Virginia Tech 76, Auburn 61 (Women)
NCAA Tournament Second Round
Monday, March 15, 1999

The measure of a great team and a great coach is taken in many ways, and one of the primary ways is how they respond in a big game. When faced with the chance to reach new heights, does a team freeze up, or does it grasp the opportunity and execute to perfection?

In the case of Bonnie Henrickson and her Hokies, when opportunity knocks on the door, you don't ask politely to be let in. You kick it down and take what's yours.

Successful people exude confidence, and successful leaders are able to infuse their followers with that confidence and lead them to great achievement. Bonnie Henrickson is both successful and a great leader.

All day long Sunday and Monday, while I worried about whether a relatively weak perimeter shooting Hokie team could beat Auburn's matchup zone, Bonnie was very calmly watching tape, figuring out how to break the zone, and then instructing her players on what to do.

Accustomed to watching the Tech men's team flounder against Temple's matchup zone, Hokie fans received a shocking treat as they watched the two-headed monster of Katie O'Connor and Maria Albertsson shred the Auburn defense like parade confetti.

You can talk about Tere Williams, Amy Wetzel, Lisa Witherspoon, and Michelle Houseright all you want, and certainly, they all made great contributions in this game. But the difference maker without a doubt was the unconscious silky-smooth perimeter shooting of Albertsson and O'Connor.

On a night where the Hokies desperately needed those two to play big, they warped past big and landed somewhere beyond huge, going a combined 6-7 from three-point range, and 11-14 overall. And the three-pointers didn't just go in. Nearly every one was a net-snapper.

The Opening Tap

This game started out like a prize fight, with the two teams slugging it out. Tech started bombing away from the opening tap, answering the stellar inside play of Auburn blow for blow. The Hokies rode O'Connor's shooting first, and then they hitched up to Albertsson, who came off the bench stone cold, played about ten seconds, and tossed in her first three pointer without hesitation. She would finish 4-5 from beyond the arc.

Meanwhile, Auburn was getting silky-smooth shooting from their talented inside players, and when they actually missed the shot, they simply rebounded it and put it back in. Hokie fans were pleased with the play of their team, which was firing on all cylinders offensively, but the ease with which Auburn was scoring was troubling. My fear was that Tech would cool off offensively, and Auburn would just keep going.

And then several important things happened as the first half wore on. I don't remember exactly what the sequence was, but here's what happened:

1.) Auburn's star center, Conswella Sparrow, picked up her second foul and took a trip to the bench. She was followed quickly into foul trouble by two other Auburn starters, Shera Looney and Shana Askew. The Tigers weren't getting a ton of fouls called on them, but every one of them seemed to be called on that trio, and it put them in a hole. Suddenly, Auburn had to bring in backups that looked like deer caught in headlights.

2.) The Hokies dropped into a zone defense, and Auburn point guard Tiffany Krantz greeted it with an air-ball three pointer. Krantz, an adequate point guard who was already faced with the difficult challenge of matching up with Tech's Lisa Witherspoon, suddenly found herself confronted by nearly 10,000 Hokie fans screaming "AIR BALL!!" every time she handled the ball.

Say what you want to about Auburn playing in front of big crowds in the tough SEC - the fact is, the Hokie fans (and Lisa Witherspoon) got into Krantz's head after that, and she was worthless. She finished with 9 points on 4-12 shooting, and spent most of the second half on the bench, no doubt preparing for the psychoanalysis she'll soon need.

She was the only player Auburn appeared to have who was even a remote three-point threat, and with her out of the game and the post players in foul trouble, it spelled doom for the Tigers.

3.) The other thing that happened as the first half came to a close was that Tech kept hitting their shots. And kept hitting them, and kept hitting them. Down 29-27, the Hokies went on a 15-2 run to close the half, taking a 42-31 lead into the break.

Bringing it Home

During half time, I leaned over to N2VTFTBL and said, "If we can come out and put six or eight quick points on them, they're in big trouble."

Ask and ye shall receive. Tech came roaring back out of half time with two quick three-pointers, and Auburn appeared to have left their game plan in the locker room, throwing a couple of the most pathetic perimeter passes I've seen, both of which got picked off and were turned into Tech scores. Two minutes into the second half, the Hokies were leading 48-31, capping a marvelous 21-2 run.

