DREAM DENIED

INDIANAPOLIS – The mountaintop was in their sights – and then the oxygen ran out. Suddenly, everything the Spartans women tried to do felt labored, out of step, passes too short, shots too hard, defense too slow. Their normal driving heartbeat was an irregular thumping now. Wherever they moved, there was a Baylor player in front of them. Whenever they leapt, there was a Baylor player already there. Whenever they looked up, there was a Baylor player celebrating another basket, another rock slide on the avalanche that would soon become the end of their season.

So be it. You can look at this championship game as a pretty solid defeat, 84-62, but never confuse not reaching the top with falling to the bottom. The Spartans earned every inch of their incredible ascent, and, besides Baylor, every other team in America stopped before they did.

One team short. One game shy.

Ending, joyless. Journey, priceless.

“They’re hurting right now, as we all are, because the season is over,” coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “But in the long run they’ll look back and see they were a part of the best team ever at Michigan State – and one of the greatest teams ever.”

It wasn’t a close game Tuesday night. It wasn’t very competitive. Although Michigan State had developed a Houdini-like reputation in the face of deficits, the Spartans seemed doomed from the start, when they scored just eight points in the first 12 minutes. Their jump shots clanked. And their ball movement was all wrong.

Meanwhile, the women from Baylor were as powerful and no-nonsense as their black tops and black socks suggested. They ran with precision. They swarmed for every rebound. And they had a weapon off the bench named Emily Niemann, who seemed to be crafted in a factory. Niemann is a beefy 6-foot-1 Texan, the type you would expect to be banging inside for rebounds. Instead, the sophomore forward did her damage from 22 feet out, long, arching jump shots that were worth three points only because they don’t have a four-point version.

Niemann hit five three-pointers in the first half – five? – punctuating each with a flopped wrist and a race down court. Her 15 points were only 10 fewer than the entire MSU first-half output. “She was the X Factor,” McCallie lamented.

And MSU was X’d out. Baylor’s frontline of Sophia Young and Steffanie Blackmon scored 48 points between them. The Spartans were outrebounded, outhustled, outshot and out of position. A 10-point deficit became a 20-point deficit.

Out of gas, out of miracles, all the Spartans could do was watch as the Lady Bears scampered to the top of the hill, put their flag in the ground and waited for the final horn.

Ending, joyless.

“They found each other at all the right times,” said MSU guard Victoria Lucas-Perry. “They outrebounded us, and they shot well.”

She sighed. “But that wasn’t Spartan basketball.”

And so a great story gets a not-so-great ending. A team that had not lost in 2 1/2 months finally falls in the last game of the season. A team that knocked off powerhouses Tennessee, Stanford and Connecticut falls to its mirror image, the surprising Lady Bears, who weren’t supposed to be here any more than MSU was.

But as the Spartans head back home to resume their lives, fans in Michigan should remember this: They might have lost their game, but they didn’t lose their story.

They are still the group that refused to quit, the team that was never really out of any game, even if MSU trailed by six points with 30 seconds left (Notre Dame) or 16 points in the second half against the reigning royalty of women’s basketball (Tennessee). They are still the group that won 33 games, a school record, still the group that cut down the nets in the Kansas City regional and celebrated Sunday night in a victory for the ages.

“I think we were a step slow tonight because we played a great Tennessee team from 16 points down two nights ago,” McCallie said. “Nobody on our team was moving like we could move. That was a problem. I wish it had been a more exciting game. It was kind of disingenuous to the excitement of the Final Four.”

No apologies needed.

You want a season summary? Here is a season summary. The Spartans men got to the Final Four. The Spartans women got to the championship game. It was almost all you could ask for and nearly more than you could dream.

It was senior center Kelli Roehrig, the 6-foot-4 self-described mother of the clan, and Haynie, the senior guard whose braids have caused a new hair trend in her small hometown of Mason.

It was forward Liz Shimek from northern Michigan, who learned hard work on a dairy farm, and city-bred Lucas-Perry, the funny fireball guard out of Flint Powers.

It was Lindsay Bowen, who wrote a note to her mother when she was 9 years old saying: “I am going to play at Michigan State.”

Trust us, Lindsay, you no longer own the copyright on that sentence.

It was the bench players. It was the camaraderie. And it was the coach, McCallie, who gave birth to a son right after she announced she was taking the job at Michigan State. That was five years ago. Now she has given birth to something else. A legacy. A tradition. People’s eyes were opened by this Michigan State performance. And combined with the men’s stellar showing, “East Lansing” is growing a shadow akin to “Durham” and “Storrs” and “Palo Alto.”

A salute to April Madness

Before the game, I heard a voice yelling down from the upper level.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” Bill Laimbeer screamed. “Aren’t you allergic to women’s basketball?”

Well, Laimbeer never had an ounce of tact. But who could be allergic to this? This wasn’t women’s sports, it was sports. Those weren’t female comebacks, they were comebacks. This wasn’t girlish effort, and those weren’t girlie tears at the end.

It was passion, all of it, the same passion you see in any sport played by any gender. Having been to 20 Final Fours – the male version – I can tell you the noise in the RCA Dome on Tuesday night was the same, the bands were the same, the TV time-outs were the same, and the nutty fans were the same.

But then, regular fans of women’s sports already know this.

There are just a lot more of them now.

“We did a lot this season,” said Haynie, a senior. “We did a lot for us, and we did a lot for the school. Women’s basketball is on the rise. And this program will be on the rise.”

A nod of thanks, then, to a group of young ladies who bowled together and ate together and laughed together and wore a hurting teammate’s number on their shoes together. Now they have done this together. Climbed a huge mountain and looked through teary eyes at the summit, just a few feet away.

Ending, joyless. Journey, priceless. The Spartans did us all proud this April, the men and the women. Let’s leave them up, high on the hillside, dreaming of next year and the heights they can achieve.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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