Heaven sent: Chat with Sister Jean brightens up Final Four

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Who needs “One Shining Moment” when you’ve got Sister Jean?

The 98-year-old nun who has become the face of this most-inspiring NCAA Tournament held court on Good Friday in one of the best-attended news conferences ever held at the Final Four.

Hundreds of reporters and cameramen jammed in, elbow-to-elbow, in an interview room that would normally draw two dozen journalists for a player.

“I walked by, and I thought it looked like Tom Brady at the Super Bowl,” Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser said.

It was more monumental than that.

This was the No. 1 fan of Moser and the Ramblers — the 11th-seeded team whose magical, miraculous run to the cusp of the title would’ve made for great theater, even without a nun.

Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt has added a completely new, unexpected and, yes, wonderful twist to the proceedings. Her 15-minute Q&A on the eve of Loyola’s game against Michigan illustrated precisely why.

She fielded questions about everything from whether God cares about basketball — “more the NCAA than the NBA” — some light trash talk with former Michigan star Jalen Rose’s 100-year-old grandma — “Somebody said, ‘Maybe you need a pair of boxing gloves’ and I said, ‘Well, we’ll see what happens'” — and what it takes to really have your prayer heard — “God always hears, but maybe He thinks it’s better for us to do the ‘L’ instead of the ‘W,’ and we have to accept that.”

A lot has changed, Sister Jean says, since the Ramblers last made history — back in 1963 when they completed an equally unexpected run by knocking off Cincinnati for the national championship.

“I watched it on a little 11-inch black-and-white TV, and the game was (tape) delayed,” she said. “And then everybody got out of the house and walked down the line on Sheridan Road, men and women together.”

Sister Jean has been on a whirlwind since the Ramblers started this unexpected return to the college basketball promised land.

That this is all happening on Easter weekend makes it that much more hectic. But, as she has shown time and again over the past three weeks, sports and religion really can mix, so long as you keep everything in perspective.

“We’re having a university Mass together on Easter Sunday,” she said. “You know, I said Easter Sunday because we hope to stay, and we’re confident enough we will.”

Sister Jean is far from the only Catholic going for glory at this Final Four. On the other side of the bracket, the Catholic school, Villanova, is represented by Rev. Rob Hagan — aka Father Rob — who told The Associated Press the matchup is “kind of like fighting with your brothers and sisters. We’re all in the same family.”

Michigan coach John Beilein used a question posed to him about Sister Jean to remind folks that he, like the Loyola-Chicago players, is a product of a Jesuit education.

“And I had a priest, not even at my own parish, stop Mass and say, ‘They have Sister Jean, you have everybody here praying for you,'” Beilein said. “It’s been a lot of fun and it’s great.”

Not that this mix of sports and religion is particularly groundbreaking. Players thank God all the time, and more often than not, their prayers and thanks go largely ignored by the mainstream media and the fans.

But college basketball is going through some rough times these days, filled with dirty coaches and agents, payoffs to players and an FBI investigation that has unmasked corruption in many corners of the game.

Change is coming.

Sister Jean’s presence has reminded everyone that the game is about more than slam dunks, busted brackets, big money and the glossy “One Shining Moment” video that wraps things up at the end.

“It’s just cool that everybody in the world knows who she is now, and they’re starting to get to see how cool she is and how amazing she is,” Ramblers guard Clayton Custer said.

On Friday, Sister Jean’s 15 minutes of fame was just that: 15 minutes, and then it was time to move onto the day’s regularly scheduled menu of interviews with coaches and players.

But she was having a grand time.

“I could stay for an hour,” she said.

Spending an hour talking hoops with a nun?

Nary a soul objected.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.