As the 2009 NCAA championship game played out to the expected coronation of the U.Conn Huskies, I found myself thinking about which players grabbed my attention as never before throughout tournament. Who were the players who showed guts and heart, and willed themselves to unexpectedly compelling performances? In short, these are the ten players I would want on my team in a sudden death situation, or my Top Ten Badasses (in reverse order of the last tourney game in which they played):
1. Courtney Vandersloot, sophomore, guard, Gonzaga. She played 38 minutes in the ‘Zags first round upset of Xavier, putting up 15 points, 11 assists, a steal and six rebounds. In the second round game against Pitt, her numbers were even gaudier: 18 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals. Simply put, Vandersloot put on a show. She was completely disruptive and closed down virtually every Pittsburgh passing lane. When she did get her hands on the ball, she pushed the tempo up the court at breakneck speed. The team lost in the second round game to Pitt, but Vandersloot was easily the player of the game.
2. Allyssa DeHaan, junior, center, Michigan State. In one of the bigger upsets of the tourney, DeHaan took it right to the heart of the Duke Blue Devils. Sometimes a performance is hidden. DeHaan’s numbers don’t blow you away, but the Dookies had no answer for her physicality. She was even more impressive in the Sweet 16 loss. Each of her five blocked shots was like a body blow to the Iowa State team.
3. FahKara Malone, junior, guard, Purdue. She’s all of five feet, three inches, but she plays like she’s seven feet tall. In the second round upset of UNC, Malone snagged five rebounds. A player so diminutive doesn’t work the boards like that without an iron will and fearless attitude. In the Sweet 16, she sat for just one minute and powered the Boilermakers, controlling tempo and taming C. Vivian Stringer's mighty Scarlet Knight defense.
4. Marisa Coleman, senior, guard/forward, Maryland. With the exception of Jayne Appel (below) I don’t think I’ve seen a guttier, tougher performance all season than what we saw from Marisa Coleman, as she picked up her team, Atlas-like, and carried them on her back past Vanderbilt into the Sweet 16. Her 42 points were impressive, but if you saw the game, you saw a player who refused to lose. Just when I thought she spent everything the had to give, Coleman reached down inside of herself and found something more. I’m no fan of Maryland basketball, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been as touched by a player’s display of genuine emotion as I was by Coleman when she came off the court and collapsed into her coach's arms, breaking down in body sobs, fully aware the her college career was over.
5. Whitney Hand, freshman, guard, Oklahoma. She plays mad, in your face, defense. She drops threes in clutch moments. She steals, pushes tempo and is a huge spark plug for her team. Top it off with the fact that, as a freshman, she seemed completely unfazed by the pressure of the tourney; she didn’t make any first year mistakes or wear down under the bright lights. This kid? She’s a serious bad ass.
6. Courtney Paris, senior, center, Oklahoma. I went back and fourth on this pick, because of the swirling media circus around Courtney Paris, particularly that sycophant Nancy Liebernuts constantly drooling all over Paris. Then I realized, it’s not Paris’ fault. It’s ESPN and Liebernuts that make me crazy. Put aside the shameful media slobbering, and consider, Paris had the weight of finishing her final college game in a disappointing loss to Louisville in the Final Four, but she spoke to ESPN’s Holly Rowe, fighting back tears all the way, and said all the right things - about her team, about Louisville, about her promise to give back her scholarship money. That was probably harder than anything she’s ever had to do on the court in her career. All class.
7. Jayne Appel, junior, forward/center, Stanford. If Appel’s fellow trees brought even half the heart, half the guts, half the will that she did in their Final Four match up against U.Conn, well … they would have lost anyways, but it would have been a squeaker. She never quit -- not for one possession, not even for one moment. She was constantly beat on under the basket by Tina Charles and Kaili McLaren, often double teamed, and still, she kept begging her teammates for the ball. She played 35 brutal minutes of basketball and kept coming. Her 35 minutes were like dog year minutes. And Appel would have played another 35 had they let her. To say nothing of her 46 point performance against Iowa State in the Elite Eight.
8. Angel McCoughtry, senior, forward, Louisville. She plays angry. She plays with a chip on her shoulder. She makes faces and demands the ball. She’s also the best defensive player in the country. She played all 40 minutes when Louisville took down No. 1 seed Maryland, dominating the game. Then, she had perhaps the worst half in her career against Oklahoma in the Final Four. It was a horrible, ugly, downright putrid performance and her coach called her out for it. But she did what gutsy players do - she dug deeper, she worked harder and somehow, she and her team chipped away at a seemingly insurmountable Oklahoma lead to make it to the Championship game.
9. Tina Charles, junior, center, U.Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma is all over her like stink on a skunk, but when it mattered most, when the championship game opened against Louisville and the Huskies looked unusually tight, Tina Charles played like an animal. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. Simply not withering, not crawling away to lick one’s wounds under the unrelenting nagging and harsh criticism from cousin Geno is impressive enough. In the Final Four, Geno was goading her the entire time and she responded simply by playing the finest game of her career on the biggest stage. She owned the paint. In fact, they should paint both keys on the Scott Center court in St. Louis to read: “Property of Tina Charles.”
10. Renee Montgomery, senior, guard, U.Conn. Reams have been written about the greatness that is Renee Montgomery. She’s so great that she causes Geno to act, gosh, human. His respect and affection for her is manifest at all times. He loves Montgomery. She does everything right. When you need a three point shot, she reaches back and makes one. When you need a steal, she gets a hand in a passing lane. In short, she controls the game and refuses to be denied. In the Final Four game, every time Appel dragged Stanford within breathing distance of the Huskies, Montgomery had a response. Every time. My pal the U.Conn fan says she’d want Montgomery in the trenches with her.