Jackie-mania: The year Jackie Stiles became a phenomenon in the women’s NCAA tournament

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Jackie Stiles had never been so happy in her life.

Her fifth-seeded Southwest Missouri State women’s basketball team had clinched a spot in the 2001 women’s Final Four the night before. And as the team’s plane taxied into the small Springfield airport after their flight home from the regional in Spokane, Washington, players and staff had less than 24 hours to race home, do laundry and repack before heading to St. Louis for the national semifinals.

“I can’t even describe the kind of joy I felt,” Stiles said of that moment. “It was like, ‘Is this real?'”

Then when Stiles and her teammates entered the airport terminal, “It was pandemonium,” she recalled.

“A sea of maroon,” said Tom Ladd, radio voice of the Lady Bears. “People wall to wall. They filled the entire building, from where we came in to where we picked up the luggage. Clapping, and smiling, cheering and back-slapping. It was the neatest thing ever.”

The Lady Bears normally would have been in and out of the airport within 10 minutes. But on March 27, 2001, there were hundreds of autographs to sign and photos to pose for. It took a couple hours for the players to make their way through the crowd. “An incredible scene for women’s basketball,” Stiles said.

Excitement for the Lady Bears had been building for a decade; the program also had gone to the 1992 Final Four. But it hit its zenith during that storybook 2001 season. A player who insisted on making 1,000 shots per day, who was so popular the team hired security to keep her from being interrupted by autograph seekers during her pregame warmups, Stiles captivated the country. She broke the NCAA Division I scoring record, and fans fell in love with the Midwestern sharpshooter with the infectious smile and an underdog team that took them on an unforgettable ride.

Her scoring record has since been broken, and the school is now known as Missouri State. But 20 years later it remains the last time a mid-major school reached the Women’s Final Four, a feat that has grown even larger in retrospect. Each NCAA tournament, we watch to see if that transcendent player will emerge. Stars such as Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes, Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw, UConn’s Breanna Stewart and Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale did it. Current standouts UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Arizona’s Aari McDonald are doing it in San Antonio now. But few embodied the magnificence of March more than Stiles.

“Definitely the magic of it is what I’ll remember most,” Stiles said. “It gives me chills sometimes, talking about it, reliving it.”

IN SOME WAYS, STILES WISHES her memories of that 2000-01 season could freeze at that airport homecoming. Before an 81-64 national semifinal loss to Purdue in which the Lady Bears scored 40 points fewer than they had four days earlier in winning the regional title against Washington.

“I have yet to watch that Purdue game tape,” said then-Lady Bears coach Cheryl Burnett, normally a fanatic film-watcher. “I’m not watching it, ever.”

Burnett became the Lady Bears’ head coach in 1987, after three years as an assistant. She built her first Final Four team with Midwestern kids and used the same formula in the late 1990s. Stiles, a 5-foot-8 guard, was a wondrous talent from tiny Claflin, Kansas, about six hours from the Missouri State campus. She was close to signing with UConn but couldn’t forsake the program that had first scouted her in fifth grade.

“You know, Jackie was ‘Jackie Stiles’ in high school too,” said Carly Deer Stubblefield, a senior guard/forward in 2001 and Stiles’ roommate. “She didn’t just become that in college. She was phenomenal. At camps, other players would be like, ‘Oh, it’s Jackie!’ She had that star power to her.”

Missouri State averaged 4,899 fans at home games during its 1991-92 Final Four season. Over the next nine seasons, the Lady Bears drew more than a million fans and averaged 7,581 per home game. During Stiles’ four seasons, the average at Hammons Center was 7,847, peaking with a program-best 8,435 her senior year, which included six sellouts.

“It felt like the fans were right on top of the action, and it could be a very intimidating place for opponents,” Ladd said. “A great place for the home team, especially with those crowds. Oh my gosh, they were loud.”

Especially when Stiles had 30 points to become the NCAA scoring leader on March 1, 2001, and then had 47 on March 10, when Missouri State won its conference tournament for the first time in her career.

“When we won the Missouri Valley final, the arena just stayed packed afterward for so long,” Stiles said. “No one wanted to leave.”

