The Game Story
On January 17, UConn played Syracuse at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut’s “other” home court, 25 miles from the Storrs campus. All-American Maya Moore scored a career-high 40 points, including a Big East-record 10 three-pointers. She also became the fastest Husky ever to reach 1000 points, in only her fifty-fifth game, breaking Svetlana Abrosimova’s previous record of 63 games.
Moore may have received a little “pre-game encouragement” from Syracuse’s Nicole Michael, a Big East Honorable Mention player last season, who told her campus newspaper, “Last season, playing them well, it just seems that we're just as good as they are . . . . "We play all Big East teams well. Them being No.1 is really the only difference between us." Saying things like this can often backfire for athletes. Top-ranked and still unbeaten Connecticut defeated unranked Syracuse (now 14-4) on this day, 107-53.
It was an extremely physical game, and the officials did very little to control off-ball contact that frequently left players lying on the court in a heap. Connecticut guard Caroline Doty went down late in the first half (after nailing five-of-11 from beyond the arc for a total of 17 points); the resulting ACL tear (her second, the knee having previously been surgically repaired from a high-school soccer injury) will end her promising freshman season. Though there was no contributing contact on that particular play, there was plenty of it elsewhere, and Doty's loss no doubt fueled the emotion. Syracuse’s Juanita Ward was called for a technical foul when she threw an elbow mid-way through the second half, one of the few flying elbows that were actually called. UConn Coach Geno Auriemma was called for a technical when he protested failure to call fouls for that off-ball contact.
Whether it was the injury, the roughness, or the smack talk, it seems pretty clear that Auriemma, who usually tries to avoid running up the score, was sending a message to Syracuse by allowing a blowout of this size. (Even so, Auriemma subbed out Tina Charles at the 5:20 mark, and Maya Moore at 4:20).
The “Handshakegate” Sequel
This should have been the game story, as it was for ESPN.com’s Graham Hays. Hays' Story. But a later iincident that has now taken on the sobriquet “Handshakegate” became the story for two Hartford Courant writers, both of whom went out of their way to attack me personally for my approach to the event in the post-game press conference.
Whatever the motivations for Syracuse’s aggressive physical play or for the score, emotions were running high as the game ended. A number of the Syracuse players refused to slap hands in the post-game handshake line. As Coach Auriemma passed Nicole Michael, who had finished with 11 points for Syracuse, the two exchanged words, though who spoke first is not clear, even after reviewing the TV recording. As they passed a second time heading for the locker rooms, Michael turned to Auriemma, put out her foot, and the Coach tripped over it, but did not fall. Though Auriemma later sought to downplay the exchange, he was clearly upset at the time. Auriemma turned back toward Michael, and she toward him. Both were gently guided away by coaches and players. The incident has now been memorialized on YouTube under an unfortunate heading. YouTube Post-Game Video
Connecticut, which has just one professional team, the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, loves UConn’s women’s and men’s basketball teams, which obviously have been highly successful for more than a decade. The UConn women’s basketball local press corps is the largest in the nation, numbering somewhere between 10 and 15 regular beat writers. Connecticut readers want to know about “their” team. Therefore, the Connecticut beat writers mostly ask visiting team coaches and players for their reactions to UConn’s play. Rarely are there questions about the doings of the visiting team itself.
Reporting for Full Court Press, my job is obviously different: I write “game stories” only during tournament time (unless there is a major upset), and I cover the entire Big East, as I have done for a dozen years. I ask questions of coaches to get a feel for the teams in the Big East and their approaches to the game, so that my features on the league will be more informed.
In the post-game press conference, I asked Syracuse Coach Quentin Hillsman whether his team showed a lack of respect for Connecticut, because many had not shaken hands, and because Nicole Michael had confronted and tripped Auriemma. When Hillsman professed not to understand what I meant, I followed up.
The Hartford Courant’s Women’s Basketball blog quoted the exchange as follows:
"That was about as bush league as I've seen covering basketball in the Big East for 12 years," Clark told Hillsman. "I've never seen a player physically contact a coach before and attempt to trip him. Do you have an answer for that? Are you going to talk to Nicole Michael about that?">BR>
"She tried to trip a coach?" Hillsman asked.
"Yeah, she did," Clark told Hillsman. "She was jawing with coach on the other team."
