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Givens it all for Middle Tennessee

THE QUICK DISH

By Graham Hays, ESPN.com

Chrissy Givens

Middle Tennessee's Chrissy Givens is averaging 22.2 points and netted 25 in an upset of then-No. 8 Georgia last week. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Chrissy Givens and Middle Tennessee are not about to go gentle into that good night, passing anonymously into the shadows of Sun Belt conference play.

Closing out a nonconference schedule that included games against three top-10 teams, Middle Tennessee came up with a signature win in its third try, traveling to then-No. 8 Georgia on Thursday night and beating the eighth-ranked Lady Dogs 70-62.

The catch is that this wasn't David slaying Goliath. In fact, the true importance of this game might have been in how little of an upset it really was.

As the final buzzer certified their win in Athens, the Blue Raiders didn't sprint to the center circle to pile on top of teammates or dance around the arena in jubilant celebration. They shook hands with the Georgia players and, at least from a distance, seemed to exude more satisfaction in a job well done than surprise at the result.

"You never go into a game, no matter who the opponent is, and say, 'There's a chance we might lose,'" Givens said of not feeling like an underdog. "Our intentions were to win this game."

The Blue Raiders had already proven that this year's team could be special. They lost by just four points to defending national champion Maryland on opening night (in a game Middle Tennessee led late in the second half). And at Tennessee, the Blue Raiders fared as well as ranked teams like UCLA and George Washington against the Lady Vols.

"Even though we lost them, we learned a lot more from losing those games than we probably have from winning," Givens said Friday. "We learned you don't play the opponent, you play the game of basketball. You don't play the scoreboard, you play the game of basketball."

But quality losses in November and December are easily forgotten by the rest of us, especially for teams that play in mid-major outposts like Murfreesboro, Tenn., a town more famous for its Civil War battle and which sits wedged in a cranny of the basketball mainstream, 35 miles southeast of Vanderbilt in Nashville and 180 miles west of Pat Summitt and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

What the win against Georgia provides for the rest of us is a lingering memory of a team with a history of postseason production and a star player with a future in the WNBA.

Since the major conferences started paying more attention to women's basketball, the small powerhouse programs such as Immaculata, Cheney State and even Old Dominion have gradually given way to domination by a few major programs. Increasing parity at the top of the sport continues to expand the list of viable candidates to win a national championship, but Middle Tennessee is blazing a path for parity at another level.

In 2004, Middle Tennessee knocked off North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The next year, the Blue Raiders did the same to another ACC heavyweight, beating NC State in the first round. Utah escaped the Blue Raiders in the opener last season, but not before having to overcome a deficit in the game's final two minutes.

Although annually saddled with a double-digit seed coming out of the Sun Belt, this has become the rare mid-major capable of causing headaches for opposing coaches during the opening week of March Madness.

"One day [coach Rick Insell] made a statement about being a good team and then building a program," Givens recalled. "And being part, my freshman year, of going to the NCAA and beating North Carolina was the foundation of us starting to try and build a program like Tennessee, like Georgia, like Duke. … We want to be known nationally; when you say Middle Tennessee is on your schedule, we want it to strike fear in people's hearts."

First under former coach Stephany Smith and beginning last season under Insell, a coaching legend in Tennessee high school basketball, Middle Tennessee has made strides toward that goal in no small part because of the development of the program's cornerstone player.

Givens is the best player in the country that you've probably never seen, unless you caught last year's game against Utah in the NCAA Tournament; none of this year's spotlight games were on national television, and Thursday's game was only available via Webcast through the University of Georgia.

A senior from Louisiana, Givens exploded onto the scene last year after spending her first two seasons as a valuable role player for the Blue Raiders. She averaged 21.5 points last season, eighth in the nation, and supported that scoring average with 7.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.2 steals per game, all team-leading figures. And perhaps most notably, Givens was at her best when the competition was fiercest. She had 24 points, nine rebounds and four assists in a loss against Georgia, 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a win against Penn State, and 25 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds against Utah in the postseason. In arguably the team's three biggest games of the season, she exceeded her season averages in all three categories.

The transformation from all-around role player to budding superstar wasn't easy. In a reversal from the normal narrative of college basketball, Givens wasn't entirely comfortable with the offensive-minded role her new coach wanted her to adopt last season.

"I don't know how or what he saw to decide that I would be the one to go to," Givens said of Insell. "I have no idea. But he started putting the ball in my hands … I think after Virginia (a loss in which she had seven assists but took just 11 shots in 33 minutes), I just kind of said, 'OK, this is what he wants me to do, and if this is what I have to do for us to win, then I want to do it.'

"And I kind of accepted it. And to this day, I didn't know what he saw in me that I could be that player. But he saw it, and he brought it out in me."

Watching Givens is an exercise in subtle enjoyment. One of the most remarkable things about her scoring is that while she leads the team in field-goal attempts (taking 29 percent of all shots for the Blue Raiders), she rarely appears to force shots against the flow. Unlike other great scorers at smaller programs, from Jackie Stiles at Southwest Missouri State to Cindy Blodgett at Maine, who were forced by sheer dint of skill to dominate the offense, Middle Tennessee's sets rarely take on the appearance of four people trying to stay out of Givens' way.

