Saturday, April 3, 2021

Three Beautiful Things 04/02/2021: Easter in Valley Cottage, Stanford in a Thriller, Arizona Bears Down

 1. I had missed/overlooked a message Debbie posted to Christy, Carol, and me that Molly, Olivia, David, and Ana were spending Easter weekend in Valley Cottage with Debbie and the Langfords. Debbie posted some pictures of our grandchildren. It's fun to see them all in one place, all in one photograph and, kind of oddly, it helped me remember that it was seven years ago, almost to the day, that we put the word out that we had definitely decided to leave Eugene and move to Virginia -- which, by September of 2014, became a move to Maryland. Seeing the pictures of the grandchildren and realizing the time that has passed since we left Eugene brought to mind a cluster of memories -- selling the house, driving across the country, living with the Diazes in their townhouse, starting to explore Washington, D. C., Maryland, and Virginia, discovering the abundance of natural beauty in these states, becoming acquainted with local beers -- it was fun to recall all of this. I hope it's a fun weekend for Debbie and the Langfords and Diazes. I look forward to more pictures and any news about what's going on.

2. This afternoon, I tuned into the first Final Four game of the weekend matching Stanford and the University of South Carolina. I'd seen Stanford play once or twice earlier in the season and hadn't seen South Carolina. This was a furious game. Both teams were the top-seeded teams in their region. They are tough-minded teams who play rugged defense and can score from in the paint or from beyond the arc. Stanford fell behind early, but went on an extended run in the late first quarter on into the second quarter and led at halftime, 31-25. Stanford's bench was a huge help. The Cardinal's Haley Jones scored early and often in the first quarter, but also committed her second foul and didn't play in the second quarter. Even without her, the Cardinal found other scorers, played stout defense, and often kept the Gamecocks off the boards, a remarkable achievement against the one of the nation's leading rebounding teams.

If you look at the box score, you'll see that Lexie Hull only made 4 of her 17 shots. That stat might lead you to think she had a lousy game. Far from it. The graduate of Central Valley High School of Spokane Valley pulled down 13 rebounds, played relentless defense, found ways to get inside the South Carolina defense, and was most impressive as a hard-nosed leader of this team, more than willing to do what in basketball is known as the "dirty work": defend with energy, dive for loose balls, force tie ups, drive fearlessly to the basket, and rebound with tenacity.

No doubt, the player of the game in Stanford's 66-65 victory was Haley Jones. She scored 24 points and capped her performance by hitting the game's winning shot. That said, I thought Stanford's most valuable player was Lexie Hull. Stanford needed to play rugged and physical against this physically imposing University of South Carolina team and, in that crucial dimension of the game, Lexie Hull was the Cardinal's team leader.

3. The other semi-final game featured perennial basketball powerhouse Connecticut against Arizona. Coming into this game, UConn had played in 21 Final Fours -- the last 13 in a row. Arizona's program had never advanced this far. Connecticut's team is led by Paige Bueckers, the AP national player of the year. 

As they say, on paper, UConn looked like the clear favorite to win this game.

But, you know what else they say? Games aren't played on paper.

No, they are played on the maple.

And, tonight, Arizona played what their star player Aari McDonald called suffocating, stinky defense. They disrupted Connecticut, kept them out of rhythm, gave up few open or easy shots, and harassed and confused the Huskies. 

On offense, the Wildcats didn't have the player of the year, but they had the best player in this game. Aari McDonald is not very tall, but she's quick and cerebral. She knows how to get to the spots she likes to shoot from and release her deadly shots quickly, whether from way outside or from midrange. She can also put the ball on the floor and drive to the hoop, darting between defenders, finding angles to shoot from, and often draw fouls. 

Aari McDonald wasn't alone in leading Arizona to its 69-59 victory. Yes, she scored 26 points, but every Wildcat, every starter, and every player off the bench played with a passion and a toughness, on defense and on the boards, that I'm not sure the younger UConn team had experienced in an opponent before. 

I watched a lot of Pac-12 basketball back when my tv provider included the Pac 12 Network. The Oregon Ducks in 2018-19 and 2019-20 were always my favorite team, but my next favorite team, by far, was Arizona. I loved then and I loved tonight the way they play so hard for their coach, Adia Barnes, and I immediately was blown away, and still am, by Aari McDonald's versatility, quickness, sharp shooting, and stout defense. She was this year's Pac 12 player of the year and named the conference's top defensive player of the year. She's a force.

I won't see all of the final game between Stanford and Arizona because it will still be on when I leave for family dinner, although Carol and Paul might also have it on.

It's hard to know what to expect. Stanford defeated Arizona by a wide margin twice in conference play. The last of those two games happened on Feb. 22. It's common knowledge that Arizona has improved since that game, but hasn't Stanford also improved? Aren't both of these teams playing at a higher level in early April than they were on Feb 22? 

I'm not making any predictions -- I'm just looking forward to seeing how this championship game plays out and am happy that the Pac 12 Conference place both teams in this final contest. 

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