Excerpt: Bird at the Buzzer

The following is an excerpt from Bird at the Buzzer: UConn, Notre Dame, and a Women’s Basketball Classic (Nebraska, 2011) by Jeff Goldberg. This book and others are now on sale now for March Madness. 

CHAPTER ONE 

Storrs, March 6, 2001

Sue Bird awoke this snowy Tuesday morning after a night unlike any other in her three years at the University of Connecticut. During the night, while a powerful snowstorm blanketed the state of Connecticut, Bird had lain under her blankets hooked up to a portable stimulus machine, electronic impulses coursing into her balky lower back in an attempt to prevent it from going into spasm any further.

The reigning Division I point guard of the year, Bird had not played the previous night, Monday, when her second-ranked teammates obliterated Rutgers 94–66 in the Big East Tournament semifinals at Gampel Pavilion, setting up a rematch with No. 1 Notre Dame in Tuesday’s tournament final.

Goldberg-BirdPaperback.inddIt was to be up to this point the most-anticipated game of the 2000–2001 women’s college basketball season. Back in January, Notre Dame had handed the defending national champion Huskies the first of their only two defeats all season, blowing out UConn. The game, played before the first home sellout crowd for a women’s game in Notre Dame’s history, also marked the first time the Irish had beaten UConn in twelve tries since joining the Big East in 1996.

Now, UConn looked to return the favor, seeking to hand the Irish only their second loss of 2001, as both teams jockeyed for position heading into NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday, less than a week away.

Bird had injured her back on Sunday night, in the Big East quarterfinals against Boston College, and played just fifteen minutes, none in the second half. Bird’s pain resided in her lower back, but the source of the discomfort was in her nervous system.

Bird had injured her back on Sunday night, in the Big East quarterfinals against Boston College, and played just fifteen minutes, none in the second half. Bird’s pain resided in her lower back, but the source of the discomfort was in her nervous system. The consummate team player, Bird had two days earlier been named First Team Big East at the annual conference awards banquet. Bird’s teammate and fellow junior classmate, the elegant and energetic forward Swin Cash, was a more worthy first-team candidate in Bird’s mind, but Cash had been named to the second team.

The perceived slight to her teammate stuck in Bird’s craw all weekend, her inner turmoil manifesting itself physically when she twisted her back painfully when turning to make a pass in the first half against the Eagles.

“I was stressed that whole weekend because personally, I didn’t think I had a good year that whole junior year,” Bird said. “It really was difficult for me to accept being Big East first team. I had a hard time with it. I was really stressed, and there’s no other reason for why my back would have done that. I just think stress got to me.”

Bird, like the rest of her teammates, had endured a considerably more tumultuous season than anyone had anticipated. After having blown away Tennessee by nineteen points in the 2000 NCAA championship game in Philadelphia and ending the season with a 36-1 record, virtually the entire Huskies roster returned to play another year. Further supplemented by the arrival of Diana Taurasi, the most heralded freshman in the history of the game, the Huskies were touted not just as prohibitive favorites to repeat as champions, but as the greatest collection of talent Geno Auriemma had ever coached in his sixteen seasons at UConn.

And that was saying something, considering Auriemma had already won two national championships and had been to four Final Fours in the preceding decade. Even Auriemma, the sharp-dressed, sharp-witted son of Italian immigrants, could not resist heaping serious advance praise upon his newly minted champions.