Shortly after Tuesday night's National Championship game while texting a friend about about where Texas A&M's victory over Notre Dame stood among the best games I'd ever seen, I immediately thought back to last year's second round game in the Seattle sub-regional.
Former Gonzaga forward Vivian Frieson hit a game-winning shot to end the Aggies' tournament prematurely last year. It was an extremely well-played game, with drama, an underdog fueled by a friendly crowd, and a glimpse into what some point guard named Courtney Vandersloot might be able to do in the future.
But what still stands out about that game was how emotionally overwhelmed TAMU's Danielle Adams was after that heartbreaking loss, barely able to speak while holding back tears. With that having been my first year covering women's college basketball - much less a tournament game - it stood out as the most poignant moment I had seen from an athlete in any sport.
It was certainly not the only time I've witnessed tears or expressions of emotion: all three of the Montana Lady Grizzlies players that came to their press conference after a first round loss to UCLA this season were red-eyed and two failed to hold back tears while discussing the loss with media. But what separated Adams' display of emotion from that of a team like Montana is that underlying her tears was a competitive fire that goes far beyond simply thinking we played as hard as we could and fell short - Adams looked like a player that almost refused to accept their status as "just" a second round team.
"In the past two years we had underachieved tremendously and I think this team was sick of it," TAMU guard Sydney Colson. "We got together this summer, decided to have volunatary workouts, getting together, conditioning, working on our one-on-one games, and I think it prepared us for what we were going to go through this season with the ups and downs we've had, everybody being resilient, working hard, and believing in one another."
In stark contrast to the emotions of a year ago, Adams sat in the locker room after getting past the Stanford Cardinal almost exuding a sense of relief (and perhaps exhaustion) as much as elation - they expected this level of success from themselves in ways that is normally only reserved for women's basketball teams like Connecticut, Stanford, or Tennessee as well as Baylor for this season. But the presumed powers - teams that few even disputed as the four number one seeds as of February - all fell short against TAMU and Notre Dame this year.
"It's a total complete turnaround," Adams said after White's game-winner against Stanford. "We was in the same situation as we was in this game when it came down to a last second. This time we just came up victorious."
As impressive as it was for women's basketball that these two teams knocked off the top contenders en route to the National Championship game, perhaps even moreso is that they had the audacity to believe that someone outside of the favorites could expect to win a title. And that started with the play of most outstanding player Danielle Adams.
Adams' will to win a title is probably not as unique as the fact that she actually managed to back it up with the ability to take over both games in Indianapolis when necessary, including her 22-point second half performance against Notre Dame in the championship game.
"Just dominating inside," Adams said. "And that's what I did, just dominated. And just got as far [down in] the post as I could and got to the rim."
However, as we now look forward to the WNBA Draft, neither her ability to overpower college opponents nor the ability to translate a will to win into on-court dominance is what makes her a strong prospect.
Adams: The importance of offensive rebounding for post prospects outweighs scoring
Perhaps Adams' biggest impact on the Final Four was her rebounding - in both second halves (and against Baylor as well, to some extent) her ability to keep opponents off the offensive boards has been essential. However, her defensive rebounding percentages in those two games of 15.92% against ND and 19.23% against Stanford weren't necessarily mind-blowing. And that's one reason why the Charles Barkley comparisons don't quite work.
Unfortunately, we don't have access to complete statistics for Barkley (and making a 1984 to 2011 comparison across men's and women's basketball is complicated at best). But we do know he earned the nickname "Round Mound of Rebound" at Auburn University for being a dominant rebounder, had the ball handling ability to lead fast breaks off of defensive rebounds, had an almost even assist to turnover ratio and still holds Auburn's record for career field goal percentage at 62.6%.
In contrast, Adams' rebounding numbers for the season (prior to the Final Four) of 12.86% offensively and 18.25% defensively are solid, but not quite dominant. To put things in perspective, Adams got 11.32 rebounds per 40 minutes this year, which would not have been in the Top 5 among rebounders in last year's draft (which was considered weak) and her defensive rebounding percentage is just about average. Her 2-point percentage of 52.88% is also solid, but not exactly outstanding.
