Sales, fans wanted to savor final games

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPNET SportsZone


FEBRUARY 26, 1998

A gray Sunday in February, not very cold but pretty bleak-looking just the same. It was late afternoon, twilight coming quickly.

You just heard the news. It's definite. Nykesha Sales' college career is over because of a ruptured Achilles' tendon. You feel terrible. But you can only imagine what Sales and the people who love her feel like on this day.

  Nykesha Sales
UConn's Nykesha Sales, right, is congratulated by her teammates after setting the school's all-time scoring record.

This is where we all come together -- the coaches, the players, the refs, the fans, the media.

One of the college game's great players will not get to play in her final NCAA Tournament. That means everyone lost something.

Of course, in Connecticut, the loss is the greatest.

Now before anybody starts saying, "Hey, it's not life and death, and what about those tornadoes in Florida, etc,'' yes, we all know that.

Perspective is fine. But people should be allowed to feel sad about something without then being made to feel guilty because it's not the worst thing in the world.

Now, for a second, let's forget about Final Four hopes and all that stuff. That isn't really the reason dinners probably were left half-eaten, eyes were reddened and hearts were heavy across the state of Connecticut.

UConn fans love Sales. They can tell you about her favorite moves to the basket, her greatest games, the way she might have smiled at them when they got her autograph.

Watching her play makes them happy. She didn't have that many games left in the Huskies' red, white and blue. But those last games -- however many there were, however far the Huskies got -- UConn fans were going to savor them.

They want to shower her with affection, scream for her, high-five when she nailed a shot. They wanted to squeeze every last bit of joy out of Sales' time as a Huskies player.

They know that was taken from them. They know it was taken from her.

They don't know why.

Nobody does. Didn't look like much, did it? A simple move to the basket. She'd done it a million times probably. She was on her way to the hoop, the one that would make her the school's all-time scoring leader. What kind of lousy odds are those, huh?

Sales met with the media on Monday, and as you might expect, she was terrific in handling it. Sales has won a national championship, she's had four great years and etched her place in women's hoops history.

That it ended too soon, so suddenly, well, Sales can deal with that. The resolve of a top-level athlete -- and top-level person -- can't be underestimated.

Let's face it, if this was someone who didn't know how to work hard, who felt sorry for herself, who didn't have the highest standards -- that person wouldn't have been on the floor to begin with.

Bad things happen to good people. But nothing changes the people they are.

Rehab is never easy, especially with this injury. But expect that Sales will do it and come back strong for her pro career.

Her last basket

The agreement between Villanova and UConn to allow Sales to score a basket at the start of Tuesday's game has been a hot topic of debate.

You have to look at this situation in context. One basket away from the record? If fate is that wicked, it deserves UConn fighting back a little bit.

People can talk about the "integrity of competition,'' but come on. Yes, it was a close game, and UConn won in overtime. But it seems absurd to think Sales' basket and subsequent allowed basket for Villanova changed the outcome of the game.

It was a good moment for fans to cheer Sales, for her last memory on a college basketball court to be something positive and not painful.

It was a special situation, one that's not going to happen very often in the sporting world.

Next up

After ending the regular season Tuesday at Villanova, UConn goes to the Big East Tournament (Feb. 28-March 3). Hosted by Rutgers, the team that recently beat the Huskies.

How will UConn react? This team went through the loss of freshman sensation Shea Ralph last season during the NCAA Tournament. In spite of how upset they are, the UConn players aren't going to just give up and stop playing.

These are tough times for a coach, too. Geno Auriemma knows he has to focus everyone on life without Sales, however hard that is for him personally.

Will we see the reigning champs toppled in the league they've so dominated the past several years? Perhaps. But there also might be at least one UConn player who finds something within herself that she didn't fully know was there before.

Tourney time

Where to start? How about alphabetically? Here are some of the highlights:

  • ACC: This tells you something about the relative balance of the ACC this season: North Carolina-Virginia is a quarterfinal matchup. What do you think? Four OTs this time?

    Duke beat the Cavaliers -- in overtime, of course -- on Sunday to earn the Blue Devils' first league regular-season title. Duke won't put a lot of stock into the fact that the No. 1 seed hasn't fared all that well in the ACC tournament, especially in the last decade.

    But for the sake of stats, we'll go ahead and mention it: Only three times in the '90s has the top seed won.

