While most eyes are on the Lone Star State, some of us would rather turn our eyes toward Indianapolis, the site of the 2016 Women’s Final Four, which begins Sunday at the arena shared by the Indiana Fever and the Indiana Pacers: UConn vs. Oregon State followed by Syracuse vs. Washington.
Earlier this week the MSR participated in the March 30 head coaches’ media teleconferences.
Syracuse Coach Quentin Hillsman is the first Black male coach since 1984 to lead his school to a Final Four appearance. “He has done an amazing job up there of getting his players to believe in what he’s doing, and he’s rallied them around the fact that they can do something that no one gave them an opportunity to do. Even in their own league,” noted Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma on Hillsman. “He’s done an unbelievable job. I mean, as good a job as anybody in the country.”
When asked for comment on the historical significance, Hillsman told the MSR, “It’s significant. And you want to downplay it but you kind of can’t because it is what it is. I think that we have a lot of…we have a ton of great coaches that are males in general and African American at that. It’s just an honor to be there and I want to represent us the best way that I can.”
Carolyn Peck, the first and only Black female head coach to win a national title and now an ESPN analyst, said during her network’s NCAA coverage that sometimes the toughest game to win is the regional final. The MSR asked the Syracuse coach if he agreed with her: “It’s tough to say which game is most important because obviously you want to win the first one, but how heartbreaking is it to get to the second one and lose that one?
“So I think it’s just about getting to that tournament and just really staying focused and trying to keep some kind of routine to what you’re doing and how you’re preparing for these games. So we’re looking forward to the challenge [on Sunday]. And hopefully I have that problem — winning the first one and having to worry about the second one.”
Some purport this year’s final quartet is nothing more than a UConn and three ‘Cinderellas’ — Syracuse, Oregon State and Washington — all first-time participants, while the Huskies go for their fourth consecutive national championship.
“I start every media day here at Syracuse by saying I want to go 48-0 and I want to win a national championship,” said Hillsman. “We’re doing a very good job of getting our program with some very good players…that can help us win at an extremely high level.”
“We’re extremely ecstatic and happy to be participating and competing in our first Final Four,” he added. “Obviously UConn being a staple in this Final Four, and for us and for the other two teams making their first appearances is obviously a great honor.
“We’ve earned the right to be there,” Hillsman proudly pointed out. “We’ve won our games to get up to this point. So we’ve very excited for the opportunity to be the first Syracuse women’s basketball team to get to the Final Four. “It’s an honor for all four teams to be there. It’s great to be two games away from” winning a national championship, he notee. “I’m very happy and I’m very pleased that my players can experience it. It’s not something that no one can ever take that away.”
UConn’s Auriemma argued against those who don’t want to fully recognize his team’s accomplishments in particular, and women’s basketball in general. “It’s a constant battle, it’s a constant fight to prove we’re legitimate, to prove we’re deserving of some of the attention that we get. For those out there that don’t appreciate it, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to. But don’t demean those that do appreciate it,” noted the Huskies coach.
Finally, Auriemma advised, “Stop focusing on what Connecticut does and start paying attention to what a lot of these other schools are doing. You will see that there’s a lot of great staff going on out there. It’s easy to write about Connecticut. If you work a little bit harder, there are a lot of great stories out there.”
Read the MSR for more March Madness dispatches from Indy.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.