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Beware of Tigers

After four straight wrenching losses in the national semis, LSU -- led by senior center Sylvia Fowles and a new, veteran coach -- is poised to break through

Posted: Tuesday March 18, 2008 9:22AM; Updated: Tuesday March 18, 2008 3:06PM
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Though Chancellor wishes Fowles (above) were
Though Chancellor wishes Fowles (above) were "meaner" on the court, he raves about her diverse talents.
Bill Feig/AP
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Somewhere in her on-campus apartment LSU's 6' 6" senior center Sylvia Fowles keeps a black backpack that's festooned with little souvenirs of NCAA tournaments past -- wristbands, player credentials, Final Four pins, a rainbow of security ribbons. What's missing, she says, "is all the little stuff from the last two days . . . that last practice, that final game."

In each of the past four years the Lady Tigers, whether underdogs (2004, 2007) or favorites (2005, 2006), have made a pilgrimage to college basketball's final weekend only to be stopped cold in a national semifinal.

The losses have ranged from heartbreaking squeakers to crushing blowouts, but they've all resulted in the same abrupt exit. "We don't say much about it to each other, but I'm pretty sure it stays on everybody's minds," says Fowles. "I'm always thinking about it. You try so hard and you make it so far, and you just can't get over that hump. Of course we want to get back and try again."

Only one team, Connecticut, has made five Final Fours in a row. But the Huskies won the title four times during that stretch, between 2000 and 2004. Any other team falling short as repeatedly as LSU might invite comparisons to, say, the Buffalo Bills, who reached four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s and lost them all. But the Lady Tigers are remembered more for the distractions they overcame during their run than for the opponents they didn't.

When they made it to the program's first Final Four, in 2004, they were fourth-seeded underdogs riding a wave of emotion generated by the illness of longtime coach Sue Gunter, who had stepped down that January to battle emphysema. (Gunter died in August 2005.) That team, led by future national player of the year Seimone Augustus and interim coach Pokey Chatman, lost to Tennessee 52-50. LSU made it to the 2005 Final Four as the title favorite but lost to Baylor 68-57 after blowing a 15-point lead. A year later, having seen their gym turned into a triage center and morgue for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Lady Tigers arrived in Boston inspired to play in honor of those affected by the storm. The final score: Duke 64, LSU 45.

But last March "was the worst time ever," says Fowles. On March 7, little more than a week before the start of the NCAA tournament, Chatman resigned amid allegations that she had had inappropriate relations with a former player. As the team navigated the tournament as a No. 3 seed under associate head coach Bob Starkey, the players dealt with confusion and intense media attention. "It affected us a lot, especially the players who looked up to Pokey as a mother figure," says Fowles. "You wanted to know the truth, and you didn't know anything, but you kept getting asked about it." (Chatman, who is now coaching in Russia, considered filing a wrongful termination lawsuit but later reached a settlement with the university.)

Despite the turmoil the Lady Tigers dominated Connecticut in the regional final in Fresno, winning 73-50 as Fowles contributed 23 points, 15 boards and six blocks. It was a tour de force that made their collapse in the national semifinal, a 59-35 loss to Rutgers, even more stunning. "It all caught up with us," says Fowles, who had just five points and seven rebounds against the Scarlet Knights. "That game, we had nothing."

This year the Lady Tigers (27-5) have everything they did at the start of last year's tournament, minus the wrenching distraction. In addition to an eight-player senior class and the best scoring defense in the country (they allow just 50.6 points per game), they have a Hall of Fame coach in Van Chancellor, whose credits include 14 tournament appearances with Ole Miss, four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets and the 2004 Olympic gold medal. A folksy 64-year-old grandfather with a gift for boosting players' confidence, Chancellor has brought a welcome light touch. "After all we've been through, it's been a pleasure to have him as a coach," says Fowles. "He adjusted to us; we didn't have to adjust to him. We're finally having fun."

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