The road to the Women’s Final Four is paved with estrogen over crushed testosterone.
Many of the women participating Sunday in the national championship game at Nationwide Arena grew up proving that girls in ponytails can kick the tails of quite a few guys on the court — not always, but often enough that, years later, the ladies look back and smile at the beginning of their female empowerment.
In this Year of the Woman, mater millennials from Notre Dame and Mississippi State fondly recall how hanging tough against brothers and male friends taught them that their gender never need apologize for succeeding in their sport.
Fighting Irish guard Jackie Young said Saturday that she initially had to prove herself to her older brother and his buddies, but eventually “I showed I could do a little something, and it got to the point when we’d play pickup games that I would be the first pick.”
Eventually, Young gained the upper hand against her brother, Bubby, and earned the respect of his friends.
Notre Dame junior Jessica Shepard remembers sitting on a basketball, watching her older brother’s youth-league practice in Omaha, Nebraska, when the club coach called her out.
“He yelled, ‘We don’t sit on basketballs here.’ And after that, I started playing on the team,” Shepard said. “I was the only girl in an all-boys league.”
Today, Shepard, Young and other female athletes continue to push against being labeled as successful … for a woman.
In a small way, Friday’s national semifinals were important in moving the women’s game closer to the men’s. Not that women’s basketball can’t stand on its own, but comparisons are inevitable.
In some people’s minds, the women’s NCAA Tournament is less legitimate than the men’s because double-digit scoring margins are the norm more than tight games won by players making big plays in the biggest moments.
The doubters point to Connecticut’s 140-52 bludgeoning of St. Francis in the Huskies’ tournament opener two weeks ago as evidence that the women’s game is suspect.
But anyone who watched Mississippi State defeat Louisville and Notre Dame stun UConn on Friday — both games going to overtime — had to be impressed by the effort and execution.
The basket does not differentiate between sexes, which is to say that making a tying or winning basket in the final seconds — as Roshunda Johnson did for Mississippi State and Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale did against UConn — stands on its own, regardless of whether a man or woman made the play.
A better way to compare college men with women is to note their similarities off the court. Mostly, we see both groups only as players, but when you view them as people, you quickly learn that guys and gals share similar ups and downs.
Notre Dame senior Kathryn Westbeld briefly considered leaving South Bend in her freshman year, noting the intersection of college life and college basketball comes at you fast and furiously.
“Everyone’s freshman year is hard,” Westbeld said. “Just finding my own way and role on this team. It crosses a lot of people’s minds, ‘Was this the right choice?’ But now I can say it was 100 percent the right one.”
Mississippi State 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan was the “tall girl” in school, which comes with its own issues. Working through the awkward middle school years can be trying, but McCowan finally found a safe place in basketball.
“I didn’t go outside,” she said. “I went to school and went home.”
Eventually, friends talked her into trying sports.
“And it went from there,” she said, smiling.
It is still going. Girl Power resumes Sunday night.