By Katie Yingling, photos by Big 12 photographer Scott Weaver
During the 2011 Phillips 66 Women’s Big 12 Basketball Championship players were often in the stands watching teams that they possibly could compete against in upcoming games. They wore sweats and their school’s respective T-shirts. They sat together as a team, they joked and laughed. Many had headphones on, and they signed autographs for fans in the stands. These women are student-athletes, they are 18 to 22 years old, and they have hundreds of people expecting a win from their teams. They become synonymous with the school colors they wear, and often their individual personalities are lost in the shuffle. Joni Lehmann, associate director of communications at the Big 12 Conference, said that these young women are unique because of the multiple demands on their time. “From their practice schedule and weight lifting sessions and film and meetings, they also are students and are expected to go to school and to study hall and complete their degree program. That is one thing that I really enjoy working in women’s basketball on the collegiate level, they really are true student-athletes,” Lehmann said.
The Phillips 66 Women’s Big 12 Basketball Championship met for the last time as a 12-team conference last March. This exciting event consisted of 11 games over a four day period; more than 200 student-athletes participated in the 440 minutes of play in which 1,438 total points were scored. As interesting as all of those numbers are, they do not convey the energy and excitement that characterized the week.
“There is a ton of energy this week, between the men’s and women’s tournaments, and Kansas City is a big college basketball town, this is really the heartland of the Big 12,” Laura Rasmussen, a communications intern in the Big 12 offices, said Kansas City was the perfect place for this event. “It is really cool to see all the excitement, especially with the caliber of teams that we have. Baylor, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma are all ranked really high and are competitive.”
With the high level of competition comes an impressive respect for the skill throughout the Big 12 Conference. In every press conference, positive words were said about opposing players and coaches. After the Texas Tech Lady Raiders lost to Oklahoma in a close second-round game, Oklahoma’s coach, Sherri Coale, praised Kristy Curry, Texas Tech’s coach, and said that her team was fortunate to win against Texas Tech. “I think the job Kristy Curry has done with her squad has been extraordinary,” Coale said. “ They’re a very, very good basketball team. And she’s got them playing exactly the right way at exactly the right time. So we feel very fortunate.” The praise for Texas Tech did not stop with Oklahoma, as Oklahoma State’s coach, the late Kurt Budke, praised Texas Tech after the Lady Raiders win against Oklahoma State 75-52 in the first round. “I thought they played like an NCAA tournament team tonight,” Budke said. “I thought they played like a team that beat the No. 1 team in the nation tonight.”
Budke was referring to Texas Tech’s upset over No. 1 Baylor on Feb. 19, 2011, when the Lady Raiders defeated the one-loss team 56-45 in an exciting game that never felt close. That win evened a loss to Baylor in March of 2010, when Baylor’s Brittney Griner was ejected from the game after punching Jordan Barncastle. That punch, which broke Barncastle’s nose, was still drawing national media attention more than a year later. At the Big 12 tournament, New York Times writer Karen Crouse was working on a story about the lasting effects the punch had on both Griner and Barncastle. The article, “Aftermath of the Punch that went Viral,” was published on March 17, 2011. The article examined Barncastle’s decline in playing time since the punch, which coach Curry attributes to their more talented and deeper team. Crouse also discussed Texas Tech’s uniform response to any questions saying, “The coaches, players and administrators have adopted a uniform response: the incident is in the past, and the team has moved on.”
Crouse pointed out that the only time the Lady Raiders have hinted at Barncastle’s struggle since the punch was when Curry awarded Barncastle the game ball after playing three scoreless minutes in Texas Tech’s victory over Baylor. After that victory, Curry said, “The bottom line is Jordan’s an incredible young lady, and she deserved that.”
Students reacted understandably strongly to Griner’s punch that was played and replayed on ESPN and YouTube. An intern with Texas Tech Athletics Communications, who volunteered at the Big 12 Women’s Basketball tournament, Allison Cottrell, said that before the week she had a negative idea of Brittney Griner because of the punching incident. “She was pretty entertaining and funny in the press conferences from what I saw,” said the Texas Tech graduate. “You kind of think, ‘Oh well I didn’t want to like her, but she is a cool person.’” Cottrell said seeing all of the players behind the scenes allowed her to see their personalities. “It was easier to be a fan of some of them, because you would see, oh that is a really cool girl, I like her,” Cottrell said. “It really opened your eyes to players that maybe you didn’t think you liked.”
The Lady Raiders did not advance far enough in the tournament to play Baylor for a third time last year, but the quarterfinals game between the Texas Tech Lady Raiders and the Oklahoma Lady Sooners was a close one. The lead changed four times, and the score was tied six times. The chance to advance and survive came down to the final 46 seconds of the game.
Carlee Roethlisberger steps up to the free throw line and sinks an easy shot with one minute left making the score 71-66. Texas Tech’s Casey Morris takes the ball down the court, looking cool and calm under pressure. After a couple passes and an assist by Chynna Brown, she plants her feet and hits a tough three pointer. Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry immediately calls a timeout. The game resumes, Oklahoma’s Danielle Robinson takes the ball down and misses a jumper that would put the game away with 18 seconds left. Texas Tech gets the rebound, as Monique Smalls drives down the court, knowing that a three-pointer could tie the game, Aaryn Ellenberg makes the steal and goes in for an uncontested easy jumper. She misses, and Smalls gets the rebound with nine seconds left. Ultimately Brown would miss a jumper with one second left. The teams and the crowd are surprised at the huge swings, as Oklahoma’s coach Sherri Coale would state in the post-game press conference, “Nobody really wanted to win. Probably a sign of two teams wanting to win so badly they got in their own way.”