There was still the formality of the last 18 minutes to go through, but I really felt the two quick three-pointers did Auburn in. They are not a team that can score points in bunches, particularly when their point guard would rather be somewhere in a rubber room, playing with blocks and humming the Brady Bunch theme to herself.

When Tech took a 59-38 lead on a three-pointer with fourteen minutes to go, I leaned over to N2 and said, "That's it. They're done."

To their credit, the Tigers came clawing back, going on an 11-2 run and closing the gap to 61-49. But that was more a by-product of Tech's once-a-game, predictable offensive funk, a phenomenon that invariably plagues the Hokies for at least one five-minute stretch in each game they play.

With the score 61-49, I found myself thinking of Michelle Houseright, and ruminating on how the senior always seems to step into the void and hit a big shot when it's needed. I must be getting to know this team pretty well, because House poured in five straight points, including a rare three-pointer that hit the net dead-center and lit the crowd up.

When she was done, the score was 66-49 Tech, and Michelle, her offensive mission accomplished, spent the rest of the game grabbing rebounds away from the supposedly bigger, more physical Auburn Tigers.

From then on, the Hokies coasted to the 76-61 victory. After struggling often late in the year against inferior teams, the Hokie women's basketball team was finally presented with the prize they had sought since losing to Florida last year in the second round of the NCAA's - the Sweet 16.

After setting that as their goal, and after waiting a year for it, and fighting their way through 29 other games, and after completely transforming the Tech women's program in the process, at last they got their chance.

And not only did they win it, not only did they make their goal, but they did it in decisive fashion. They didn't just advance to the Sweet 16, they hosted a sub-regional. It's the mark of greatness when you set high goals, and then exceed them. So I hope you have appreciated watching greatness play before you.

Now, on to the Sweet 16!

Game Notes

Big Game: not to overdo it here, but I place this game right up there with the great games in Cassell Coliseum history, including the big win over #1 Memphis State in the 1980's, the 141-133 triple-overtime win over Southern Mississippi in 1988, and the 1995 NIT victory over New Mexico State.

Ridiculous hyperbole? I think not. It was an important game, propelling the team to a first-ever Sweet 16 berth, and it was one of the finest displays of basketball I've seen in such an important game. It was seen by a near-capacity crowd that will always remember it. So yeah, it was a great one.

Star-studded night: eagle-eyed Hokies near section 13 were treated to a veritable who's-who of Virginia Tech sports seated in the corner section: Tech AD Jim Weaver, Tech President Paul Torgersen, football Coach Frank Beamer (and family, including Shane), football coaches Billy Hite, Bryan Stinespring, and Tony Ball, and basketball coaches Scott Davis and Dean Keener.

Spoon over Krantz: one of the things I thought about as this game approached but didn't express here on the web page was that Lisa Witherspoon would get the better of Tiffany Krantz. Krantz wasn't quick enough to get around the pesky Spoon, or to do a good defensive job on her. And indeed, that's how it played out.

Krantz used her size to work inside and score two buckets on Spoon early in the game, but once Krantz threw up that air ball, her goose was cooked. She finished with a team-high four turnovers in 30 minutes, and Spoon's defense really took her out of her game. I recently heard a basketball analyst say, "A senior point guard in the NCAA tournament is a treasure." That's our Spoon, all right.

Albertsson and O'Connor are my Players of the Game: with all due respect to the folks at 101.7 FM, who named Amy Wetzel their player of the game, I thought the duo of Maria Albertsson and Katie O'Connor put Tech over the top in this one. As I said before, they were awesome, and they gave the Hokies exactly what they needed in this one.

Not a sellout, but loud: as I forecasted, this Cassell crowd was rocking. At just over 9800, it was slightly smaller than Saturday's crowd, but it was ear-splitting loud from the beginning to the end. Just ask Tiffany Krantz.

So, Auburn has played in front of 19,000 fans at Tennessee? I guarantee those fans aren't as crazed as 10,000 Hokie fans. I'll put a full Cassell Coliseum up against any venue in the country, any day.

Take that, Mimi: lastly, a big fat raspberry goes out to ESPN's Mimi Rogers. She didn't get the upset she predicted in the Blacksburg sub-regional. Nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah-nyaaahhhh!! Mayhap Mimi Rogers is Hokie-hater Lee Corso in drag?

USA Today game recap
HokieCentral's Sweet 16 T-shirts
Game pictures (wait'll you see this!  How about 120 pics of the game?)

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