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The Bradsher Beat
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

By Bethany Bradsher

These underdogs are on a mission

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Here’s the image of an improbable contender going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years: Thunderstruck players, gazing in awe at the brackets and the top seeds like hillbillies on a vacation to the big city.

Trouble is, nothing about that stereotype fits the Lady Pirates (19-13) as they stare down their first-round game against Rutgers on Sunday in East Lansing, MI.

Sure, they may only be a 13 seed, but they are riding in on a 10-game winning streak. And as for defying general expectations, they covered that ground already when they won their first Conference USA Championship after being picked seventh in the C-USA preseason poll.

Listen to sophomore guards Impris Manning and Jessica Slack as they describe the events of recent weeks:

Manning: ‘We’re going to this little dance thing, whatever you call it.”

Slack: “We got those first couple of wins, starting our little 10-game streak, and it just seemed like everything was kind of falling together.”

These are obviously not starry-eyed newcomers who are just happy to be here. And even if the rest of the Pirate Nation just started climbing onto the bandwagon when the victories began in early February, head coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener said that she had a hunch much earlier that this could be a special season.

“They were very disappointed when we were losing, which is one reason I thought we would bounce back,’ said Baldwin-Tener, who is going to her first NCAA tournament as a head coach. “I didn’t expect that we would bounce back as strong as we did, but I knew we would bounce back, because we were better than we were playing. They don’t like to lose.”

What do you get when you combine that unflagging confidence with some of the best talent the Lady Pirates have seen in years? You get Monday night at Harvey Hall, a room packed with hundreds of fans gathered to watch the NCAA Selection Show on ESPN.

If this program becomes a national powerhouse someday, it’s a night that will be remembered as a turning point.

Even in the aftermath of the news that her team would spend Spring Break in East Lansing, Baldwin-Tener was giddy over the way a big-screen television had just made an indelible memory for everyone who showed up for the celebration.

“I was just so excited when it was up on the board,” she said. “I didn’t hear anything they said about us, because everyone was screaming so loud, but that’s OK. It just made it real.”

Their first-round opponent, Rutgers, is 22-8 and the Big East champion, and the rest of the week will be devoted to putting in a plan that can counter the Scarlet Knights' tendency to slow down any offense they face, Baldwin-Tener said. But you can’t put a currency on the attitude the Lady Pirates possess right now; this feeling that winning is, for them, a natural instinct.

“We’re just going in thinking, we won our last game, why not win another one?” Slack said. “I think we just know what we have to do now.”

“Once we started winning, everybody started coming together,” said sophomore guard Lacoya Terry.

After her squad defeated Rice on March 4 to win the program's first C-USA title and earn the automatic tournament berth, Baldwin-Tener said she was struck by the subdued nature of the team's celebration. She asked the players about it, and they told her that they had expected to win the tournament.

Manning knew because she believed in her team, she said, but also because she trusts her father Ricky, and he told her early in the season that the Pirates would be the C-USA champs. He also told her something else, she said that his daughter’s team would make the Final Four.

“He’s been right so far,” Manning said.

The final word, from Slack: “We’re one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament, and there’s always a Cinderella team. Why can’t it be us?”

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03/13/2007 01:58:25 AM

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