Oklahoma won 71-69, with the help of a standout performance from Danielle Robinson. Robinson had 19 points and two steals for the night. Oklahoma later lost to Texas A&M University in the semifinals 81-68. Despite the loss, Robinson celebrated an important milestone that night: she became the third player in college women’s basketball history to record 2,000 points, 700 assists, and 300 steals in a career. She recorded 19 points, seven assists, and one steal in the game against Texas A&M, to join the ranks of Nancy Lieberman and Dawn Staley as the only players to accomplish this feat. Robinson, a senior from San Jose, Calif., now has 2,085 points, 704 assists, and 300 steals in her career. After the loss to Texas A&M in the semifinal game, Coale closed the press conference speaking about this impressive accomplishment.
“It’s unbelievable. Nancy Lieberman and Dawn Staley and Danielle Robinson, whatever she does for the rest of her life, she’s a part of the club,” Coale said. “None of the rest of us can even get an invite to a pre-party to that club. To me, I look at it, I got to coach this kid. I got to coach this kid who is mentioned alongside Nancy Lieberman and Dawn Staley. Are you kidding me? Special. Special stuff. And yet if you talk to her right now, she just wished she had won that game. And that’s what makes her unique.”
With all the excitement of the games and new records being reached, imagining that this was the last time that all 12 schools in the Big 12 would play together in a tournament, in any sport was hard to fathom, because after this year Nebraska and Colorado will move to the PAC 10. The Big 12 has been one of the most competitive basketball conferences in the country, with a great deal of representation late in the NCAA tournament. Nebraska and Colorado both lost in the first-round and expressed some sadness in leaving a conference. Nebraska’s coach, Connie Yori, said, “I feel like the Big 12 has been a great league for us, and there’s so many people in this league that I respect. Bill Fennelly (Iowa State) is one of them. I think it’s interesting that we ended up playing our last game in the Big 12 against someone who I have great respect for.”
The last game of the last Big 12 Women’s Basketball Championships was thrilling. The game in Kansas City was the third matchup of the season between Baylor and Texas A&M. Texas A&M went up 12 points to start the game, but Baylor caught up and the game stayed close until the final buzzer. The score was 61-58 after a Baylor turnover and a perfect three-pointer from Danielle Adams. Baylor gets the ball back, but Odyssey Sims missed a jumper from the field.
Texas A&M takes the ball down the court, Danielle Adams knows there is only one second left on the clock, she shoots the three, but the shot is no good. The clock expires and Baylor explodes into celebration, the crowd is cheering and the players are hugging. Brittney Griner was speechless, with a huge smile on her face, in a post-game interview when asked how she was able to score 31 points against a Texas A&M team known for its defense.
In the press conference before the final game, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair talked about the rivalry between Baylor and Texas A&M. “We want to play Baylor four times. We know if we play Baylor four times, we’re in the Final Four because that’s how good Baylor is,” Blair said. “We’re looking forward to it. Everybody just said the Longhorns and the Aggies are supposed to be the greatest rivalry in the world. How about Baylor and A&M in basketball? Forget all those other sports. Let’s just talk about basketball. And it’s a tremendous rivalry.”
Baylor and Texas A&M did meet again in the post-season in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament, but this game had a different ending than the previous three. Texas A&M defeated Baylor 58-46, advancing Texas A&M to the final four. The semi-final game against Stanford also came down to the last second, and Texas A&M won once again 63-62, advancing to the National Championship for the first time in school history.
Texas A&M played a defensive masterpiece of a game against Notre Dame in the championship game. The game was essentially a home game for Notre Dame in Indianapolis, Ind., but the Aggie fans made themselves heard throughout the night. After an exhausting game between two very physical teams, Texas A&M claimed their first ever National Championship. Assistant coach Vic Schaefer, who is in charge of Texas A&M’s defense, was on his hands and knees, stunned with shock and excitement as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Danielle Adams led her team to victory and finished with 30 points, earning the Most Outstanding Player Award. After the win, Adams said, “I knew I had to take over, and that’s what I did. I wasn’t going to let my team lose this game.”
The team stood together on the highest stage in collegiate women’s basketball, streamers were still were falling from the ceiling. Coach Blair held up the trophy for everyone to see, and Sydney Colson danced beside him, her “National Champions” hat on sideways. A more exciting end to a historic season is hard to imagine. The players who won the National Championship walked the halls of the municipal auditorium during the Women’s Big 12 Championships, and seeing those student-athletes on a more personal level made the championships much more exciting.
Amongst all this excitement, no one was thinking about the Aggies leaving the Big 12, but during the 2012 Phillips 66 Women’s Basketball Big 12 Championships the league will mourn the loss of yet another team. The student-athletes will take their talents to the Southeastern Conference and compete against the likes of the University of Kentucky, Louisiana State University, and University of Tennessee, historically great women’s basketball teams. Gary Blair, a Texas Tech alumnus, has experience with the SEC after coaching the University of Arkansas Razorbacks for 10 years.
Blair talked about moving to the SEC at Big 12 Media Days in October of 2011, “That's out of our hands as basketball coaches. All that decision and changing of conferences -- last year, everybody loved us. This year, now everybody says we're the villain. But I'm not going to get into that because it's all about football. It has nothing to do with women's basketball, equestrian or anything else. It's about football. It's about television sets. It's about money and it's about egos.”
Despite Texas A&M’s move to the SEC, Blair still wants to play Big 12 schools as a part of the non-conference schedule, because “the Big 12 in the last six years has been by far the best women's basketball conference top to bottom.”
Katie is a senior public relations major from Harker Heights, Texas.