    The Blue Devils, who made the title game and lost as a No. 4 seed in '95 and a No. 2 seed in '96, say, "So what, we'll take our chances with No. 1.''

    No. 1 worked last year, as North Carolina beat Clemson for the title.

    This is almost always a very entertaining tournament. Expect the same this week.

  • A-10: The Atlantic 10 tournament gets under way Tuesday night. George Washington, despite its senior losses from last season, seems to be coming together at the end of the year.

    Which is actually a lot like last season.

    Be interesting to see how far Duquesne, which opens Tuesday with Temple, can go. And how far will be far enough to get the Dukes an NCAA bid, should they not win it all and get the at-large berth?

  • Big South: Tournament host Liberty looks to keep its record perfect heading into the NCAAs.

  • Big Ten: If we've established nothing else in this column, we've confirmed that you never really know what's going to happen in the Big Ten.

    There are some fine people in this country who spend much of their lives pondering the Big Ten, and they may not sleep much this week. All the possible scenarios floating in their heads and a couple of Mountains Dews, and the next thing you know, it's sunrise.

    Iowa came down the stretch strong, winning the regular-season title as Illinois lost its last two on the road to Wisconsin and Purdue.

    Now how much prosperity can the Hawkeyes handle? Last year, their only NCAA hope was winning the Big Ten tournament, which they did.

    If the seedings hold out -- and my one gutless prediction about this league is that they won't -- it would be Iowa vs. Indiana and Illinois vs. Michigan in the semifinals.

  • Colonial Athletic Association: There's no reason to think anything different will happen here than has happened at every CAA tournament Old Dominion has played in. Since going to the CAA from the Sun Belt for the 1991-'92 season, ODU has won them all.

  • Conference USA: It's hard to care anymore, now that the Red, White and Blue Divisions no longer exist. Oh, I'm just kidding. The tournament host is No. 3 seed Louisville. Memphis and Marquette are 1-2, and defending champion Tulane is No. 4. All four of those teams, plus DePaul, got NCAA bids last season.

    DePaul's not going this year unless it wins.

  • Mid-American: If Kent beats Ohio on Wednesday, it goes into the tournament with a perfect league record. But the tourney host is Toledo. The question is, if Kent and Toledo meet in the final, does the loser get an at-large bid?

  • Southeastern: Wacky things have happened in the past with this tournament, and the Internet buzz is this is the place where maybe Tennessee goes down. Very, very doubtful. The drama is probably not going to be in who wins this tournament, but in who might play their way in or out of an NCAA bid.

  • West Coast: League-leading Santa Clara plays host to the tournament, so it's not too hard to assume the Broncos have the edge.

    WAC update

    The WAC tournament doesn't start until next week, but Rice's televised victory over Hawaii this past Sunday (a fun game to watch) certainly makes that league's outlook even more complex in regards to NCAA bids.

    Seven teams -- Hawaii, SMU and Rice from the Pacific and Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah and UTEP -- all go into the tournament thinking about realistic NCAA possibilities.

    (This is not to say that nobody else from this gargantuan league can win the tournament and automatic bid, but that seems pretty improbable.)

    You never say never with the selection committee, but one assumes the WAC isn't going to get seven teams in. So the tournament, March 2-7 in Las Vegas, will be critical.

    Not tourney time

    Meanwhile, in the two leagues that do not have a postseason tournament -- the Ivy and the Pac- 10 -- regular-season life goes on. And the favorites are two schools whose nicknames are colors.

    Pretty much the same color, in fact.

    If Harvard beats Yale this Friday in the Ivy, the Crimson becomes the first team to clinch an NCAA bid.

    Meanwhile, Stanford has a two-game lead in the Pac-10 and has four games left, so there are still mathematical possibilities for the Cardinal to not win the league. But realistically ...

    And finally, this week's "FFFF:'' Fans' Fretting over Folkl's Flowers.

    Kristin Folkl has said at least a couple times that we may know her decision on coming back to Stanford next season based on whether she picks up senior flowers at Saturday's game vs. Arizona at Maples. But apparently, that's not absolutely definite.

    She may return next season not only for hoops but to lift weights with Chelsea, run track, play soccer, fence, swim, whack around some golf balls and hold for PATs for the Cardinal.

    Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star writes a regular women's basketball column for ESPNET SportsZone. Her e-mail address is