". . . I didn't see it so I can't comment on it," Hillsman said. "I don't know what else you would like me to say to that?"
"I'd like to know whether you think your team lacks appropriate respect as opposed to, there's no question your team played hard, there's another issue about whether they're showing respect that another coach is due," Clark said. "And I don't cover UConn, I cover the Big East, and I've never seen that happen."
The video of Hillsman and of my question (although not the first portion of the exchange between the coach and me) is posted on the Courant blog Courant Blog. It also, apparently, made it to YouTube, courtesy of the Courant. YouTube Press Conference Video
Shaun Corchesne, a Courant sports reporter who attends many UConn games, but rarely writes about the women’s team, took issue with my questions in his blog post:
“In the postgame press conference Clark went to full on cross examination mode with Hillsman, though it was an examination far from based in any sort of evidentiary fact.
“In a setting organized for question and answer with the coach, Clark instead gave Hillsman, and his team, a verbal undressing and demanded Hillsman answer to the alleged incident.”
In the print edition of the Courant, sports columnist Jeff Jacobs also attacked my approach to the press conference, writing:
“Jim Clark, a career prosecutor and correspondent for ‘Full Court Press,’ acted much more like judge and jury instead of journalist as he leaned hard into Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman.”
Jacobs is a columnist, not a beat writer, and chose this to be his story of the day. I think it was a bad choice, and I am sorry he chose to attack my professionalism. It is my opinion that he missed the mark in both respects.
My editor has asked for my thoughts on this incident. First of all, but for the controversy created around these questions by the Courant (and my editor’s request), this entire incident might have merited one line in my next Big East story. Unfortunately, because some members of the Courant staff (excluding the excellent beat writer John Altavilla) would rather create controversy than write about basketball, I am here to set out my perspective on the “story.”
In addition to my personal observation, here are the facts I had when I questioned of Coach Hillsman: ( 1) Beth Mowins, who was doing color commentary for Big East TV and was within three feet of the incident, said clearly, Nicole Michael tripped Coach Auriemma; (2) two members of the UConn student support staff, who were on the table-side of the court where the incident happened, said that Michael tripped Auriemma; (3) local TV channel 61's reporter told me that a Connecticut Public Television staffer had seen Michael trip Auriemma.
So, was it unreasonable then to ask Hillsman about his response to the incident? If a team shows poor sportsmanship, it matters -- to the league, to my readers, and to women's basketball. If the coach condones that behavior, it says important things about the program’s direction.
Far from setting myself up as judge and jury, I gave Coach Hillsman the opportunity to share his response to an unfortunate incident. He might have said any number of things – e.g., that the contact was accidental, or that it had been provoked by something Coach Auriemma had said to Michael (as some, mostly Syracuse fans, have since since suggested. Indeed, there are some wags who have suggested on the internet that it was Auriemma who had tripped Michael, and though there is no evidence for it, I suppose Coach Hillsman could have said that. If, as too many sportswriters are prone to do, one sits idly in the press room waiting for Sports Information assistants to hand one pre-fab game quotes, one never finds out. At the time Coach Hillsman was available for comment, all of my information pointed to Michael yapping at and tripping Auriemma. Asking the question seemed reasonable to me. Asking the followup question was necessary, because the coach asked what I wanted him to say, and I answered that I wanted him to tell us whether he thought his team lacked the appropriate respect for their opponent.
Coach Hillsman could also have responded that he hadn’t seen the incident, would look into it, and take appropriate disciplinary action, if true, to convey to his players that such conduct would not be condoned. That’s the tack he took – more or less, mostly less. Hillsman said he hadn’t seen it and wouldn’t discuss it, and then asked me what I wanted him to say.
Perhaps Coach Hillsman didn’t see the trip. It was clear that many of the Syracuse players did not shake hands in the line after the game, and that Coach Hillsman could not have missed seeing that. That kind of poor sportsmanship should have ended in middle school basketball. A refusal to exchange routine courtesies to an opponent clearly is disrespectful.
As your eyes and ears in the Big East, I will ask the questions, and I will follow up on those questions if a coach tries to avoid it. Part of what Full Court Press offers its readers is an objective perspective on the game, from writers who are not beholding to anyone else. I invite your comments, as you are the readers who matter.
Or, better yet, focus on the first section, and ignore the rest: The basketball story ends there.