It was a day of basketball that started at a sports bar called the Red Lion in Spokane, Washington, and ended with an enduring image of a preschooler falling asleep on the shoulder of her equally exhausted and disappointed mother. The whole day, after all these years, still springs vividly to mind.
The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame will honor six well-deserving inductees this weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee. Reminiscing and reflecting are the standard R & R's for such occasions, and the inductees surely have countless thoughts and images flashing through their heads.
But when I first saw that this class both included former Missouri State guard (and current Lady Bears assistant coach) Jackie Stiles and Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, I flashed back to one particular day: March 24, 2001. A fabulous day for Stiles; a tough one for Coale.
There are so many ways to talk about the impact both women have had -- and continue to have -- on the sport. This one day is only a mere sliver of that. But it's a sliver worth relishing, nonetheless.
Missouri State was still Southwest Missouri State at the time, SMS for short, and Stiles had experienced an epic March in her senior year of 2001. She had become the all-time leading scorer in the NCAA era before a packed house at home in Springfield, Missouri. She'd helped the Lady Bears win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. And then despite Missouri State being the No. 5 seed and having to travel to Rutgers for early-round NCAA tournament games, the Lady Bears made it to the Sweet 16 in Spokane.
The Sooners were there, too; it was their second consecutive regional semifinal under Coale, who had taken over the Oklahoma program in 1996, the year before Stiles had started her college career at Missouri State.
The story of Coale and the back-from-the-dead Sooner women's basketball program has been told again and again, but it remains one of college sports' most compelling tales of resurrection and triumph. In short, Oklahoma had decided to ax its women's basketball program after the 1990 season because the team was averaging fewer than 100 fans per game and the school thought that no one cared.
The move was roundly criticized, however, and a little over a week later, the program was reinstated. Coale, a native Oklahoman who was coaching at successful Norman High School at the time, had regarded OU's initial decision as a temporary descent into absurdity. Six years later, she was ready to try to take the Sooners from just existing to actually being a program that mattered.
We all know now how that turned out: Coale -- to the chagrin of critics who thought "a high school coach" couldn't step into a Division I job and succeed -- has won 442 games, six Big 12 regular-season titles and four league tournament championships, plus made three Final Four appearances. She is OU women's basketball.
Her first huge breakthrough came in 2000, when the Sooners made the Sweet 16, losing to 102-80 to eventual national champion UConn. Now it was 2001, the Sooners were the No. 2 seed in the Spokane Regional, and they felt ready to make another big step. Their regional semifinal opponent was No. 6 seed Washington. Their goal was the Final Four in St. Louis.
'The Jackie Stiles Show'
Meanwhile, Duke was a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history and was appearing in its fourth consecutive Sweet 16. The Blue Devils would play the Spokane semifinal against Stiles and Missouri State.
By this point, Duke was an established power under Gail Goestenkors, having competed in the 1999 NCAA title game. Freshman Alana Beard, who averaged 16.6 PPG, led the Blue Devils in 2000-01.
Duke was favored over Missouri State, but Stiles was a major concern for Goestenkors. She had watched a lot of film and knew that every conceivable defense had been used against Stiles. Yet the 5-foot-8 guard still came into that Sweet 16 leading the nation in scoring at 30.7 PPG.
I recall seeing Goestenkors in the arena hallway after a news conference in which she had praised Missouri State in general and Stiles specifically. Although she was a rookie, Beard was Duke's top perimeter defender. (Even now, 15 years later, Beard remains a strong defensive presence and is one of the key players in the Los Angeles Sparks' perfect start this WNBA season.)
"So can you slow Jackie down?" I asked Goestenkors. She answered honestly: "I don't know. Nobody has. She really, really worries me."
For good reason. That one game, so late in her spectacular college career, was perhaps the most national exposure Stiles got, in part because of the timing and circumstances.
The two men's NCAA Elite Eight games that Saturday were over by the time the Missouri State and Duke women tipped off at 10:07 p.m. ET. The Duke men, in fact, had just won their East Regional final against Southern Cal, a game that had started at 7 p.m. ET. Thus, many fans nationwide looking for a little more March Madness tuned into ESPN for what became "The Jackie Stiles Show."
Goestenkors' concerns proved well-founded. Stiles scored 41 points on a variety of jumpers and drives to the basket; she couldn't be stopped in Missouri State's 81-71 upset of the Blue Devils. Stiles had put up bigger point totals in her amazing career, but this kind of performance against the No. 1 seed on national television was the stuff that legends are made of. In many eyes, it became Stiles' signature game, and then she and Missouri State consolidated it with a victory over Washington two nights later to go to the Final Four back home in the Show-Me State.
That it was the Huskies, and not Coale's Sooners, that Missouri State faced was the other big story from that Saturday in Spokane. The Washington-Oklahoma game was the late, late show. It tipped off around 11:30 p.m. Central Time, and the Sooners looked sluggish for most of game. Caton Hill, finishing with 23 points and 12 rebounds, was the one Sooner who shined in Oklahoma's 84-67 loss.
Afterward, Coale was weary and sad, even though she had most of her team coming back for the next season, including Hill and star guard Stacey Dales. Coale wasn't in a mood to be consoled by that thought just yet. But as she talked to the media outside the Sooners' locker room, she was also in mom mode. She picked up her daughter Chandler, then 4 going on 5, and the little girl conked out on her shoulder.
"Time to go home, guys," Coale said.
A year later, she and the Sooners would make their first Final Four appearance.
Long day's journey into night
Coale has become well-known for her writing skills along with her coaching ability. The former English teacher's blog posts have eloquently -- poetically, even -- summed up the journey of her Sooners over the years. (I'm guessing she might have taught her students about Eugene O'Neill at some point.)
As for Stiles, we couldn't have guessed then that we were so close to the end of her career. She would be the WNBA's rookie of the year in 2001, but an avalanche of injuries prevented her from ever playing another full professional season. She tried competing in other ways, including cycling, but never could get past the injury bug.
Tragedy might seem like too dramatic a word for Stiles' shortened career, and in a general sense, it is. In a sports sense, though, it's apt. Stiles hoped for many more years. Not for fame, though. I never met an athlete who cared less about that. She just wanted more time with her true love, her enduring passion: basketball. It wasn't to be, and if you know Stiles, you realize she'll miss it for the rest of her life.
Yet Stiles is still revered in her old college town -- there's a statue of her at Missouri State now -- and she is working for her alma mater with head coach Kellie Harper. Stiles remains atop the NCAA scoring chart. Nothing can ever take the magic of 2001 away from her, or from those of us who saw it.
So ... one last thing. You might be wondering about my reference to being at the Red Lion early that Saturday in Spokane in 2001. Remember when ESPN2 wasn't yet a standard channel? My hotel in Spokane didn't have it, nor did the hotel in which the Sooners were staying. The women's regional action was starting that morning on ESPN2, and the day's slate included then-Big 12 school Missouri.
Coale, the OU coaches, and a lot of the Sooner traveling party wanted to watch the Tigers, as did I. So somebody with Oklahoma contacted the Red Lion and asked if they would open a little early so we could watch the game there.
My enduring memory of that day was seeing Coale's son, Colton, then age 9, watching the Missouri game intently. He was as into women's basketball as the rest of us.
It's just one more thing that made that day so memorable and that I like to think back on as we honor another class in the Hall of Fame.