North Carolina guard She'La White stood at the top of key with the ball in her hands surveying the light team in baby blue practice jerseys set up to defend a half court drill. Once everyone looked set she turned to face dark team point guard Cetera DeGraffenreid to get the drill going.
"Defense," White called out to her light team teammates.
"Defense," shouted her teammates from behind her in unison, slapping the floor with one hand and popping up with their feet and hands in defensive position.
"Ball in," White called out tossing the ball to DeGraffenreid to commence play.
On one of the many times they ran the drill in yesterday's open practice in Seattle before the first round of the NCAA tournament, assistant coach Andrew Calder singled out Degraffenreid for making a half-hearted cut that led to hitting a wide open gap in the defense late and turning a wide open layup opportunity into a contested layup.
"Cetera, that was a baby cut," he shouted sternly. "A baby cut!"
The last open practice of the day in Seattle was not necessarily the most intense, but certainly the one least representative of what one might expect to see at an open practice in preparation for a tournament. At three points in the practice the team ran wind sprints as a consequence of lackadaisical effort, Calder whistling to stop fast break drills to get players on the line. After players failed to execute an entry pass on four consecutive plays in one half court drill Calder shouted flatly, "We can run -- I don't care."
Watching the scene reminded me of a former basketball coach of mine, an older man whose shirt struggled to contain his belly, yelling from his folding chair on the sideline during the pre-season, "We're gonna run 'till I get tired." It was a form of discipline as much as a means to get in shape, but a tool that definitely subsided as the post-season neared. However, in comparison to the rest of the field in Seattle, it seemed as though the teaching and disciplining has yet to end for North Carolina, perhaps a necessary consequence of having a young, athletic team that still needs seasoning.
"Our players are just so young," said Hatchell during the press conference prior to practice. "We have five freshmen who have never been to a NCAA tournament before and this is a great experience for them, but we have to know that if you go out on the court and don't have your best day then the season is going to be over. Every team that is here is very good and wants to advance."
Although it's clear that Gonzaga University is no less interested in advancing, the practice they ran just before the Tar Heels took the court was very different.
Almost in true Northwest fashion, the atmosphere of the Gonzaga Bulldogs practice was casual, light, and relaxed with players pretty much going through their routine with encouragement from coaches. At one point in the practice while I was comfortably stretched out across two rows of bleachers, coach Kelly Graves recognized me from the press conference and came over to chat briefly.
We talked for a few minutes about the experience of playing a game in Bank of America arena again, a place they're familiar with. He sort of casually shrugged his shoulders in talking about the significance of the location, whether North Carolina should have made the tournament and all those numbers people use to determine seeding. The underlying sentiment was pretty much the same he expressed during the press conference earlier.
"We've played on the floor, not just last year in the tournament but we play here every other year," said Graves. "I think all of that can help. A lot of our players are from Washington, several from the west side. But the bottom line is the game tomorrow against North Carolina, you throw all that stuff out because it's just going to be about who's better during those 40 minutes."
After I told him this was my first year covering women's college basketball, he gave me a little historical context for what motivated his team, describing that the team is still driven by being left out of the tournament in 2008 despite a 25-9 record. Although they fell in the WCC tournament championship to the University of San Diego, it's left a bit of a chip on the shoulders of the team.
"We're still fired up about that," said Graves with a grin that failed to diminish a quiet intensity as practice went on behind him. "That's what drives us."
Although Hatchell says she likes the pace that Gonzaga plays, Gonzaga and North Carolina differ in almost every other way possible -- from their motivation to coaching style to personnel to program tradition. While Gonzaga is led by the outstanding point guard play of Courtney Vandersloot and the all-around play of Vivian Frieson, North Carolina enters the tournament apparently still trying to establish consistency in little things like making entry passes. While North Carolina has nationally recognized men's and women's basketball programs that have won championships, Graves was stopped by security and asked for identification. But ultimately, what this game could come down to is that Gonzaga is a more seasoned team that starts five upperclassmen and has clear leadership, while North Carolina is still trying to figure some things out.
Of course, the other pairing is just as much a contrast in styles.
Texas A&M University ran an intense, up-tempo, yet well coordinated practice with players in seemingly constant motion whereas Portland State University's practice had a similarly Northwest laid-back, low-key atmosphere focusing primarily on the very basics of footwork, rebounding, and fighting through contact in the post.
"It's interesting because we have been keeping it so low key," said Portland State coach Sherri Murrell. "I think I'm more excited than them sometimes. It's tough when it's your first experience."
And sitting there in the bleachers watching practices -- much moreso than listening to the litany of cliches and canned responses in the press conferences -- the stark contrast in styles among these four teams really emerged, accentuating the beauty of both the men's and women's NCAA tournament. People from across the country, with a wide range of backgrounds, coming together to put their interpretation of the game up against the best in the nation. More importantly, as Graves alluded to, despite all the numbers the media and fans toss around, it's sometimes easy to forget that this is ultimately a sport we're all watching.
Yes, sports do manage to bring people together and sometimes lay the foundation for broader social changes, but ultimately this is about a sport that people usually start playing in childhood for fun at outdoor venues much smaller than Bank of America arena. That was definitely most immediately present in the Gonzaga practice, which definitely looked like more of a show for the couple handfuls of fans that showed up.
"This one is for the NCAA volunteers," said a smiling Frieson, lining up at half court to launch a shot after Meghan Winters made the first one of the afternoon.
After nailing the shot she put her hands up and looked over to the three NCAA volunteers who it was dedicated to.
"Y'all weren't even looking," she said beaming with mock disappointment. "That shot was for you!"
Ultimately, even North Carolina assistant coach Andrew Calder lightened by the end of the practice during a shooting contest in which the light and dark teams lined up on opposite baselines and inviting staff members from the sidelines to join in.
"Tie game! Tie game!" shouted Calder, standing at mid-court smiling with his head on a swivel as he saw the dark team tie the game.
With Calder and Hatchell looking on from half-court, both teams completed the game seconds apart and with the light team not realizing the dark team hit their shot first, both teams screamed and ran to center court in jubilation.
Despite all the homecoming narrativs, post-season pressure, and focus on discipline and execution, what this ultimately comes down to appreciating just how fun the sport can be.
"I am from the West Coast so it is kind of a good thing for me," said North Carolina junior Italee Lucas. "My dad and some of my other family members will be out this way. As far as having the home court advantage, we have been in situations like that -- the court is the same, the ball is the same, so it is just going to be a fun game."
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