THROWBACK THURSDAY – For me, the greatest St. Patrick’s Day ever fell on the opening round of March Madness, 1993. The best team I’d played on in a Northwestern uniform was on the floor against Georgia Tech. Funny thing is, I have a fair number of photos of me playing in several other games. I don’t have any of this game, but I remember more of it than anything. I also remember one photo of me playing in it, and that’s the one I wish I had on my wall.
Above is a photo of me with the Kennelly sisters in 1994, when we slipped off the bubble and did not make the tournament. The only logical choice was to go to Hamilton’s, celebrate in the name of our heritage, and not talk about what we had failed to do. There is not a St. Patty’s Day or a first round that passes without me pausing to reflect on what it meant to make it to the big dance.
One year prior, we were living the dream by playing Georgia Tech at home. We ran onto the floor with nerves tingling. During the regular season, we averaged maybe 800-1,000 fans (if we were lucky) at home. On the road, we played in front of 1,000-15,000 die-hard small-town Big Ten fans. All of our jaws dropped as we passed over the huge black NCAA stickers on the floor. We saw and heard the entire bottom tier of Welsh-Ryan Arena on its feet, cheering for us. I’ll never forget looking at Nancy Kennelly, who at one point early in her career, led the nation in assists. When she looked shocked and nervous, I knew this was a special moment. We didn’t just have a student-section. We had one that roared, and stayed on its feet the entire game.
The other thing I remember about the game was that Kenya Key tied my hair back with braids on both sides. Up until this game, I went with the grown-out frizzy mullet. I didn’t like heavy metal at all, but now that I think about it, all I needed was a guitar. That’s sort of the way I played. Pure headbanger. I didn’t like to braid it back because it reminded me of a high school team of all white girls who always braided their hair the same. They talked the same. They all loved the 1-3-1 press. They flopped all the time. The refs loved the cute white girls with the braids. Yet Kenya pulled me aside, told me to trust her and I did. I was nervous about the more tame and proper look being the wrong look for me, or being self-conscious about it during the game. After the game, my mother told me by phone that she wished Kenya could do my hair for every game, not just for the Big Dance.
I remember having to guard a heck of a player from Georgia Tech. She was bigger, stronger, faster, and she had huge hands. I remember Heather Ertel and Donna Groh playing really well, and just the look in their eyes. Heather, who played the best game of her college career, smiled more than once as the clock ran out. Throughout the game, I remember Nancy making me look better than I ever thought I was. Sometimes she hit me with the ball so perfectly that I looked at it in my hands in shock. Moira did her thing as a cocktail of a player who served up threes with her line-drive form, and made wild passes that connected with teammates who ran the flex offense with almost perfect intuition. If there was any doubt, a teammate read it and corrected for the player who was one step off our pattern. That’s why we were so good. We knew every cut, every angle, every what-if. We knew what timing, position and accountability meant. There’s no way I would have been able to hold down my defensive assignment, or get her off my back without a well-oiled team encouraging me on every step.
I remember seeing my college roommates Stephanie Miller, Lauryn Wilson and Shannon Small, all decked out in purple and green. I remember Pat Summit sitting in the front row, far right of the gym. Near the end of the game, our student section started cheering, “TEN-NE-SEE! TEN-NE-SEE!”
When she heard them, Nancy, who was one of the funniest players I’ve ever played with, popped her head up at the foul line during a free throw and looked right at me with wide eyes.
All we wanted was to enjoy St. Patty’s Day before thinking about heading south to the massive orange tidal wave that would hit us in the next round.