For more on yesterday's results, visit SBN Seattle's NCAA women's tournament storystream.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are almost unquestionably the darlings of the 2011 NCAA women's basketball tournament, but in some ways the Green Bay Phoenix show what this whole process of determining a champion out of an original field of 64 is all about.
After Sarah Eichler hit a three with 17:30 left in the game, Green Bay stayed within three points of the top-seeded Baylor Lady Bears for the next four minutes, including some of the standard back and forth of basketball. It was 6-foot-8 Baylor center Brittney Griner that prevented Green Bay from getting any closer and ultimately the sheer talent of Griner plus the dynamic guard play of Odyssey Sims simply overwhelmed a team that thrives on precision passing and team basketball.
But let's set aside our concern with the 86-76 final score and dwell on those four minutes that most of us probably didn't imagine occurring or at the very least wouldn't have the courage to predict in the second half even if we could have conceived of such a thing intellectually.
Yes, the story is obvious and almost too good to be true: a group of undersized players that couldn't get a Division I scholarship from anyone but an in-state school winning a school record 34 wins and making a run to the Sweet Sixteen where they meet one of a historically dominant women's basketball force in 6-foot-8 Baylor Lady Bears center Brittney Griner who even has above average measurements for a NBA player her size.
Yes, what you hear in the Green Bay Athletics post-game locker room interviews are probably not too dissimilar from what you might expect: sophomore Stephanie Sension saying she was excited to show that she could contribute to the team on a big stage, sophomore Adrian Richie saying there was never any doubt that they could win because the team believe in each other, and they're all looking forward to honoring their seniors by working hard in the off-season.
And yet even if these feel like familiar words, it's worth acknowledging that the team with nine not-so-highly recruited players from Wisconsin came into the game and executed their way to within three points of a much larger, much more nationally-reputed Baylor team that was once ranked #1 in the nation in a season with Maya Moore playing out her last days in Storrs and the Stanford Cardinal as versatile as ever.
I will readily confess that I didn't really think about this story much this season until I took a few moments to peruse Green Bay's site for something generally unrelated to yesterday's game, so feel free to accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon as it's emptying.
But this was a special season that ended with a special performance.
It's not only that stories like this - or, to an even greater extent, Virginia Commonwealth's first-ever run to the men's Final Four that almost makes Butler's second-consecutive Final Four appearance look mundane - are instances of why they lace up the shoes and play games despite what odds makers, statistics, or common sense might dictate. In fact, as Dick Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald describes, with the sophistication of technology-infused scouting that exists, perhaps the fear generated from a combination of mythology and unfamiliarity simply doesn't exist thus making the rise of the CInderella on both sides something that we'll eventually become de-sensitized to.
Chatelain: Fearless underdogs have changed college hoops - Omaha.com
Teams like George Mason, Butler and VCU aren't scared of Kansas and Duke. And they're not scared of critical moments in a big game.
VCU and Butler played with more poise than Kansas and Florida the past two days.
Since last March, Butler has won eight NCAA tournament games by seven points or less. It's not supposed to work that way.
We can certainly debate Chatelain's claims yet as Green Bay is a team whose success is predicated so strongly on ball movement, it was undeniably their poise that had them within three of an opponent they simply weren't supposed to threaten. But there was something almost even more powerful in a comment from Kansas Jayhawks coach Bill Self after his top-seeded team lost to a VCU team that most of us figured didn't deserve a spot in the tournament, as quoted by Jerome Soloman of the Houston Chronicle.
Solomon: Rugged VCU Rams use doubt as extra fuel | Jerome Solomon on Sports | Chron.com - Houston Chronicle
"Seeds are so overrated," said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team won the national championship in 2008. "It’s about matchups. And their players could play for us any day. If we played shirts and skins today, you wouldn’t have (seen) much of a difference in players or how they looked."
