Lady Bears Continue Tour Across America

Like a touring rock group of Blondie clones grown tall, the Jackie Stiles Show arrived in Spokane, as Southwest Missouri State, according to the sign held up by one sarcastic fan, continued their "Lady Bears Tour Across America", reflecting the lack of respect given by the tournament seeding officials to SMS.

Instead of playing the first couple of tournament games within the friendly confines of Hammons Center in Springfield, the Lady Bears were forced to travel, first to "freakin New Jersey", according to a disappointed Coach Cheryl Burnett, for the initial two games, then were bounced all the way over to the Northwest corner of the other coast for the next contest couplet. The Lady Bears responded to this added adversity by upsetting many people's expectations, carrying off the court victory after upset victory.

In Spokane, interest in Jackie Stiles mushroomed from just the Kansas/Missouri region and swelled coast-to-coast, as a nationwide television audience finally got to see SMS and Jackie Stiles in action.

Never mind that the Duke Blue Devils were supposed to win. Never mind that SMS had already upset heavily-favored Rutgers, home-court advantage and all. This was supposed to be just another step for top-seeded Duke as they marched confidently to the Final Four.

And what a nice person, to be today's media hero. Not since Tiger Woods has such a likeable person come to center American stage. Just like Mark McGuire, another Missouri sports star, Jackie Stiles is as clean and wholesome as they come, someone middle America can admire, not look down at.

So What Else is New? - Jackie Stiles Breaks Three More Records

Jackie Stiles broke three more NCAA records in the 81-71 victory over top-seeded Duke and their freshman phenom Alana Beard, who scored 27 points and was a driving force for Duke. Beard was herself outclassed by the wunderkind from SMS, showing a national TV audience what fans in Springfield, Missouri have been keeping to themselves for the past few years - what Lady Bears' fans have known this season and past - that Jackie Stiles is a tremendous asset to a talented team. Watching the almost magical way Jackie moves around on the court is seeing basketball at its frenetic but harmonious best. SMS is a finely-tuned orchestra, and Jackie is basketball music.

Record #1 - Most points in a season (all time, not just this season). Jackie needed eight points for this record. She surpassed the record set by WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes. Jackie got the first four points in the game and had the required eight soon thereafter.

Record #2 - First player to score more than 1000 points in a season.

Record #3 - Forty-one points in a tournament game - NCAA post season tournament record. Ironically, Jackie's total broke the NCAA record set only 5 days earlier by Teammate Tara Mitchem, who netted 40 in the tourney second-round victory over Rutgers. If there is an award for shortest duration for holding a record, Tara should receive it.

Record #4 (still another record?) Yes, Jackie added to her own record for most NCAA career points - pushing past the 3300 plateau. She has now colected 3339 points.

SMS Stuns Duke

The game against heavily-favored Duke gets off to inauspicious start as Jackie drives the lane, dancing and weaving past all five Duke players, but is called for a charging foul on a clever flop by the last Duke player between her and the basket. A few minutes later she is whistled for foul number two, then, not too long after that, she gets called for a third foul.

The first foul might have been called as a block, and the next two aren't readily discernible to the naked eye, but officials being human, sometimes can't make every call the correct one. At the beginning, they usually have their hands just trying to get a handle on the game. Playoff games, where the winners wind up dancing and the losers in tears, mean even more pressure.

Mostly, officials try to achieve balance - calling it close on one play means they will compensate by calling it close on the other team. If they "let them play" at one end, they will do the same when the ball is in the opposite court.

On the other hand, officials are human. Suppose you live and work in West Boondock, where the nearest big city is a half-day's drive away. What are going to say to the grocery store clerk, the mailman, your next door neighbor, your kid who attends the local high school that the West Boondock Chiggers call home, the guys that you work with when you're not making bad calls as a referee, when the whole town packed the gymnasium last Friday night, and everyone knows that a different call on a close play could have given the Chiggers a victory last weekend? And when the whole town lives and dies by the vicissitudes of the Chiggers?

Just because you, the official, made the "wrong" call. Depending on how you make that close call, you could be self-nominating yourself for Most Disliked Person in Town.

Jackie sits down for a few minutes. Of course she hates sitting on the bench, she can't sit still. Life is not about sitting on the bench watching everyone else have fun.

Jackie wants, more than anything, to play, she is yelling encouragement to her teammates. She claps after every play, just one of 10,000 fans. After a short discussion and an assurance from Jackie that she won't be whistled for any more fouls, Coach Burnett sends her back in.

Jackie is back in for a couple of reasons. This is not just another game. It's the Big Dance, the NCAA tournament, there's no tomorrow if the Lady Bears can't put this one in their gamebag. Lose once, and you're eliminated. And SMS is not up against a loose collection of big-school rejects from West Boondock State. SMS is overmatched, playing the latest edition of the fabulous fivesome from Basketball Country, Carolina - number one seed Duke.

The Lady Bears fight back from being 12 points down midway through the first half, and the half ends with them down only six, 42-36.

In the second half, the Lady Bears peel away at Duke's lead, and the game turns into a classic barnburner, basketball at its fast-paced best. This is the epitome of what a game of basketball should be - supreme excitement for a truly non-partisan observer.

For the SMS or Duke fan, however, the game crawls. It's an agonizing and torturous, slow motion drama. The lead seesaws back and forth, neither team is able to gain more than a two or three-point advantage.

The Lifeguard

With just under six minutes in the game, with SMS leading 66-65, Carly Deer scores on a 3-pointer from the top of the key, giving SMS a 4-point cushion.

This is vintage Carly Deer.

Her once or twice-a-game three-pointers always seem to come at critical junctures of the game. SMS is trailing, can't quite catch up or seems on the verge of falling too far behind. Carly Deer knows the rest of the team is getting a little frustrated, a little nervous, missing too many shots and fumbling passes.

Now, she seems to be reminding herself, is the time for the seniors to take over.

As the senior, she's like a lifeguard overseeing the junior members of the team, watching them play.

The senior lifeguard sees an emerging crisis, the team is about to go under. She jumps off her platform to make the rescue, to avert the emergency.

Carly grabs a pass, scans the defense, moves to the top of the key, steps up and releases the ball.


See? It's easy!

Anyone can do it!

The packed audience crescendos its huge approval.

The motivational three revs up the other four Lady Bears on the floor, warms the rest of the SMS players on the sideline, and everyone, including the coach, coaching assistants, the trainer and medical expert, the cheerleaders and the band, are alive. Even the garishly-decorated contingent of yellow and purple-haired SMS fanatics, are suddenly reanimated.

And after that once-a-game Carly Deer inspirational basket - one per game is the custom, but Carly can do it again if required - the rest of the SMS basketball team is like Cinderella in reverse. The clock ticks backwards past midnight, and SMS' drab play becomes colorful, the team moves with purpose. They jell, inspired again, and if the game was close, it turns into a rout; if SMS was trailing, they move ahead for good.

With six minutes to go, the Lifeguard has given SMS its first two-possession lead. Not that it's okay to relax now, but it's a nice warm comfortable feeling, deep down in the pit of your stomach, knowing that the other guys can't catch up with you on their next trip down the court. They make a basket, you make one - and you're still up by four. You can counter their efforts for the rest of the game just by trading baskets.

From the 6-minute mark on, Duke is definitely behind, and the Jackie Stiles Show takes center stage. The lead oscillates between four and six points.

At just under 3 minutes, with the score 71-67, Iciis Tillis scores on a layup for Duke, this puts Duke just two down, but wait...

She walked.

The basket doesn't count.

Fifteen seconds later, Jackie has the ball. She dribbles and weaves around the taller Blue Devils like a disco dance floor maniac. Closing toward the hoop on the right side, she breezes around a much taller Dukette and halts in front of two more Lady Dukes between her and her goal: the basket.

The Graceful Marionette

My grandmother, and the other women on the farm, always seemed to imply that my grandfather was "mean", but I figure if you work on a farm, twelve hours a day (and you don't get weekends off on a farm), that it's not at all similar to working a nine-to-five in an office, or to a job where even if you dig graves for a living, at least you have company. On a farm, you don't learn social etiquette from conversing all day with lazy cows, irritable geese or frenzied, squawking chickens.

Grandad used to whittle, he could make a whistle from a section of hardwood branch, and he would, once a year, create cardboard marionettes for me and my sister from cast-away detergent boxes. He would cut out, with scissors, arms, legs, body and head, and attach the separate pieces with string through common holes. For me with my electric cars, and my sister with her expensive dolls, it wasn't very impressive, but my mother warned me to be sure to say "thank you", and there really was a hominess and earnest creativity about his presents to us that always left a feeling warm inside.

You could bend the card-figures limbs at the knees, the pelvis, the shoulders and the elbows, bend all the joints in or out, so the limbs could be splayed around at impossible and irregular angles. Sometimes, Granddad would create even more elaborate playthings that also had moveable hands and feet.

The cardboard marionettes could be bent into unusual shapes, configurations that normal humans couldn't possibly twist themselves into.

Now if you could freeze the motion of Jackie Stiles as she releases the ball, stretched between two opposing players, you would see an arm extended, an elbow bent at right angles, a knee angled in, another knee angled out, the whole picture a configuration of limbs at outrageous angles.

A kid's conception of fun with a marionette.

As we start the frames rolling on our little Jackie movie, we see the marionette start to move. And the motion is not crooked, not out-of-kilter, she is graceful, she dances, she *flows* between the other players, musical motion, a rhapsody of purpose.

The Jackie Stiles Show

Jackie jumps up and to the right, slipping around the first Duke player, then, still airborne, off balance, twists back to the left and releases the ball just past the outstretched hands of the vainly attempted block by the second Blue Devil. The ball sails up, softly bounces off the backboard and falls in the net.

SMS up by six, instead of two.

On the Duke possession, Melody Campbell's defense of Duke's frosh superstar Alana Beard forces a three-second violation and the turnover. Beard, backing up toward the basket turns from left to right, discovers a very unmelodious and dissonant Campbell blocking her attempts to slide by, on the right, on the left, on the right, on the left. Beard is in the paint, where an offensive player holding the ball is only allowed three seconds to either dribble, take a shot or pass to someone else. But Campbell's ferocious presence prevents her from doing anything at all.

