Like most coaches, Kristy Curry admits to having a few game-day superstitions, nothing extraordinary, just habits that she likes to repeat as small rituals. But she is quick to note that she believes that “teams create their own luck.”
Still, if Curry chooses to have a four-leaf clover in her pocket when the Alabama women’s basketball team opens SEC Tournament play in Greenville, S.C., on Thursday morning, no one could blame her. The Crimson Tide is tantalizingly close to ending a 21-year exile in the NCAA Tournament desert, past the halfway point of Moses and the Israelites wandering toward the Promised Land but as close as the banks of Jordan, closer than they have been since their last NCAA appearance in 1999, before most of the current team’s players were born.
There isn’t a constant television presence for women’s basketball, no Joe Lunardi appearing at halftime of every ESPN contest and hyping a half-dozen games a day as “critical.” The fact is that all games matter, and the sense of urgency relates more to the diminishing number of opportunities than it does to any single game in the national matrix. Fans of the Alabama men’s team, whose past 15 years have been more bubbly than a case of Veuve Clicquot, are used to all this. But it’s been a long time since the Alabama women have been close at all.
There are bracketologists for women’s basketball. ESPNw has one and he currently shows Alabama as the first team out of the field. Other projections, like the one at RealTimeRPI.com, have the Crimson Tide in as a 12-seed. The matter sits on a razor’s edge as UA prepares to play Georgia on Thursday.
A month ago, there wasn’t much talk about Alabama making the NCAA tournament, but a strong finishing run that included road wins at No. 9 Mississippi State and No. 12 Texas A&M has changed that. UA is playing its best basketball of the season. But there isn’t a “how you finished” component in the selection process anymore. The men’s selection committee did away with the old “last 10 games” category several years ago, and the women followed suit. Also, in a small but relevant note, the women’s field is a classic 64 with no play-in games such as the ones that the men have in Dayton. So that’s four less available at-large spots.
Alabama is the sum of its full season, unable to do anything about a sluggish season-opening home loss to Hampton or a 32-foot heave at the buzzer that cost UA a road win against Tennessee. Those games are over, as are the recent history-making wins.
“Our resume speaks for itself,” Curry said on Tuesday. “That’s built over time. We have had injuries. DeSha Benjamin is out. Jordan Lewis played with 12 stitches in her shooting hand, and that affected us. But our kids have been great. The harder it’s gotten, the harder they’ve played.”
Curry knows the drill. She has been to NCAA Tournaments and Final Fours before in her coaching career. The UA players, who have never experienced anything of this nature, may not be aware enough of all the ramifications to be nervous.
Playing Georgia amplifies the “close” storyline. Alabama lost to the Bulldogs in overtime in Athens in a game where it appeared that nearly three seconds ran off the clock at the end of regulation when it should have been stopped with Alabama in possession. Four of the last five games between Alabama and Georgia have gone to overtime. And if that isn’t enough angles for you, the Georgia coach, Joni Crenshaw Taylor, played for that last Alabama team that made the NCAA Tournament in 1999. Taylor is a former Alabama assistant coach as well, although she has had success against UA while in Athens which makes her sort of the anti-Kirby Smart.
Again, the NCAA field is chosen as part of a matrix that involves games all over the country. A neutral court win over Georgia would help. A win over No. 1 South Carolina in the second round would make it a slam dunk but beating the best team in America playing about 90 minutes from home is a tall order and a loss in those circumstances wouldn’t necessarily be an eliminator.
Alabama is close, headed to either agony or ecstasy on Selection Day. But it can help itself.
“We’ve got to control what’s in front of us,” Curry said. “That’s all we can do.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @cecilhurt