"To this day, I still get chewed out for it," Givens laughed of her pass-first mentality. "But the thing about it is, I always see it as just go to the hole, because I just want to pull somebody onto me so I can get it to somebody else. I just like to see everybody getting involved. … I try to make that happen by going to the basket hard, pulling people off of me and passing."

The full range of her offensive game and her poise were on display in key moments against Georgia, going well beyond the 24 points she scored.

With momentum building for the Lady Dogs after they took a 15-14 lead to erase a quick start for the Blue Raiders, Givens found herself with the ball at the top of the key and the shot clock winding down. Taking things into her own hands, Givens drove the lane as three Georgia defenders collapsed on her. Instead of forcing a shot or jumping into the air without a plan, Givens pulled up, waited half a beat to completely suck in the defense and calmly found LaCondra Mason (who was granted a release to leave the program for undisclosed personal reasons on Dec. 8) for a wide-open 3-pointer.

And late in the game, after Georgia had closed within five points, it was Givens again driving the lane but keeping her composure long enough to find Amber Holt for an open jumper that extended the lead to seven with 1:24 left to play and ended Georgia's hopes of a miracle finish.

With a new partner in crime in junior-college transfer Holt, who scored 21 against Georgia and is averaging 18.1 points this season, Givens has options to satisfy her passing cravings without annoying her coach. The result is a sense, present long before the win against Georgia, that this program is ready to take the next step and that this team is special.

"I have that feeling," Givens said. "We have so many great players, who do you concentrate on?"

So how will the Blue Raiders, fresh off the win against Georgia, avoid a letdown when conference play begins against South Alabama on Thursday? The team's other loss this season, a 72-61 setback against South Dakota State that came three days after the Maryland game, taught them as much about focus as the games against the heavyweights did about their potential.

"Personally, I think we are a better ball team than South Dakota State, but when you don't come out there, and the other team is more fired up than you, you will lose," Givens said. "And that's what happened to us. We were flat and lethargic, and we really just never got into the game and they took it to us."

Being taken for granted isn't something Middle Tennessee will have to worry about the rest of this season. But with Givens leading the way, they might not need the element of surprise or the glass slipper.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

NOTABLE NUMBER

1,810 The game's two winningest coaches, who have combined for a staggering 1,810 victories, clash Sunday when Texas hosts Tennessee (1:30 p.m. ET).

The Lady Vols' Pat Summitt, the all-time Division I wins leader (has anyone noticed how people seem to be forgetting she's tops in men's and women's college basketball as Bob Knight approaches Dean Smith's men's mark of 879 wins?), enters the contest with a 921-178 record in her 33rd season. Texas coach Jody Conradt, in her 38th season of coaching (including 31 at Texas), ranks second with 889 wins.

Conradt (who has 295 career losses) and Texas are undefeated at home this season, going 7-0. The Longhorns, however, are coming off an 80-52 drubbing by fourth-ranked Duke on Sunday.

Summitt is 16-11 all-time against Texas (all of their meetings have been in the regular season). Tennessee won the annual matchup last season, snapping a four-game skid in the series.

When the teams met on Dec. 1 last season, the Lady Vols' 102-61 rout was the Longhorns' sixth-worst loss in school history, and only the fifth time Texas gave up more than 100 points -- which hadn't happened since 1999. -- ESPN.com

COACH PUTS TITLE IX ON 'RADAR SCREEN'
Ten days removed from winning the game of his life, and coach Roderick Jackson is exhausted. Out of steam. Spent.

It's been nearly six years since Jackson sued the Birmingham, Ala., board of education when he was fired after complaining that his girls high school basketball team did not receive the same support as the boys team. His case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, gaining national attention when the court ruled last year that Title IX protects people such as Jackson who seek action against gender discrimination.

That ruling helped spark a Nov. 30 settlement between Jackson and the Birmingham school board, which is to establish an equitable condition policy for female athletes in all of its programs. The board also will pay Jackson $50,000, and $340,000 to his attorneys.

"A battle was fought, and a victory was won," Jackson said. "It's a good feeling for me. All these people came together for a common good, and we now have a [system] in place we can watch develop and grow."

The settlement of Jackson's case has implications beyond Birmingham, and it comes at a time when Title IX supporters say decisions by the Bush Administration have weakened federal antidiscrimination laws. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education changed the rules for Title IX compliance, allowing schools to use Web-based surveys to determine interest in participating, and thus justify support for their athletic programs. In Jackson's case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title IX protects whistle-blowers in addition to victims of discrimination. Lower courts had rejected that idea.

Doug Jones, one of Jackson's attorneys in Birmingham, says the settlement "puts Title IX cases back on the radar screen at a time when people are trying to question whether Title IX is appropriate."

To read George J. Tanber's complete story, click here.