INDIANAPOLIS – Women's basketball never has seen a night like this.
This is just the 24th NCAA Final Four for the women, so it's easy enough to research the earlier ones that I don't remember. No previous pair of national semis compares favorably to the drama here on Sunday.
As the title game draws nearer, the focus can shift to Baylor – Baylor! – playing Michigan State, a matchup of first-time Final Four teams. But Sunday should be about the way both teams got there.
Previous Final Fours have had great comebacks. Perhaps the only thing keeping Connecticut from five straight national titles was Notre Dame's rally from 16 points down against the Huskies in 2001. The record books will say that Michigan State's comeback against Tennessee on Sunday night merely tied that one, and Baylor's rally past LSU was a point less impressive.
But Sunday's two comebacks happened on the same night. They knocked out the two teams that many had penciled for the championship game. And while the Irish's turnaround was remarkable for its completeness – Notre Dame went on to beat UConn by 15 – the Spartans' rally came later in the game and will be remembered for its sheer unexpectedness.
Tennessee's Shana Zolman said the Lady Vols "knew they were going to make a run." MSU coach Joanne P. McCallie said she was "not the least bit surprised given what our team has done all year long."
Nobody outside the court saw it coming.
The RCA Dome felt like an oversized library (as opposed to an oversized basketball venue) as Tennessee rolled to a 47-31 lead in the second half.
LSU's fans were left stunned by the Lady Tigers' loss in the opener. Michigan State's contingent seemed to be reflecting on the leap their program had taken just to get here. Veteran Tennessee fans sat smugly, seemingly assured that the Lady Vols were headed to a 12th title game.
But Michigan State didn't panic. The Spartans didn't make a ton of adjustments. They didn't worry that they were a step slower or didn't jump as high.
They looked the Tennessee mystique in the face – and punched it.
Michigan State began running its offense – and efficiently. The Spartans fed Kelli Roehrig for easy layups and didn't panic when she missed a couple.
Tennessee controlled the boards, but 5-foot-9 Spartans guard Victoria Lucas-Perry swooped in for the biggest rebound of the game with 1:22 left. When she converted the ensuing one-and-one, it created the first tie of the game, 60-60.
That set up Kristin Haynie's brilliant steal and breakaway layup – the signature play of the night and maybe the entire tournament.
"That was one of the greatest steals I've ever seen," McCallie said.
Lucas-Perry's breakaway basket put an exclamation point on the comeback.
The Spartans' heroics overshadowed Baylor's turnaround in the opener. The Lady Bears trailed 24-9 against LSU and had the deer-in-headlights look of a first-time Final Four team.
"I'm looking at my coaches going, 'We're getting embarrassed on national television,' " Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said. " I challenged my players and once again [they proved] what warriors they are."
By halftime, the Lady Bears had forced a tie.
But when LSU pushed the lead back up to six midway through the second half, the Lady Tigers seemed to be in good shape. They had been here last year; they would have the experience to handle anything the Lady Bears had left.
Then Baylor ended the game with a 27-10 run.
A new champion will be crowned Tuesday night. But a new standard was set Sunday.
- Michigan State