
“Once we started winning, everybody started
coming together,” said sophomore guard Lacoya Terry.
After her squad defeated Rice on March 4 to win
the program's first C-USA title and earn the automatic tournament berth,
Baldwin-Tener said she was struck by the subdued nature of the team's
celebration. She asked the players about it, and they told her that they had
expected to win the tournament.
Manning knew because she believed in her team,
she said, but also because she trusts her father Ricky, and he told her
early in the season that the Pirates would be the C-USA champs. He also told
her something else, she said
that his daughter’s team would make the Final
“He’s been right so far,” Manning said.
The final word, from Slack: “We’re one of the
hottest teams coming into the tournament, and there’s always a Cinderella
team. Why can’t it be us?”
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03/13/2007 01:58:25 AM