March 23, 2008
By Jason Krump
In 2006, to commemorate the 25th season of NCAA women's basketball, ESPN and ESPN.com counted down the top 25 moments in NCAA Tournament history.
Included on the list were the undefeated campaigns turned in by Texas (1986), Tennessee (1998), and Connecticut (2002); Sheryl Swoopes leading Texas Tech to the 1993 NCAA title; and No. 1 on the list, North Carolina's 1994 national championship coming by the way of Charlotte Smith's 3-pointer as time expired in the national title game.
At No. 15 was a performance by a student-athlete that left an indelible mark to those who witnessed her feats at the 2001 NCAA Women's Basketball West Regional in the Spokane Arena.
Seven years since that event, Washington State University and the Arena will once again host a women's regional this March. When the 2008 Spokane Regional takes place, March 29 & March 31, memories of Jackie Stiles' heroics in 2001 will undoubtedly reverberate throughout the venue.
When the 2001 regional arrived in Spokane in late March 2001, it marked the second NCAA event WSU and the Arena hosted. Four years earlier, the Women's Volleyball Final Four was held in Spokane. The championship match between Stanford and Penn State drew a crowd of 10,792.
At the time, the 10,792 attendance figure was the second largest to attend an NCAA volleyball title match. In addition, the two-day attendance figure of 21,086 was just 30 shy of the Final Four attendance record.
Two years into the future, the 2003 Men's Basketball first and second round games would be held at the Arena, an already highly anticipated event even by the time the women's regional took place.
For some, the regional served as a precursor to the main event, the men's basketball first and second round games; however, history would judge that it was the women's event that is remembered years later.
When the 2001 NCAA Tournament field was announced, the West region included Duke and Oklahoma, the Nos. 1 and 2 seed, respectively. Positioned as the fifth seed was Southwest Missouri State, a team that featured the NCAA all-time leading career scorer, Stiles.
"When we drove to the Spokane Arena for the practice session the signs flashed `Sold Out.' It was such a great feeling that people in the Inland Empire would support women's basketball that way."
The No. 6 seed was Washington. The previous season, the Huskies had finished 8-22 overall and ninth in the Pac-10, but head coach June Daugherty led a resurgence that culminated in a share of the Pac-10 regular season title for the Huskies.
If Washington could navigate its way through the first two rounds, they would have the luxury of playing the regional in their home state; however, that would be a tall order as they would travel across the country to Gainsville, Fla., for its first and second round games.
"It was the farthest a team would have to travel in the NCAA Tournament, Seattle to Florida," said Daugherty, head coach of the Huskies from 1997-2007 and current WSU head coach. "The kids were excited though, so the attitude was right."
Washington prevailed in a hard fought 67-65 win over Old Dominion in its first round game. The only team standing in its way from a trip to Spokane was the host and No. 3 seed Florida Gators. But Washington stunned Florida, 86-75, to earn a berth to the regionals.
"In the stands I remember some of our parents and fans starting to chant `Sweet 16 Spokane, Sweet 16 Spokane,'" Daugherty recalled. "You look at the scoreboard, and you knew the game was ours, and you start hearing `Sweet 16 Spokane.' It was kind of surreal."
A thousand miles north on the Atlantic Coast in New Jersey, Southwest Missouri State, led by Stiles, earned its way to Spokane by upsetting No. 4 seed Rutgers, 60-53, in the second round. Stiles, who had overcome a slight concussion sustained in the Lady Bears' first round win over Toledo, scored 32 points in the victory over Rutgers.
It was just a preview of things to come for Stiles.
With the exception of No.10 seed Missouri in the East region, the Lady Bears and Huskies were the lowest seeds to advance to the the regional round. They would face formidable opponents in the regional semifinals: top seeds Duke and Oklahoma, respectively.
In the evening's second game, the Huskies outscored Oklahoma by 12 in the second half en route to an 84-67 win.
While Washington's upset in front of its "home" crowd was remarkable in itself, the capacity crowd who witnessed that game was no doubt still buzzing from what transpired on the Arena floor just a couple hours earlier.
Duke entered the NCAA Tournament with a 28-3 record and an ACC Championship, credentials that earned the Blue Devils a No. 1 seed. At the tournament's onset, the team lived up to its seeding, disposing of its first and second round opponents (UW-Milwaukee, Arkansas) by an average margin of 26 points.
Duke's dominant run and Southwest Missouri's State surprising surge set up a regional semifinal match-up with several prominent storylines, none more so than Stiles.
Stiles scoring prowess was no secret heading into the regionals. She had averaged over 30 points a game entering the semifinal game and had already became the NCAA Division I career scoring leader, which concluded with 3,393 points, earlier in the season with 30 points against Creighton, March 1.
Stiles went into the Duke game just seven points shy of the NCAA single-season scoring record set in 1987 by Cindy Brown of Long Beach State.
She surpassed that mark with 16 points in the first half, but Southwest Missouri State, which was down by as much as 12 in the first half, was trailing 42-36 at the break.
That's when Stiles forever secured her place in women's basketball history with a 25-point explosion during the final 20 minutes as the Lady Bears raced past the Blue Devils in the second half, stunning Duke with an 81-71 victory.
For the game, Stiles made 15-of-22 field goals and added 10 free throws for good measure. Her second half outburst not only placed her on ESPN's Top 25 list, it ensured her another spot in the NCAA records book, as she became the first player in NCAA history to eclipse the 1,000 point scoring mark in a season.
With wins by Southwest Missouri State and Washington, the regional final became a match-up of not the top two seeds, but of the fifth and sixth seeds. For the fans, the scenario couldn't have set up any better.
Initially, organizers had set a goal of 8,000 tickets sold, but just as they did for volleyball four years earlier, the Spokane fans embraced the regional.
"It was almost an identical experience that we had with volleyball," Spokane Arena General Manager Kevin Twohig said. "It turned the town onto the sport."
"When we drove to the Spokane Arena for the practice session the signs flashed `Sold Out,'" Daugherty said. "It was such a great feeling that people in the Inland Empire would support women's basketball that way."
Two days after an audience of 10,948 watched the semifinal games, to this day the 15th highest attendance figure in NCAA Tournament history, 11,144 attended the Washington-Southwest Missouri State regional final, which still stands as the 14th highest attendance figure in tournament history. Furthermore, the west regional outdrew regionals in Birmingham, Denver and Pittsburgh, all larger population bases than Spokane.
"The excitement level in the building was tremendous," Twohig said. "It showed the women's game in a whole new light."
What the capacity crowd witnessed in the final was another shooting exhibition by Stiles, who finished with 32 points, as Southwest Missouri State jumped out to an 18-point halftime lead on its way to a 104-87 win, earning a trip to the Final Four.
Stiles wasn't the only Lady Bear to do damage as Tara Mitchem complemented her teammate with 23 points on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting from the field.
"That was a great team," Daugherty said of Southwest Missouri State. "It was disappointing to lose to them."
The feelings that Daugherty experienced seven years ago still inspires her to this day.
"We were just that close and it makes you hungry to want to do it again," she said. "It's something that was an unbelievable experience and motivates me to this day."