Five days after coming back from New Orleans and the NCAA men's regional, we are taking this blog on the road and across the Mississippi River...AGAIN. Greetings from Memphis, Tennessee and the NCAA women's regional.
Well, as far as Monday's go, this one ranks near the top of my list. When lunch at Huey's
, home of the "Best Burger in Memphis"
is NOT the highlight of your day, you are living right.
I've covered BCS games, Texas/OU at the Cotton Bowl, countless state championships, the first regular season game at Cowboys Stadium, and the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden. However, in my six years in TV, I've never worked a more meaningful sporting event than tonight's Memphis Regional Final. And had I not been courtside for the five overtime game between the Baylor and Texas A&M men in 2008, the most meaningful game I've ever covered would also be the best basketball game I've ever witnessed.
It took the Lady Bears' largest comeback of the year to keep Duke from ending BOTH of Baylor's basketball seasons. Prior to tonight's 51-48 victory at FedEx Forum, Baylor had erased an 8-point deficit and won (vs Colorado in Big 12 tournament and Saturday against Tennessee), but never come back from a double-digit deficit to pull out a game in the 2009-2010 season. But after erasing a 35-25 lead with 13:56 to play in the second half, the Baby Bears may have evolved into the Cardiac Kids.
The on-court celebration and post-game locker room was everything you would expect. Smiles were wider than my waist-line would be, if I spent one more week devouring Memphis BBQ. The three images that stick out most to me are the tearful embrace between Coach Mulkey and Coach Leon Barmore, the shock, awe, and complete loss for words that sound-bite machine and senior Morghan Medlock experienced, and then Moriah Chandler and Brittney Griner lifting Coach Mulkey up on their shoulders in order to grab the rim and cut down the final strand of the net - making good on a guarantee the freshmen made to their head coach. You can see all of those images in our video montage from the on-court celebration
As I conclude my 'Memphis Musings" and get ready to leave the banks of the Mississippi River for the Riverwalk of San Antonio, I remember where I was exactly one year ago tonight. Sports director Dan Ingham and I had just landed at New York City's JFK Airport to cover the Baylor men in the NIT Final Four. 365 days later, a 13-to-2 Lady Bears run that felt like it happened in a "New York Minute", gives me an opportunity to cover college basketball in April for the second straight year. Talk to you from the Alamo City in a few days.
24 hours after winning their fourth straight game against a number one seed in the NCAA tournament
, the Lady Bears still had a bounce in their step today. We talked to them prior to their hour and a half work-out at FedEx Forum, and while it was apparent they had moved on from the Tennessee win to Duke - they hadn't completely
forgotten about taking down Rocky Top. Melissa Jones said it best though: "If what you did yesterday still looks good today, then you haven't done much today."
What Baylor did today was say plenty of good things about the 2nd seeded Blue Devils. Coach Mulkey, Morghan Medlock, and Jones all pointed out the pressure defense Duke plays. They press, they trap, they are long, and they'll mix-up their defensive schemes to keep you off-balance. To me, the female version of Duke basketball sounds a lot like Coach K's men's team. Speaking of which...
Lawrence Gilligan (Inside Baylor Sports
) and I went to T.G.I. Friday's (across the street from gorgeous AutoZone Park
) for the Baylor/Duke game. The Bears played with (and at times, OUT-played) the Blue Devils for 35 minutes. They limited them to 36 percent shooting. Duke didn't make mistakes, though. They buried their free throws and got nearly every 50/50 ball, especially late - when it really
mattered. When the bracket came out two weeks ago, I told the great American Robert Shiekh that the Bears needed to play like they did against Texas (and later St. Mary's) in order to knock-off top-seeded Duke. I don't think they did that today. Now, Duke will likely win the National title.
If I was wearing the Masters cap my brother bought me last year, or my furry purple, green, and gold Mardi Gras hat, or even my viking helmet - I'd give a tip of the cap to Scott Drew, his staff, and his team. A school record 28 victories, a second place finish in the best conference (according to RPI) in America, and a trip to the Elite Eight. Not too shabby for a team that was picked to finish 10th in the Big 12 pre-season.
So now, either the Lady Bears are going to make it to the women's Final Four or Duke is going to have some serious bragging rights on the Baylor nation. If I'm Kim Mulkey, this is what I tell my team prior to Monday night's Regional Final against the Duke women:
"Girls, you watched that men's game last night. You saw those tears after the game. You were 550 miles away, but could still hear the air come out of the Green and Gold faithful. But tonight, exactly 24 hours later, against the same school that ended the men's season, YOU have the opportunity to bring Baylor Nation back to life. YOU have the opportunity to lift them back up. YOU have the opportunity to get Baylor to a Final Four. A Final Four played in YOUR home state. So, hot dangit let's go win a Regional Championship!"