The affable Stiles never fit the celebrity mold; no one had less of a star personality. Her father, Pat, is still a successful Kansas high school coach, and Stiles was the consummate coach’s kid who would sneak back into the gym when Burnett tried to kick her out. Stiles was fanatical about workouts and shooting regimens. Their freshmen year, Deer Stubblefield tried to keep up with her, and was concerned when she couldn’t.

“I came home one day, and Jackie was napping on the couch, but her legs were moving as if she were running,” Deer Stubblefield said. “Then I was like, ‘OK, it’s not me, she’s just different.’ She was even exercising in her sleep.”

Stiles was the perfect fit for Burnett, who believed her team could overcome any deficiency it had in general by being as strong and in shape as possible.

“At 5 a.m. on the track,” Deer Stubblefield said, “it would be us and the ROTC people out there.”

Stiles averaged 20.6 points per game as a freshman, and then 25.7 PPG as a sophomore and 27.8 her junior season, but Missouri State didn’t get past the second round of the NCAA tournament. When the 2000-01 season began, the Lady Bears set a goal to reach the nearby Final Four, but Stiles closing in on the scoring record became just as big of a storyline. She did everything she could to avoid thinking or hearing about it, asking Deer Stubblefield not to bring in newspapers or watch local news at their apartment.

Meanwhile, people sent items to Stiles’ home in Claflin to be autographed; Pat and wife, Pam, did the best they could to get things signed and mailed back.

“But I bet if I looked around enough in the house now,” Pam said, chuckling, 20 years later, “I could probably still find something we never got around to sending back.”

As the frenzy surrounding Stiles and the team grew, fans sometimes approached her while she was warming up on court. Stiles had been rebuffed for an autograph by a local NFL star in high school when she and teammates approached him in a restaurant and asked him to sign their program from the Kansas state track meet, which they’d won. Remembering that, she vowed she would never say no to any autograph request.

But Burnett made it so she didn’t have to, hiring a former police officer as a team manager/bodyguard to shoo away overzealous fans. He couldn’t be everywhere, though. The night before the game in which Stiles needed 20 points to break the scoring record, she and Deer Stubblefield went to a Burger King hoping for a quick bite. It soon became a madhouse, and they had to leave.

It wasn’t until later that Stiles learned that someone had offered St. Louis Cardinals season tickets to one of her teammates in exchange for a ticket to the potential record-breaking game.

The morning after getting the record, Stiles was awakened by her clock radio, which was set to a local music station and was playing a tribute song — “Thank you, Jackie” — that someone had composed for her.

“She really couldn’t escape it,” Deer Stubblefield said. “But with us, she could be herself.”

AFTER THEIR CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT VICTORY, the Lady Bears hoped to be a top-16 seed and get to host early-round NCAA tournament games, both considering their 25-5 record and their attendance. But they were saddled with a No. 5 seed in a subregional at Rutgers. For the Final Four dream to come true, Missouri State would have to win two games in Piscataway, New Jersey, then fly across the country to win two more in Spokane.

For the fans, it also meant going to the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest and then back to Missouri in the space of about 10 days. Pat Stiles rode a fan bus to New Jersey and back, then was part of a nine-person group, along with Pam, who drove an RV to Washington. The Lady Bears made all the travel worth it.

Tara Mitchem Glassgold, a Springfield native and one of four senior starters, stepped up with 40 points in a first-round win over Toledo. Stiles was limited to 13 after going out because of concussion symptoms after she ran into a screen. But Stiles returned to score 32 in beating the Scarlet Knights — who had been a Final Four team the year before — on their home court.

In Spokane, Stiles had 41 points in upsetting No. 1 seed Duke in the regional semifinals. The game was televised in prime time on Saturday night, and then-Kansas men’s basketball coach Roy Williams was among those who watched. He gushed about Stiles in a news conference a few days later.

“On every play, Duke knew the ball was going to her. Every play the ball went to her, and every play she scored,” Williams said. “It’s a simple frickin’ game for that girl.

