CHANDLER, Ariz. -- The first day of the 2011 Nike Tournament of Champions proved exactly why the event has grown into the premier girls' basketball tournament in the country -- the best played the best.
As with almost every team sport, ranking means very little once the game starts, and five teams ranked in the top 11 spots of the POWERADE FAB 50 lost in the opening salvo on Monday.
Based on rankings alone, the biggest upset of the Joe Smith Division was recorded by unranked Windward (Los Angeles), which defeated No. 8 MacArthur (Irving, Texas) 56-50. But No. 24 Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.) sent shock waves through the desert with a 43-40 victory over No. 6 Bolingbrook (Ill.).
Despite the national ranking, the Northstars came to the TOC hearing they stood no chance and would be 30-point underdogs in all four of their games. Compounding the dim outlook was an opening-round matchup with Bolingbrook, the defending Illinois state champion, which is playing in its fourth consecutive TOC. But with the No. 1 player in the country on their side, the small community team from upstate New York has a chance in every game.
Oddly, it wasn't ESPN HoopGurlz's top-ranked senior, Breanna Stewart (Connecticut commit), who offered up the late-game heroics for Cicero-North Syracuse. Instead, the fourth quarter belonged to Brittany Paul. The 5-foot-9 senior scored eight of her 10 points in the final period, none bigger than her last shot.
First, Bolingbrook senior star Morgan Tuck (Connecticut commit) drained a 3-pointer to tie the game at 40-40 with 11 seconds to play. Instead of calling a timeout to set up a play, the Northstars advanced the ball, penetrated into the key and kicked it out to Paul, who swished her answer-back 3 with 2.1 seconds left in the game.
"It was something that needed to happen, and I did it," Paul said.
Paul is a Division I athlete, having signed with Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., but her sport is softball, making her all the more unlikely of heroes.
"I thought it was going in," Stewart said. "I have confidence in every player on this team. I have complete confidence in them."
Bolingbrook did a pretty good job on Stewart, holding her to 15 points, but the contributions came from everywhere, including a gutsy performance by junior point guard Abbey Timpano, who had to handle the unrelenting pressure of Bolingbrook's defense all game long.
"We have the best player in the country and we have nothing to lose," Northstars coach Eric Smith said. "We're here because Bre brought us along."
So while many forget that this CNS team made it to the state finals in New York last season, Smith's team has no problem playing the part of Cinderella this season.
"Half of these kids don't know what this tournament means, the magnitude of it," Smith said.
There were other upsets in the Joe Smith Division on Monday, including No. 29 Marion County (Lebanon, Ky.) beating No. 5 Saint John's College (Washington, D.C.) 56-52 and No. 13 Good Counsel (Olney, Md.) knocking off No. 11 Wesleyan (Norcross, Ga.) 71-64.
And Tuesday will offer another chance for Cinderella to put on her sneakers and dance with the best teams in the country. Stewart and her teammates will face No. 22 Dr. Phillips (Orlando, Fla.), a team that rolled past No. 7 St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) 73-55. Just another new challenge for Cicero-North Syracuse and another chance to shock the country.
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. He is a member of the McDonald's All-American team selection committee. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.