Notre Dame takes home the National Championship in the greatest women's Final Four ever
Sportswriters, editors, fans, haters, lend me your psyche:
Historically, basketball, the artform, is dismissed as “just a game” & treated as a means of entertainment.
Haphazardly cast aside as if we, the athletes, are simply fodder for the paying fan’s whetted appetite.
The reality is, our childhood drives our future.
Each & every one of us has the capacity to create the future we want & while some of us were allowed the entirety of the spectrum, some were not.
To many, sports are a waste of time. Waste of energy.
Being that this beautiful round ball saved my life, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who owes more to the game.
For years, it seemed, the stigma would just never change.
As time progresses, people learn, processes improve & experience is gained. For decades, our stories as athletes were told through clips, heavy edited & manipulated at the will of the parties tasked with telling said story which typically ends on a tangent unlike anything related to the initial point.
Well, today’s a new day.
In 2018, we are exercising self-love and self-care.
No more clickbait articles written by people who’ve never missed a free throw that could’ve won a game.
Or spent hours in a gym to pseudo-cope with the tribulations & trials that life brings.
The only place that feels safe.
It’s the only place that feels right.
Ask any qualified party & they’ll quickly rebut:
Basketball is basketball.
The best women’s Final Four ever just confirmed this.
But Ma Dukes always told me if you can’t improve the silence, keep it to yourself. Improve meaning add value to.
Which, for clarity, doesn’t include a tacky sense of humor.
See, there’s an unwritten understanding betwixt us hoopers.
We know that sometimes it is not at all about the crossover move or the dunk that ends up in the highlight.
When you’ve put in countless hours, as with most things in life, one day you see a shift & things are different. Easier even. Sometimes you do a basic R-to-L crossover stunt & the defender stumbles. Great coaching is going to make sure you pick up on that & attack that temporary weak spot. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Great coaching is also going to prepare you for the days outside of basketball. Ultimately? Success is measured in wins & losses but what can’t be accounted for on the stat sheet is in the process. The day-to-day. & for 17 years, this Notre Dame program has operated at peak efficiency.
Pro after Pro. Phenomenal woman after phenomenal woman.
But life has taught me that nothing in this universe happens independently.
Hence the importance of investing everything you have to give to yourself each day.
Just as you would in practice with every rep. Nothing feels worse in the moment than not being prepared.
See, April 1, 2001, ironically 17 years to the date of yesterday’s natty championship game, marked the first time Muffet McGraw got an opportunity to climb the ladder & cut down the nets as the last team standing.
Her point guard, a feisty, never-say-die Midwestern kid with swag before it even existed, had come back for a fifth season --after losing a year to injury--& found a way to will her team to the final four in her hometown of St Louis.
That point guard, bearer of the 33, now sits one chair to her left as her associate head coach & top recruiter.
Together they form a ridiculous battery that also includes the associate head coach of that ’01 team, Illinois’ own Carol Owens.
That battery knows what it’s like to not be prepared because they missed their window six years ago.
Skylar Diggins, the hometown recruit that changed the trajectory forever for the Irish accomplished so much for herself, women’s hoops & Notre Dame, except winning a championship. Three trips to the Final Four. Two natty championship games. Three lessons. All leading up to now.
Diggins, whose Twitter game flourished while her on-court game flashed during a sophomore run to the title game that likely should’ve culminated in a championship. That 2011 team bridged two generations & should have signified Notre Dame’s rise to join UConn & Tennessee as the premier programs in women’s basketball.
Then, Danielle Adams happened. After that, Brittney Griner & Breanna Stewart took over the game & by her senior year, losing in an upset to a UConn team it had beaten three times her senior year, Sky Digg had to move on realizing she missed her window. Apparently, she left it cracked.
You’ve heard the narratives about Notre Dame’s injury. Did you know that Kathryn Westbeld, the current iteration of the number 33, is originally from Kettering, Ohio? A stone’s throw from Columbus, the location of the Final Four.
Everyone was so focused on Kelsey Mitchell’s chance to come home & it was the silent assassin.
The leader whose filled every role asked of her with no complaints.
The kid who has persevered through injury, hardship & constant shifting around her. Westbeld likely never truly got comfortable.
A sophomore season, the first that allows for confidence & opportunity after a summer in the program, saw the player ahead of her leave the program, potentially to return before finally transferring.
Here junior year was marked by splitting starting time with a freshman, who decided she wasn’t happy & transferred to an Oregon program which might have its own trophy case soon enough.
Leading up to a senior season filled with injuries & limited bench support which has required her to play hurt, without practicing & consistently extended minutes.
Wearing 33 & coming home for the final four should have been the sign. Niele knew it too & she had her team prepared.
Prepared to battle to the very last minute.
Which is exactly the reason Mississippi State should remain encouraged. Building a program takes time. Did this team & the players on it deserve a natty for what they’ve done for their university? Absolutely.
Did Victoria Vivians deserve at least one SEC Player of the Year award during her tenure? Absolutely.
Did the best team in the SEC this year win the tournament title? Absolutely not.
Sometimes, things don’t go the way they should. Or, maybe better: the way we think they should.
That’s where your true character is revealed. Being able to realize that everything you accomplished is greater than you areis hard when you are the individual who did the work.
But everything happens for a reason.
Being a Chicago kid who never really fit in or felt right in Mississippi, it finally makes sense.
Having watched Alexis Rack, Mary Kathryn Govero, Latoya Thomas, Chanel Mokango & everyone else in between do everything they could to get to a Sweet 16.
Kendra Grant & Martha Alwal’s careers spanned Sharon Fanning-Oatis’ last days & Schafer’s first.
The seeds were being planted & you could tell when a team who hadn’t been there before lost to Duke in the second round on its home floor seemed upset that their season was over. Knowing they’d let one slip away that they more than earned. & they were right. Duke just got back to same point again this season.
While it would have been amazing to tell the stories of knowing Vivians since she was an 8th-grader forcing pictures to include her teammates, so they didn’t feel left out.
It would have been dope to see Roshunda & Malachi climb the ladder to cut the nets.
Seeing Blair & Morgan embrace knowing they’d completed a dream.
This wasn’t the time.
But the foundation is laid. The culture is there.
Something tells me that, in the same manner ND did Sunday, former Mississippi State players will be collected at the Final Four to support the current form to be treated to their first.
Here’s hoping it doesn’t take 17 years.