“She says, ‘I don’t care what you do, I’m coming there, I’m gonna get the ball. I’m gonna score and you ain’t gonna guard me.’ I could have watched that game for 24 hours.”

Then-Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said she remembers seeing the Lady Bears at the pre-regional banquet and being amazed at how fit they looked.

“In the game, we could not keep the ball out of Jackie’s hands. She found a way to take advantage of everybody we put on her,” said Goestenkors, who had future WNBA defensive player of the year Alana Beard on her team then. “We went through our plans A, B, C and D.”

Current Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who was early on in his stint as Gonzaga’s coach at the time, attended that game in Spokane. He compared the Stiles phenomenon to that of guard Courtney Vandersloot at Gonzaga a decade later. Vandersloot is now with the Chicago Sky and one of the top point guards in WNBA history.

“They were kind of average-sized kids, 5-8 tall, but really great athletes and players,” Graves said of Stiles and Vandersloot. “And their communities just fell in love with them.”

Everything clicked in the regional final against Washington, with Stiles scoring 32 points again in a 104-87 win.

Then came the whirlwind: the flight home, the airport celebration, the bus ride to St. Louis, the media obligations, the open practices, the pre-Final Four banquet. For Stiles, there was a side trip to accept the Wade Trophy as the national player of the year at a presentation at the men’s Final Four in Minnesota. It left an already weary Stiles even more spent.

Stiles remembers crying before the banquet because she had no time to fix her hair.

“But I wasn’t actually crying about my hair, of course,” she said. “I was just exhausted. We all were.”

There were many more tears after the loss to Purdue, and if Stiles thinks about it long enough now, she will still tear up. The Lady Bears really thought they could win the national championship, but they ran out of gas. Stiles had 22 points on 33% shooting (7-of-21); she came into the game shooting 57.4% for the season.

The title went to Notre Dame. The other three Final Four teams, which included UConn, had gotten to play at home in the early rounds.

Stiles averaged 30.3 points as a senior and finished her career with 3,393 points. That led Division I until Washington’s Kelsey Plum (3,527 points) broke Stiles’ record in 2017. Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell moved into second place with 3,402 in 2018. Stiles is third; she played 129 career games, 10 fewer than both Plum and Mitchell.

Just like Burnett, Stiles hasn’t watched the Purdue loss. The city of Springfield still threw a parade, and there was another autograph session at Hammons for the 2001 Lady Bears.

“It put a happier ending on everything, when I look back,” Deer Stubblefield said. “Instead of just ending with us crying on the bench.”

Burnette agonized after the Final Four loss, second-guessing herself. Even in a season in which she made sure the Lady Bears were in the best of shape of their lives, there was little she could have done about the toll that travel and no time for rest had taken on them heading into the national semifinal.

About two weeks later, Burnett called then-Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, asking what she could have done differently.

“She said, ‘We never go inside the airport when we come home,'” Burnett said. “I guess that would have saved a little time. But I don’t think I could have done that to all those people. They were the ones who made us.”

The players cherish the memory.

“I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” Deer Stubblefield said. “I mean, especially after what we’ve been through this past year with COVID, when you can’t hug your friends, let alone shake hands and hug strangers? Something like that couldn’t happen now.”

Could another season like 2001 happen? In Springfield, or in another mid-major town? You think it has to, eventually, but it will be 21 years by the next NCAA tournament.

The current Missouri State team has been to the Sweet 16 in the past two NCAA tournaments. Sunday in San Antonio, the Lady Bears lost 89-62 in the regional semifinals to overall No. 1 seed Stanford. They play in a different home arena now, but their goals are the same as the Lady Bears of the past.

“This program has been to two Final Fours,” Missouri State coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said, “and that’s what we’re working to get it back to.”

Stiles, who has been an assistant coach at her alma mater and most recently at Oklahoma, hopes to see it happen again. That another group of young women will get to feel what she and her teammates did then.

“I thought for a lot of years, ‘Man, this might have ruined the rest of my life because what will I experience that will ever compare to that?’ ” she said. “It was just so special. But now when I think about it, I’m just so grateful we all got to live through that time.”

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