By Mel Greenberg
The NCAA women’s basketball tournament found a way late Sunday night to catch the attention of the average man-in-the-street with No. 12 Ball State’s 71-55 startling upset of No. 5 Tennessee, the two-time defending national champion.
Fans who don’t follow the sport closely, do know Tennessee as a super-talented team, which most times is one of the stars of the Women’s Final Four.
Suddenly, the Vols (22-11) who are in the tournament record book with eight NCAA trophies, will be known as the losing team in the most historic upset of all time since the competition began in 1982.
It’s the first time a defending champion got bounced in the first round of the women’s tournament. Tennessee had made all previous Sweet 16 rounds, going 42-0 on the opening weekend.
Old Dominion, the 1985 champion, failed to make the NCAA field the following year.
Prior to the loss to Ball State, Tennessee’s quickest exit was handed by Xavier in the regional semifinals of the 2001 tournament.
Ball State (26-8), under first-year coach Kelly Packard, on the other hand becomes the heroine for mid-majors success after upsetting Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference title game to earn an automatic bid.
The Cardinal will meet Iowa State tonight with advancement to the Sweet 16 at stake.
Until Sunday night, the most talked about ambush was the one that occurred in 1998 when No. 16 Harvard upset No. 1 Stanford in a tournament opener.
But that one always had some taint to those who followed the sport.
Stanford had lost two prominent starters to knee injuries just before the tournament got under way.
Harvard may have been the champion of the lowly-regarded Ivy League in tournament competition, but Crimson were more talented than their seed with Allison Feaster, who went on to stardom in the WNBA.
In an ironic twist, the ending to Tennessee’s not-so-grand season comes in the same one that Hall of Famer coach Pat Summitt became the first to go over a grand in victories. Her record is now at 1,005-93 for an .840 winning percentage.
Even though the Vols lost five starters including the sensational Candace Parker from last year’s championship most expected Tennessee to continue to be a high-profile outfit on the strength of one of the top-rated freshmen classes.
But Summitt’s team quickly began setting records of dubious distinction for the program with home losses and setbacks to unranked teams.
The Volunteers, whose No. 5 seed was their lowest in their history, plunged out of the Top 10 after missing elite company just once since 1985-86. They finished in the final Associated Press poll at No. 19, their lowest ranking ever.
Until now, there were just two previous reference points for Tennessee mediocrity.
One was 1984-85 season, the last time the Volunteers did not appear in the rankings.
The 1997 season was noteworthy for the Volunteers suffering 10 losses, most by narrow margins, but a reversal in the tournament that brought an NCAA title when All-American Chamique Holdsclaw was a sophomore.
One unintended victim of Ball State’s shocker was Temple coach Tonya Cardoza.
Although her Owls were eliminated Sunday afternoon by Florida, Cardoza was gaining momentum as the frontrunner for the WBCA’s Maggie Dixon Award that goes to a rookie Division I head coach.
But Packard is also a rookie and considering the upset and winning her conference tournament, as one fellow committee member said to the Guru, also on the committee, in a phone call shortly after Tennessee’s fate was official: “Do we really need to do a teleconference on Friday?”