Seeds - perhaps like our socially constructed notions of reputation or, even worse, a team's legacy - are indeed overrated. But in his point about playing shirts and skins - imagining unacquainted youth playing on random asphalt courts or a small group of adults reliving their youth in a weekend open gym - reminds us of the fundamentally unifying quality of sport.
Reflections: The unifying power of sport
Sport, on another dimension, allows small nations to punch far above their weight in the global arena. It allows a level playing field for large and small nations alike. A sport field is perhaps the only place where underdogs overwhelm large nations on a regular basis.
To even imagine that this group of Wisconsin kids would be given a shot against a presumptive in Baylor is actually the height of the meritocracy that we want to imagine this great project of U.S. democracy is all about. It's the answer to the question what does equal opportunity mean anyway? Quite simply, it's about the opportunity to compete and be judged purely on what happens without being impeded by preconceived notions of ability or worth.
Honestly, imagining an equivalent day occurring in "real life" is little more than a pipe dream or the elusive dream society that revolutionaries pursue out of a fundamental love for humanity without necessarily thinking they'll see it come to fruition in their lifetimes. And although I don't necessarily buy the idea that sports can in some way serve as a corrective for the ills that plague our society, these moments of triumph are in some ways a reminder that these ideals that are so easily dismissed as idealistic dreams best-suited for the insulated environment of college campuses might just be worth wondering about. Perhaps not putting our lives on hold to enact, but doing what we can to ensure that future generations can take one step closer to that.
Therein lies the transformative power of sport.
On the broadest scale, the transformative power of sport lies in its capacity to show us just how contrived the boundaries and expectations we impose upon each other really are, whether those be breaking barriers of class, gender or race. We can all think of those moments where a sports accomplishment helps to trigger a national conversation of great consequence or at least gives those on the side of justice one more piece of resonant evidence to aid their cause.
But sometimes, the beauty of setting up conditions like the NCAA Tournament is simply stopping for a moment to celebrate a cliched David and Goliath story that somehow manages to feel fresh every time we allow ourselves to truly revel it in freed from the impulse to roll our eyes. Perhaps even filing away such triumphs of the human will in the "Madness" folder that exists within our collective social conscience actually helps us to acknowledge the beauty of the moment without the burden of thinking about all that makes it otherwise impractical in real space. In that sense, it's not earth-shattering or life-changing for those of us who only witness it occurring, but still appreciated as it is unquestionably the culmination of dreams that probably existed somewhere beyond the limits of the imagination for those kids at Butler and VCU
This is not even the type of thing that a coach would toss out there to convince a recruit to play for them.
"It’s unbelievable, and I’m at a loss for words," VCU freshman guard Rob Brandenberg said in Soloman's article. "It’s beyond my wildest dreams. Coach didn’t tell me we were going to the Final Four when he was recruiting me."
These are narratives that you have to appreciate even if you consider the copy "fluff".
Of course, things move so fast in this Information Age that it's easy to simply move on past appreciating what that moment means in the eyes of a freshman and move on toward analysis. No fear - we'll likely get beat over the heads with this story of Butler and VCU all week from every single position we can imagine and perhaps even a few that we don't even care to think about.
And that's fine - they've earned their moment in the spotlight, even as one might anticipate it approaching nauseating levels.
However, in stark contrast, the more humble story of a team like Green Bay fighting Baylor in loss on the women's side is one that will probably be quickly forgotten and for good reason - the Phoenix are maybe "Sweet" but not "Elite" just yet. But that they seized the opportunity to compete on that "level playing field" that is talked about so often in society is worthy of praise and a testament to all that is great about human collaboration, determination, and resilience.
Watching a team like Green Bay end their historic season on a loss embodies both one of the most painful and powerful things about the right to that thing we call "equal opportunity". Teams like Green Bay give us an occasion to applaud the spirit of civil competition, but also celebrate the pockets of women's athletic talent developing in perhaps unlikely places and - if we allow ourselves a moment of overindulgence - the best of the human spirit.
Sometimes I just need some reminding of what's humanly at stake even in a sporting event that can seem so insignificant.