I'm expecting a low-scoring, and at times, a sloppy game. If Brittney Griner plays like she did against Tennessee, the Lady Bears can win by twenty. Look for Kelli Griffin and Melissa Jones to have big nights, but not necessarily in the box score. Duke's constant pressure and trapping will require poise and solid decision making from the Lady Bears, so expect Baylor's two upperclassmen guards to handle the ball often.
But the true X-factor for the Lady Bears is ME. Yes, yours truly. I've covered three Baylor NCAA tournament games (two men's, one women's) and I'm a perfect 3-and-0. And since you can't spell "Winkler" without W-I-N, I will try to make it to FedEx Forum way before tip-off tomorrow and start working my magic. Plus, that means I can probably grab seconds at the media buffet...
In my six years in this business, I can probably count on one hand, the number of times I've seen elation like this
through a camera lens. To compare the Lady Bears' 77-62 Sweet 16 victory over top-seeded Tennessee to "any other win" is like comparing a full-plate of Charles Vergos' Rendezvous
ribs to the McRib
sandwich. No contest.
As I went out on a limb and predicted in my Friday post, Brittney Griner turned out to be the difference in the game. If the 6-foot-8 freshman wasn't The Face of women's college basketball before her 27 point, 10 block performance against the Lady Vols on national television - she is now.
To me, you have to read this stat (and probably two or three times) to truly feel the magnitude of Baylor's upset over Tennessee: With the 15-point victory, Baylor is just the 8th women's basketball team EVER to beat the Lady Vols by double-digits. E-V-E-R. Not just in the NCAA tournament. To put that in perspective, Baylor (an Elite Eight team, mind you) lost to THREE teams by 10-points or more this season alone.
As you can imagine (and can tell from the video of them running into it), the noise coming from the Lady Bears locker room after the game would have rivaled the decibel level of B.B. King's Blues Cafe. Kelli Griffin told us afterwards that it was "the loudest room she's ever been in." Hopefully, things calmed down a bit in time for Baylor President-Designate Judge Ken Starr to address the team. Here
is my exclusive interview with Judge Starr following the game. As you can see, he is very proud to be the President Designate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas - a.k.a. the Center of the College Hoops Universe. BU Basketball is 80 minutes away from a double dose of the Final Four. Stay tuned.
For dinner, Lawrence Gilligan (Inside Baylor Sports
) and I took a recommendation from Derek Smith and went to Cozy Corner
for dinner. However, had we visited the website I just linked you to prior to going, we would have realized that The Corner is only open from 10:30am to 5:00pm. Oops.
But as far as consolation prizes go, we fared pretty well. After a mere 15-minute wait at Charles Vergos' Rendezvous
, L.G. and I devoured a sausage and cheese appetizer and some world-famous ribs. It wasn't my first time at Rendezvous
, but it DID turn into a memorable experience. Charles Vergos, the founder of Rendezvous
, passed away on Saturday morning
- just hours before we ate there. It's a pretty big story in Memphis. In fact, it led the 10pm news here last night. It sounds like Vergos did as much for downtown Memphis as his dry ribs to for an appetite. Rest in peace, Mr. Vergos.
As you may have seen in my 10pm report from Memphis
, the Lady Bears were super loose during their open practice today. Interviewing them prior to the work-out, it's apparent the 74-65 loss to Tennessee on November 15th still resonates. Granted, the "revenge factor" might not mean much in March, but sometimes you need a little somethin' to push you over the edge. The Baylor men had the New Orleans Saints' coaches talk to them prior to their 2nd round game in New Orleans. Look at THEM now. More on that in a bit.
As for the Lady Bears/Lady Vols game, the difference is no secret: Melissa Jones and Brittney Griner will control the outcome. If MJ and BG combine for 30 points, Baylor will win. Morghan Medlock is a senior who isn't ready to play her last game, so she'll score 10-to-15 points and pull down eight boards on Saturday. Tennessee is smart, they've been here before. Don't be surprised if the Lady Vols get Griner into foul trouble. But Brittney has 32 (34 minus the two game suspension) games under her belt, so she's not a freshman anymore. If she plays like a veteran, Baylor will win. But remember: Tennessee is the ONLY team Kim Mulkey has coached against more than once without defeating at least once.
Sooooo...how about those Baylor men?!? From all accounts, that first half was one for the ages. Unfortunately, Tweety's three free throws with 3.7 seconds left was the ONLY action I saw in the first half. True story.
