A Seattle Times sports editor began covering women's college basketball as an undergrad. Twenty years later, he's watching Washington's remarkable run through the NCAA tournament with an eye toward history.
Sometimes in life and in work, the moments just find you.
It certainly felt that way after moving to Seattle for my current job in March 2013 — only months before the Seahawks went 13-3 and rolled to a Super Bowl title. Hard to beat that timing.
But the current run the Washington women’s basketball team has been on? It’s felt equally serendipitous, perhaps even more so.
That’s because I’ve been around women’s basketball, professionally and as a fan, for close to 20 years. And suddenly, this knowledge I’ve collected is coming in handy on this wildest of rides for the Huskies, who are first-timers in the women’s Final Four this weekend in Indianapolis.
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It started at my school paper in the fall of 1996, when I was picked to cover the Stanford women’s basketball team. The team, coming off two Final Four appearances, featured senior point guard Jamila Wideman (the subject of a Gary Smith Sports Illustrated cover story that season), senior guard Kate Starbird (a former Lakes High School star and now a professor at UW) and freshman guard Milena Flores (a Snohomish native who is now an assistant coach at Princeton).
And the team was coached by Tara VanDerveer, who was fresh off an undefeated stint as the coach of the U.S. Olympic team.
It was an exhilarating introduction to the sport and it started with a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown against Alabama at Maples Pavilion. Sports Illustrated was on hand, and the game was on national television. The Cardinal won, 74-65, and it rolled from there, with only one blemish on the road against Old Dominion (more on the Monarchs in a moment). A national title felt inevitable.
Until it didn’t.
The 1997 Final Four in Cincinnati — which I learned this week remains the most credentialed women’s Final Four in history with 637 media passes handed out — featured Stanford, Old Dominion, Tennessee and Notre Dame. The Cardinal rolled out to a 15-point lead in the first half of its national semifinal game, but the Monarchs cut the lead to seven points by halftime.
The second half was back and forth, and Stanford forced overtime on two clutch free throws by Charmin Smith (now an associate head coach at California). Old Dominion emerged victorious, 83-82, in one of the best basketball games I’ve ever seen in person. I can still see Starbird’s eyes welling up after the buzzer sounded. I also still remember watching “SportsCenter” later that night and seeing a shot of Flores grabbing her head in despair.
I covered the team the next season, too. That year had its own unique shock: A Stanford team decimated by injuries lost at home in the first round of the NCAA tournament to 16th-seeded Harvard, 71-67. I sat courtside for that one, and it remains the only time in NCAA tournament history, men or women, that a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1.
Ninth-seeded Arkansas emerged from that subregional and rode its momentum all the way to the Final Four (here’s the story I wrote as a stringer for The New York Times after their second-round game). As we’ve mentioned a few times in our coverage this week, that Razorbacks team remains the lowest-seeded team to ever make a women’s Final Four and they, along with the Huskies, are the only two women’s teams to make the national semifinals after finishing the regular season unranked.
After college, I never got too far away from women’s basketball, no matter where I worked. At my first job with The Oregonian, I covered the 2000 West Regional in Portland. A hard-nosed Rutgers team coached by C. Vivian Stringer reached the Final Four for the first time in its history. (Sound familiar, Husky fans?) Those were still in the days when the women’s tournament would play all four of its Elite Eight games on the same day, and the West Regional Final ended well after 2 a.m. on the East Coast.
And yet, I remember Stringer lingering in the postgame news conference, seemingly not wanting to let the moment go. Despite having led a third program to a Final Four, Stringer displayed and expressed the wonderment of a first-timer.
In the summer of 2001, I covered the WNBA’s Portland Fire (now defunct) and rookie Jackie Stiles, fresh off beating UW in the West Regional Final in Spokane. Stiles remains the NCAA’s career scoring leader with 3,396 points — a mark Washington’s Kelsey Plum will be gunning for next season.
In 2006, I got to see Maryland win its first national championship while working as an editor in the sports department of The Washington Post. That was a young team that seemed to be at the beginning of a championship run. But, alas, Tennessee won it all the next two seasons and that group of Terrapins never made it back to the Final Four.
By this point in my life, the women’s Final Four had become appointment TV. It helped that Stanford, after an 11-year drought, made six Final Fours in the next seven seasons from 2008-14. But that also coincided with the arrival of Brittney Griner at Baylor and some long winning streaks by UConn (some things never change). The Cardinal bookended UConn’s NCAA-record 90-game winning streak that ran from 2008 to 2010. Of course in between, the Huskies beat the Cardinal in the 2010 national-title game. Gary Blair, the hyperbolic coach who led the 1998 Arkansas team? He won a national title with Texas A&M in 2011.
But until this spring, this felt like my own private appreciation of a sport that would occasionally become a shared experience with my wife (a former shooting guard on her high-school team), friends who played Division I women’s basketball and college friends with whom I covered Stanford women’s basketball.
The Huskies changed that this year with an unlikely run to the Final Four. Suddenly, my enjoyment of the sport fit in perfectly with my work. And despite the logistical difficulties of an unplanned extended postseason run, it’s been fun in many ways to put it in perspective. I hope that enjoyment has shown through in the coverage we’ve provided throughout.
And in case you’re wondering: Yes, a part of me was rooting for Stanford in the Elite Eight last weekend. But once it became clear Washington was going to break through, the journalist in me was pulling for the best story.
And these Huskies have been that, and then some.
Ed Guzman grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from Stanford and has been a Seattle Times assistant sports editor since 2013. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.
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