March Madness Mystique

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

College basketball puts on a post season brimming with compelling story lines. Davids slaying Goliaths. Cinderellas slipping on glass slippers. Even the names attached to the tournament sizzle with mystique. They call it March Madness. The Big Dance. As of today, both the men and women have reached what is called the Sweet Sixteen of the Big Dance and the game is on. On the women's side, emotions are running high for North Carolina State, playing their hearts out for their popular coach Kay Yow, who is working the sidelines despite her struggle against stage-four breast cancer. Coach Yow is 65 now, a decorated career already behind her. She spent two months of the season undergoing intensive chemotherapy, yet the disease has now spread to both her skeleton and liver. On paper, Coach Yow's chances for survival are not high. But yesterday she headed out to Fresno with a nurse and her oncologist, where NC State will take on the always-tough University of Connecticut Huskies on Saturday. The game will be charged for NC State, the players' hearts heavy with the prospect of this being perhaps their coach's final basketball game. Perhaps one of the last highlights of her life.

On a lighter note, one of the David/Goliath games will be played Sunday in Dayton, Ohio. The high profile Lady Volunteers of the storied University of Tennessee, coached by legend Pat Summitt, will take the floor with a swagger. Their opponent? A small school out of Poughkeepsie, New York, called Marist College.  Marist's Red Foxes are the lowest seeded team to make it to the Big Dance and they don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of beating mighty Tennessee. Marist players will walk onto the court in utter awe of the Tennessee superstars, especially phenom Candace Parker, who actually beat all the boys in the country as a high schooler in the McDonald's Slam Dunk contest which has been won by the hottest dunkers in the NBA, such as Kobe Bryant. The Marist coach, Brian Giorgis, has admired Pat Summitt all his basketball life. Six years ago, on a family car vacation through the Smokey Mountains, he coaxed his father to make a detour one afternoon to pass through Knoxville, perchance to come across Coach Summitt, even for a moment. She was there and she graciously gave Giorgis about 15. He says he'll never forget it. It would be like a die-hard Yankee fan driving up to the Bronx and lucking out to spend 15 minutes shooting the breeze with Derek Jeter.

Come Sunday in Dayton, the Red Foxes will come through the tunnel starry-eyed to meet the Lady Vols. This is one David I wouldn't wager on slaying this Goliath but those Red Foxes and their coach are thrilled to show up as Cinderellas at the ball.

There are several wonderful stories in the men's Sweet Sixteen as well. University of Nevada Las Vegas, once national champion, is a program still rebuilding after years of sanctions for violations. For the first time in 16 years, UNLV is dancing past the first round, with two guys named Kruger, the heart and soul of the team. Lon Kruger is the coach, with a sterling resume. His son, Kevin Kruger, actually graduated from Arizona State last year but he had one year of eligibility remaining and transferred to UNLV to play his last hurrah for his dad. They were unlikely bets to beat hot Wisconsin but they did beat the Badgers. They'll be underdogs against Oregon tomorrow, but this is actually one David that just could bring Goliath down.

The star of the Florida defending national champs, Yoakim Noah, also reminds us that the focus for all these college players is first and foremost education. When asked before the tournament if the Gators should be seeded number one, Noah eloquently responded, "It don't matter. It don't matter!"

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad