Westmont College women's basketball coach Kirsten Moore and 9-month-old… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
MONTECITO — Her final pep talk wasn't a pep talk at all. Kirsten Moore was beyond pep.
Her final pep talk, given while surrounded by her Westmont College women's basketball team before the NAIA national championship game, was her chance to say thanks.
Moore thanked her team for keeping her soul alive. She thanked them for sitting in the third row for her husband's funeral, for playing with her infant daughter in the third row of the team bus, for sharing her pain and embellishing her joy. She thanked them for their patience when she was weeping at an unseen memory, or staring blankly into an uncertain future, or disappearing just before tipoffs to nurse her child.
"Thank you for loving me," she said.
By the time Moore finished talking, most of her players were crying so hard they couldn't see. They couldn't focus. They couldn't move.
They couldn't lose.
You want March madness?
"This whole season has been pretty much insane," said Westmont guard Larissa Hensley.
You're looking for one shining moment?
"There have been so many tears this year," said Westmont forward Kelsie Sampson. "But there has also been so much joy."
What happened to the women's basketball team from the tiny school tucked into the lush hills south of Santa Barbara cannot be found in brackets, cannot be wagered in an office pool, and is too outlandish even for a Cinderella.
"It's a story of a team and a community coming together to take care of a coach and take care of each other with unbelievable results," said John Moore, Westmont men's basketball coach. "It's a story of magical synergy."
On May 9, 2012, shortly after undergoing colon surgery, Alex Moore, the husband of Westmont women's Coach Kirsten Moore, died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. Seven weeks later, Moore gave birth to their child, naming her Alexis.
Many in the close-knit Westmont family thought Moore would take a sabbatical. It is difficult enough to be a grieving widow and a single mother. How could anyone possibly carry both burdens while coaching a basketball team?
"I could never coach again right after all that," said Hensley. "How do you go right back into it? Wouldn't you need to take a year off?"
Moore barely took a day off. Buoyed by her late husband's plea that his Crohn's disease never stop her from chasing her dreams, fearful that she would be swallowed in suffering if she didn't keep moving, Moore was at the front of the room when she met her team in August for the 2012-13 season.
"I'm here, and this is going to be a hard road, but I'm here," she told them. "I'm going to be real, you're going to see me cry a lot, but I have to do this."
On the court, an average team with one superstar -- Turkish national player Tugce Canitez -- won 24 of 27 regular-season games. Off the court, friends and neighbors and wives of faculty members formed a baby-sitting squad that watched Alexis during games, practices and sometimes even at 6 a.m. when an exhausted Moore texted that she needed one more hour of sleep.
"At my very core, this is not a story about me, it's about an incredible community of people that have come together in the wake of a really devastating tragedy and rallied in extraordinary ways," said Moore, 37.
By the time the Warriors reached the March 19 national title game in Frankfort, Ky., against Lee University from Cleveland, Tenn., it was such a surprise, most of their support group didn't have time to make arrangements for the trip. A school official counted only 15 Westmont fans in the stands. The players dried their eyes and took the court as if flying.
"It was really weird, we were all really tired, but suddenly we felt such energy, like we could do anything," said Sampson.
Like, win it?
They met at Westmont, eight years ago, the basketball coach and the kinesiology professor. Kirsten McKnight didn't have time for romance. Alex Moore thought they were made for each other.
"I told him this was never going to happen, I just crushed him," Kirsten recalled. "But, like my basketball team, he kept coming back."
They began dating, just in time for Alex to begin a four-year doctoral program at the University of Missouri. It didn't stop them.
When they were married in the Westmont chapel in the spring of 2008, her players carried him on their shoulders. When he finally returned to Westmont from Missouri two years ago, their long-distance courtship had ended.
"Everyone here was so happy for them, they were finally in the same place, finally starting this wonderful life together," said John Moore, who is no relation.
Last spring, that life was shattered. Alex, who underwent surgery at Cedars-Sinai as a treatment for Crohn's disease, died about 12 hours after the operation had been deemed a success. He was 31. A blood clot struck in the middle of the night, long after he ordered Kirsten to return to a friend's house and get some rest.
She was sleeping when the hospital called. She sat on a bed and screamed. She was eight months pregnant.