NCAA Final Four Brings Back Memories
It’s all different. The getting there is difficult enough, but the actual event is like no other experience. We’re talking NCAA Final Four basketball here.
It was hosted in San Antonio in early April, in the Alamodome. The Alamo City hosted
the men’s once before and a year ago the women’s championship.
This particular tournament was for the NCAA’s Division I so Incarnate Word was not there, because it’s a Division II school. But on campus is a person who has seen the spectacle up close. Crusader women’s Coach Angela Lawson has been a participant in four Final Fours and she definitely has memories.
“The pre-game is stuff the teams must wade through. Distractions like the opposing coaches watching you practice,” Lawson recalls. “I remember the first time my Louisiana Tech team made the final four, we went to practice and we walked into Austin’s Erwin Center to see several thousand fans we didn’t expect to be there. Later, we had to go off to a high school gym to really practice.”
That was in 1987. The next season, 1988, with Lawson as a senior guard, La Tech won the title.
Lawson says fans come out of the woodwork wanting a piece of the action. “Fans find out where the teams are staying. Kids want autographs. There are pep rallies on the day of the game for every school. That doesn’t happen any other time of the year.”
But on the other side, the Crusader coach says the players and coaches should enjoy the experience. “They can’t just sit in their hotel rooms and think about nothing but the game. That’s not too good either.”
Then there are the personal emotions involved. “Emotionally, it’s difficult to stay where you need to be,” says Lawson, who was a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee for two more trips to the finals, including a title in 1991. “There are emotions that have not been present before. Players can say they are not nervous, but that simply isn’t true. They are.”
There is another type of emotion, which belongs solely to the seniors. The teams with the best chances are those which have been at this level before and have senior players who have been through it says Lawson. These players are experienced and they probably are confident. Yet, there is another factor.
“The seniors know this could be their last game in this uniform. This could be the last game of their career and that is motivational. The ‘impact players’,” Lawson says, “are the seniors” and their drive is different from the others: the underclassmen.
But win a title, as Lawson has done twice, and the fun just begins.
“After the fact,” she says, “is the best part. We visited the White House (once with President Ronald Reagan, once with President George Bush). State governors flew us in private planes to their houses for fancy dinners. All the top political people want to
Lawson recalls her second trip to the White House when President Bush had his staff construct a basketball court in the Rose Garden and he shot some hoops with the team. “I looked into that gathering at the Rose Garden,” Lawson says, “and I saw people I had only seen on TV, like reporter Sam Donaldson and (tennis star) Ivan Lendl.” And after her Louisiana Tech team won the title, Lawson remembers the trip home to Shreveport.
“As we drove down Interstate 20, every bridge we passed had signs draped on it,” she says. “We didn’t know what to expect. For instance, the airport, when we arrived, was all but shut down because of the crowd. And traveling back to campus, fans were all along the route.”
But to do all the fun stuff, you have to get there first. As Coach Lawson knows well, it hinges on lots of things like scheduling, power ratings, playing well on the road, playing well against ranked opponents. And, it can come down to experience and emotions. It’s staying focused and not being distracted.
Last November, 326 teams started the road to San Antonio. The final four competitors showed up the first weekend in April. There were distractions aplenty. They were everywhere, the fans. Nerve endings were raw. Emotions were worn on the sleeve.
The University of Connecticut, all things considered, survived to maybe shoot baskets one more time, in Washington D.C., in a garden perhaps, with the President of the United States.