But two things really stand out about Adams as a prospect: her field goal percentage (48.06%) is unquestionably lower than most post prospects because she takes so many mid-range and three point shots. But that she has such soft touch on those mid-range shots and has the ability to step out and hit threes (30.59%) makes her a unique prospect in a league in which versatile players thrive.
Second, Adams is a strong offensive rebounder, if not off the charts - that 12.86% offensive rebounding percentage compares favorably to other players who have come into the league to play the post. That's probably more important than her relatively pedestrian defensive rebounding numbers because post players are generally in an advantageous position to get defensive rebounding; offensive rebounding translates better as a skill from college to pro.
Third, Adams' defense will definitely be of interest to WNBA GMs - on the interior, she has been outstanding at moments throughout the tournament, but was beat a few times when trying to defend players in space. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine TAMU getting past either Baylor or Stanford without her defense on Brittney Griner and Nneka Ogwumike in the post (despite the fact that Ogwumike did put up big scoring numbers by beating Adams when the two got caught in space and off put backs).
Our prospect profile has already covered Adams' other strengths and weaknesses well, but of course, the big question for Adams will always be conditioning and how much of a 6'1" post player's game translates to the pro game in which she can't simply overpower opponents to make plays in the post. Although Barkley might be poor comparison, others have compared her to a bigger Tamika Whitmore or Latasha Byears, which has the pleasant effect of better capturing her actual skill set and making a more direct comparison to the WNBA. Nevertheless, whoever you compare her to you can't take away her footwork inside, her nearly suction cup hands, or that competitive fire that she brings to the floor.
Sydney Colson: The trouble with evaluating intangibles
However, while Adams and Tyra White got All-Tournament honors, Colson's play was vital to the team's success as well.
"A lot of people look at Colson as an assist player, but she did great on defense today, she did a great job," Adams said after the Stanford win. "Even though she wasn't really there (statistically) today she played great defense."
Colson did not get All-Tournament honors, but the fact that she was invited to the WNBA Draft speaks volumes about how much her draft stock has improved with her performances throughout the tournament.
"I think she would be an excellent back-up point guard in the WNBA until maybe she gets her stride and everything," said TAMU coach Gary Blair. "Her best basketball is in front of her, because she's just still learning the game, particularly on the defensive side."
Part of that learning process has been decreasing fouls, but if she improves any more on the defensive end she could become an elite defender at the next level - you're not going to find many point guards with better instincts in this draft.
On one play in the second half, Colson poked the ball out of Notre Dame guard Brittany Mallory's hand, ran past Mallory aiming for the ball which was bouncing behind her, wasn't able to gain control, and then recovered completely to her defensive stance. In college, the threat alone of plays like that had the capacity to literally terrorize opposing guards. At the pro level, a high steal rate bodes well, but she'll also have to learn how to pick and choose her spots.
"She will learn once she gets up there and plays with those 28- and 32-year-olds, stealing the basketball is not defense," Blair said. "Stopping your man from scoring is defense and playing team defense. And that will happen. She'll get her steals, but at the same time, she's just got to realize those are grown women she's playing with."
Yet whereas she's a bit of a gambler on defense, offensively she's the type of floor leader who minimizes risk by making being decisive and making the simple play as it unfolds. That's what explains the fact that she's the second-most efficient point guard in this draft behind Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot - she puts herself in the right spot at the right time more often than not and puts her teammates in position to succeed. It's something that's expected of any point guard, but she does it with a level of efficiency that's beyond that of others who have drawn praise all season.
The question with Colson is whether her low shooting efficiency will hamper her impact as a pro point guard, but she also demands the type of attention that goes beyond boxscore statistics simply because she clearly has an impact on the floor - although her influence on TAMU's lead in the championship game has been exaggerated a bit, there's little doubt that when she was on the floor it gave her team a boost and whereas the Aggies sputtered a bit without her. That's something that simply cannot be ignored: she helps her teams win games in ways that aren't immediately evident, yet clear to those who play with and against her.
And if that is too nebulous for some to accept, the efficiency numbers she has put up this year place her squarely in the range of a viable prospect.
"Sydney is going to go to the WNBA," Blair said. "And before the season she was not even on the radar."
However, to succeed it's probably the less-heralded things about Adams and Colson that will allow them to succeed rather than the lofty comparisons or the most spectacular plays they made against NCAA competition.