TAMPA ― Maybe, just maybe, this weekend’s shindig at Amalie Arena will bring us at least one breathless moment before the confetti falls.
Suspense in this NCAA women’s tournament has been at a premium — so far. The bracket has remained mostly bereft of last-gasp drama ― to this point. No true instant classics have materialized ― yet.
But all that might change before you can say Ogunbowale.
Face it, we yearn for buzzer beaters. We eagerly anticipate them the way a big-league fan anticipates an upper-deck blast or an NHL fan anticipates dropped gloves.
“It’s very democratic, very universal," said Charlotte Smith, who in 1994 sank a buzzer beater to lift North Carolina past Louisiana Tech in the NCAA title game.
"That ball brings us together. When that clock is winding down ― in basketball, in life, in anything ― one way or another there’s still a chance.”
Quick test for those who follow the women’s game: What are the three lasting images of last season’s Final Four?
1) Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beating jumper from the right wing to take down UConn in the semifinals, 2) Ogunbowale’s off-balance 3-pointer with one-tenth of a second remaining to beat Mississippi State in the final, 3) Ummm, we’ll get back to you.
Those last-second hoists ― whether borne of diagramming or desperation or both ― are the stuff of dreams and ESPN promos. They’re what put the madness in March. They fulfill fantasies and forge unlikely heroes.
Most of all, they’re plausible.
On the frequency spectrum, they reside somewhere between seldom and periodically. In the past two years alone, the Women’s Final Four has produced three buzzer beaters and three overtime contests.
“We practice 'em pretty much every day,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who has the Ducks in the program’s first Final Four.
"Sometimes I have to get on the kids. I’ll go, ‘Okay, let’s go late-game.’ A lot of it’s a dry-run kind of stuff, and they kinda go through the motions because we do it so much.
“But I keep telling 'em there’s gonna come a time when we’re gonna need this and we’re gonna have to execute it perfectly.”
When that time comes, anyone on the court can unleash one. Unlike a hole-in-one or no-hitter, a buzzer beater requires no rarefied skill set. As Smith indicated, it’s democratic, completely non-discriminatory.
“We would ― and I think a lot of teams do this on a regular basis ― have shooting contests,” said Tom Shaneyfelt, a 700-game winner who won 650 as Clearwater High girls coach.
“And the last round would be, a team had to make two half-court shots, or a team had to make a three-quarter-court shot, which could take a while sometimes. Amazingly, it would happen faster than you thought. ... I think it gets in kids’ heads that it’s not impossible if you have a look.”
Which leads us to Central High alumnus Sinjin Blaha. Google his name, check out the YouTube clip of his most extraordinary athletic moment.
Senior Night, 2014. Before tipoff against Dunnellon, Blaha, arguably the Bears’ most versatile player, had been recognized with his mom, Dee Munford. Dunnellon hit a mid-range basket with seconds remaining in overtime to take a two-point lead.
Blaha took the ensuing inbounds pass about 85 feet from the basket, cocked back his arm ― quarterback-style ― and let it fly. Swish.
“And then the next day in practice, my coach (Matt Zandecki) goes, ‘All right, you know what I’m gonna ask you,’” recalled Blaha, now 23. “He asks me to take the shot again. I threw the first one up there, it kinda hits the backboard. And then I throw another one up there, swish.”
Who hasn’t simulated such a scenario? A golfer can toil for hours on the practice range and never see that ace come to fruition. That sinewy pubescent can swing at a hundred balls fed into a pitching machine and never once reach the warning track.
But a buzzer beater? It’s right there, only as far away as that net-less hoop nailed to the barn door.
“We always mess around about it. The clock’s going down and we’re hitting the shot at the buzzer,” said Seffner Christian’s Brylee Bartram, who owns the nation’s prep record (boy or girl) for career 3-pointers. “That’s every kid’s dream.”
The dream is hardly confined to kids.
Two decades ago, when he was still coach at Cincinnati preparing for a game at USF, current West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told a story that brought it all home.
“One day we’re at our gym, and we’re winding down practice. I’m getting interviewed and the players are heading off, but one of them leaves a ball on the court, just this one ball. So I’m talking, and I see this guy walking by, and he sees this ball out there. So he walks out, picks it up and shoots it. Then he walks off. Custodian comes by, he’s cleaning up. But he sees that ball. He picks it up, shoots it. A little later, a secretary is walking with some papers. She sees the ball. She puts her papers down, picks up that ball, tries a 3. You put a baseball bat on a field and do people start practicing swings? Only basketball. I’m telling you, it’s the damn ball and that dream.”
To be sure, we all can dream.
Women’s Final Four
Amalie Arena, Tampa
Friday: Baylor vs. Oregon, 7 and Notre Dame vs. UConn, 9:30 TV: ESPN2
Sunday: final, 6 TV: ESPN
More info/tickets: Single-session tickets are available through the NCAA’s official site; prices vary. Visit ncaa.com/womens-final-four
• The Tampa Convention Center will host Tourney Town, a free festival with contests, games, autographs and clinics April 5-7. The event includes Beyond the Baseline, which features opportunities for networking and professional development.
• The plaza outside Amalie Arena will host a free party with live music, food and games before the games (4-6:30 on April 5 and 3-5:30 on April 7).
• Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park will have a free celebration of basketball with fireworks and live music from 6-11 p.m. on April 6.
• The Women’s Final Four Bounce is a dribbling parade for children 18 and younger. It starts at 1 p.m. on April 7 at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Times staff writers Martin Fennelly and Rodney Page contributed to this report. Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.