The official whistles the three-second violation.

Erica Rante (pronounced "Hahn-tay") misses a lay-up, and Duke quickly brings the ball downcourt. Beard misses a three-point attempt, but seconds later pays back Melody, stealing the ball from her in backcourt and dashing to the basket for a layup. The "steal" is almost identical to a "foul" that is called a minute later.

The six-point lead has shrunk to four.

Can Duke come back?

Maybe Destiny's radiant smile is turning back towards Duke.

SMS has only a small lead, and two minutes is plenty of time to make up four points.

Jackie is aggressively double-teamed after she receives the inbounds ball, but easily evades the shifting traps and races to the Lady Bears' half of the court with a minute and a half remaining.

Jackie passes left, to Carly Deer, who lobs it to Tara Mitchem, who passes it back to Jackie.

Alana Beard runs up, a windmill of hands and arms.

Jackie holds it for second, looks down the lane. The basket is almost a half-court away. Too far, even for SMS' mechanical scoring machine.

Beard is a white and blue-trimmed, uniformed billboard in front of her, a wildly, animated signalwoman on fast forward, nearly six feet of waving and jumping arms and legs.

Jackie bounces the ball on the floor, accelerates to the left, and races around the back-pedaling Beard. Jackie is quickly by the ubiquitous, pesky Duke guard, past the top of key.

Nearing the foul line, she stops abruptly, as another Duke player runs up to block, but Jackie is soaring up, up, up, releasing the ball, as the Blue Devil puts her hands out in what would be an effective block on a properly-released shot.

Too late.

Stiles is falling backwards, the ball is past the vainly outstretched arms.

The crowd holds it breath as the ball nears the top of the arc.

Like a self-guided round brown cruise missile, the ball floats down to its natural home, and as it settles into the net, the ESPN announcer softly breathes, "My goodness gracious."

Is there nothing they can do to against Stiles?

Duke's run for the Final Four is stalling. The game will be over in less than two minutes.

The fat lady in row LL, seat 15 (and half of seat 14), is humming to herself.

Demoralized, the Dukettes trudge upcourt, but nothing they throw up falls down in their basket.

Georgia Schweitzer looses a three, it wants to go in, but bounces off the inner rim on the left, hits the rim on the other side, then pops out.

The Duke basket refuses to accept any additional Duke points. Carly Deer finally snags a rebound and hands it to Jackie.

Duke players have a quandry, they want the ball, they have to have the ball. They need to commit the foul to get it back, but who wants to foul Jackie? She's an 89% free-throw shooter.

It's either foul Jackie or let the clock run down.

This was not supposed to happen, Duke was not supposed to be behind this late in the game. The Blue Devils are not used to this scenario, trying to play catch-up by going through the desperate routine of fouling the opposing players, hoping they will miss at the free-throw line, and then, finally getting the ball back. They haven't had to play catch-up for quite a few games, and they aren't quite sure how to do it.

Jackie dribbles around and around in circles, in ovals, in irregular polygons, zigzags back and forth. Finally Alana Beard fouls her at 00:59, and receives an ovation as she walks dejectedly off the court, her fifth foul.

Jackie misses the first, there is a disappointed "oh" from the stands, which has heavily favored the underdog Lady Bears, but the second free throw attempt goes in, and now there is less than a minute and SMS holds a seven-point lead.

Add another point to Jackie's incredible point-purse.

Destiny is boarding the midnight Greyhound, heading out of Duke-Town.

Duke races the ball downcourt. Schweitzer misses another three, too much rim, not enough net. Sheana Mosch misses a three and the ball bounces up and over the top of the backboard, out of bounds.

Jackie is fouled again bringing the ball upcourt. In the midst of 11,000 noisy fans, in her own quiet rhythm, she strokes them both in easily.

Two more points for the bulging point-bag.

The obese woman reclining in the upper bleachers is starting the first verse.

Schweitzer misses still another three, this one tantalizingly also bouncing around in the rim before popping out. Another Duke player misses a three.

The fat blonde is lustily singing a joyous tune.

The TV talking head is raving about Jackie. "Unbelievable," then "scintillating," a long word the announcer must have looked up in a thesaurus; "The best thing to come out of Kansas since Dorothy," an apt metaphor for a medium obsessed with make-believe. Now that Jackie Stiles has scored more points in this game than any other player in NCAA playoff history, the belief is concrete.

The clock winds down to zero, this game is history, and yet another seeded favorite bites the dust. The Cinderalla team from the southwest corner of Missouri has pulled off one more victory, the latest in a series of upsets. Destiny beams sunnily on the SMS side of the thunderous house.

The SMS bench empties as incredulous Lady Bears race out onto the court, laughing, giggling, hugging each other and rolling around on the floor like a gaggle of excited eighth-graders.

Jackie Stiles has arrived center stage at Big Sports Multiplex. The underdog Lady Bears are suddenly national favorites and America has a new sweetheart.

This is my first attempt at being an "ace" sports reporter! Your comments are welcome:

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