|Westmont’s Tugce Canitez vs. Sue Bird|
(originally published on March 17, 2013)
March Madness is upon us and eyes are glued to the TV watching conference tournaments to see who’s bubble bursts and who’s dreams come true. However, there is some madness going on in Frankfort, KY that is under-the-radar. The NAIA women’s basketball national tournament is down to its’ final four teams. The “Fab Four” games will take place on Monday. Westmont (CA) University will join three teams from Tennessee: Lee University, Freed Hardeman University and Cumberland University in the Fab Four. This tournament may be lacking UCONN or Brittney Griner but it certainly is not lacking excitement, talent or story lines.
In full disclosure, the title of this article “Best Basketball Not on TV” is a bit misleading since all of these games are online with actual announcers. Plus the championship game will be broadcast by CBS Sports Network. The name is just catchy and consistent with my article last year about the best basketball coaches not on TV.
With the tournament field consisting of only 32 teams, nearly every team in the tournament was a “ranked” team. That leads to very close and exciting games. This might not be the Division I tournament that ESPN broadcasts, but it oftentimes felt like you were watching something similar as there were 49 NCAA Division I transfers in the tournament. This doesn’t even take into account, Tugce Canitez, who played in the recent London Summer Olympic games as she represented her native country of Turkey. There were even two players, Mary Jackson and Janae Howard, that played in the 2009 NCAA Championship game for Louisville. University of Kentucky coach Matt Mitchell was in attendance one day, as was long-time WNBA standout and former NAIA player, Taj McWilliams-Franklin. McWilliams-Franklin’s daughter is Schera Sampson, who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds this year for Robin-Hagen Smith’s Shawnee State squad. Even FullCourt.com was on hand to provide regular updates via tweets and their website.
The NAIA held its’ first women’s tournament in 1981 (won by Kentucky State University), which happened to be one year prior to the NCAA starting their tournament. It has produced great teams and players throughout its’ history. Tennessee is oftentimes synonymous with women’s basketball, largely due to the on-court success and class demonstrated by the Lady Vols and PatSummit. In recent years, Tennessee has represented itself well at the NAIA National Tournament. Teams from the state of Tennessee have appeared in the NAIA Fab Four 16 times in the last seven years. In fact, five of the past ten champions, have been a team from the Volunteer state.
The basketball talent alone should generate excitement and interest for the semi-finals of the NAIA National Tournament, but if that isn’t enough maybe some of the team’s storylines will catch your eye.
- Cumberland University’s record was only 15-14 last year. Their coach, Jeremy Lewis, is as deserving as any for Coach of the Year honors. He has 5 players coming off the bench that were starters (or part-time starters) previously. They are 33-2 and playing in the Fab Four. Think about that for a moment…5 players used to playing a lot and getting their names called during introductions are now coming off the bench getting significantly less minutes than they are used to. He needs to write a book about chemistry and minimizing drama because this kind of thing would sink most teams.
- In addition to having an Olympian (and reigning national player of the year) on their team, Westmont University and Coach Kirsten Moore has overcome adversity in the past year. Moore’s 31-year old husband passed away in May as a result of complications from surgery for Chrone’s Disease. Six weeks later, she gave birth to a daughter. She has provided an amazing testimony to character and faith during this year. She is highly respected and has an amazing spirit. It is impossible to completely root against her or her team.
- Maria Bagwell from Freed Hardeman University was the receipient of the 2011 NAIA Hustle Award. She is a 5’7” post player…that’s right 5’7”, not 6’7” like Brittney Griner. All she has done in her career is out perform bigger players with smaller hearts. She has scored more than 1,000 points and grabbed 1,000 rebounds in her career. She has also made over 50% of her shots…remember that she is a 5’7” post player. She will look to help the #1 ranked Lady Lions to a 36-1 record and their first-ever National Championship. Their only loss this year was a fluke loss, where they were up 9 with 40-seconds to go
- This is the third time that Marty Rowe, Lee University’s head coach, has taken a team to the Fab Four. He also led the Lady Flames to the 2010 Fab Four and he led Brescia College to the 2004 Fab Four. This year’s team is nearly the same team as last year’s. That is important because that team went into last year’s tournament as the #3 ranked team in the nation but lost to unranked Biola University and a coach, Bethany Miller, who was in her first year as a head coach. That loss has no doubt served as motivation all year long and throughout this tournament.
It is anyone’s guess as to who will win this year’s NAIA National Tournament. Only Cumberland has played in a title game (2007), but this is Freed Hardeman’s 4th Fab Four appearance. Westmont has the best player in the nation and Lee has a coach that is making his 3rd Fab Four appearance. The teams are also all ranked in the NAIA’s Top-7. The games will be exciting and memorable. The fans will get a treat, not just because the basketball is good and the storylines compelling but because you can be assured that these college athletes will play their hearts out because this is what they’ve bled, sweated and sacrificed for…an opportunity to cut down the nets and say that they are a national champions