Remember, I'm in Memphis. The University of TENNESSEE tipped-off at 6:10pm. Baylor tipped at 6:27pm. Who do YOU think the CBS affiliate in Memphis was going to show? Exactly.
So, after our plan to watch the game at the hotel (along with Coach Mulkey and the Lady Bears) via March Madness on Demand crashed and burned thanks to an Internet connection as dependable as Omar Samhan in a big game - we had to call an audible. And after we learned most restaurants in the greater downtown Memphis area don't have DIRECTV, we started doing some research. And the big winner was the Buffalo Wild Wings on Poplar. Not only did they have the Baylor/St. Mary's game on TV, they also offered a 45-minute wait AND crummy service. Wooooo! But hey, we're not complaining. We were able to watch the Bears bring the wood against the Gaels for the entire second half. As the great Jim Nantz noted, had Baylor not scored A SINGLE POINT in the final 20 minutes, it would have still led up until the 2:25 mark. Zing.
The Bears are 40 minutes from the Final Four. If the Lady Bears pull the upset on Saturday, the Baylor nation is 80 minutes away from a DOUBLE Final Four. This. Could. Get. Interesting.
THURSDAY: Day one of this roadie was spent almost entirely on the federally funded highways of this great nation. So without further ado, GOD BLESS AMERICA and here we go...
12:24pm - Pulled out of KWTX parking lot with a Red Bull riding shotgun.
12:55pm - Rolled through Abbott, Texas - home of Willie Nelson. Who new the red-headed stranger was writing about March Madness travels when he penned "On the Road Again"?
1:58pm - First pit stop of the day at the Shell station in beautiful Balch Springs.
2:45pm - Hit the 100 mile mark of this journey in Greenville, TX - the home of KWTX 10pm producer Megan Snipes. The only other time I've been to Greenville, Megan took me on a "very unique" tour de town. It may or may not have included pictures in front of Da Hood Sto.
2:58pm - Drove through Cumby, TX. Made me think about one of my favorite couples on the face of God's green earth: Jon & Hillary Cumberworth aka "The Cumbys".
3:25pm - Hit the 200 mile mark of the trip somewhere in Franklin County. I was roaming.
3:43pm - Stop for lunch at the Subway/Valero in Mt. Pleasant.
4:12pm - "Gimme that Wink" by Neal McCoy comes on the radio. If we were allowed "intro songs" to our sportcasts - we've found a winner.
4:37pm - Halfway to Memphis, at least according to my math. Granted, I have a Communication Studies degree from a Liberal Arts University - so my math ain't that well. However, since I went to a Liberal Arts school, chances are I can talk my way out of convincing you that I'm wrong. Bang.
5:14pm - Passed a stray black cow eating grass on the side of I-30.
5:41pm - Rolled through Arkadelphia, Arkansas without getting a cheese steak sandwich. Arkadelphia is where my family and I spent the last night of our 13-day, 4,300 mile baseball road trip in the summer of 2001.
7:03pm - 100 miles from Memphis.
7:32pm - Drove through Jonesboro, AR - home of Lady Bear legend Rachel Allison
. She never beat Tennessee. But neither has any other Baylor women's basketball player. More on this later.
7:42pm - Hit the 500 mile mark of this journey.
8:48pm - I made it to Memphis. Sorry for the delay in updates, but I was listening to the end of the Syracuse/Butler game. (A sweet 16 upset that I predicted prior to the tourney. For what it's worth: my Final Four is
Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia, & Duke.)
After I checked-in to the hotel, Lawrence Gilligan (Inside Baylor Sports) and I grabbed some dinner at Primetime Sports Restaurant & Bar and caught the back-half of the Sweet 16 double-header - where we were surrounded by Kentucky fans. As if their camo UK hats and "Big Blue Nation" t-shirts weren't enough to blow their cover - they booed when CBS switched from an 11-point Kentucky lead with 1:03 to go, over to the start of the 2nd overtime between K-State and Xavier. True story.
I was a bit perplexed as to why people in Memphis
would be cheering for the 'Cats and John Calipari
. But as it turns out, it was a group of convention-goers (hey yo!) in town from Lexington.
After a walk down a very tame Beale Street (it IS a Thursday), we called it a night.
The Lady Bears take the floor for practice at Noon Friday at FedEx Forum. I'll have reports from Memphis at 5 & 10pm. In case you're wondering, and I know you are - I installed Baylor as a 6-point underdog against the Lady Vols on Saturday. What do YOU think?