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Inside Women's Basketball:
Northridge rises from the ashes

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Posted: Wednesday March 17, 1999 05:18 PM

By Trisha Lucey, Sports Illustrated for Women

The Matadors of Cal State Northridge nearly wrote a dreamy ending for a season that began with a nightmare.

In a first-round West Regional matchup at second-seeded Colorado State, the Matadors led by seven points with 5:48 to go. But seniors Becky Hammon and Katie Cronin keyed a 19-0 run for Colorado State, which won 71-59 to send Cinderella home from the ball. "If that game was 35 minutes long, we'd have been OK," said Northridge coach Frozena Jerro. "But we learned that when it's tournament time, you have to come to play for 40 minutes."

Jerro did a remarkable job under difficult circumstances. Shortly before the season began, then-Matadors coach Michael Abraham was arrested on federal drug charges for possession of cocaine and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The ensuing turmoil triggered the resignations of interim head coach Judith Brame and athletic director Paul Bubb.

School president Blenda J. Wilson asked the players to select their next coach, and they named second-year assistant Jerro, also know as "Coach Fro," as their choice. "It was a huge honor for me to get that vote of confidence from them," she says.

Behind the solid play of guards Edniesha Curry and Jamilah Jones and forwards Viveca Lof and Lynda Amari, the team finished the regular season with a 21-7 record. The Matadors earned the school's first-ever Division I NCAA appearance in basketball by winning the Big Sky Conference tournament.

Though the Northridge players have put the controversy behind them, they have not forgotten about Abraham, who is in Portland at his parents' home awaiting trial. "Michael had a very strong relationship with the players and that still stands," says Jerro. "He still cares for them deeply and even though he's fallen on hard times the bond is still strong."

Jerro is looking forward to building on this season's success. She was named permanent head coach on Selection Sunday and has the support of the university's top brass. Says interim athletic director Sam Jankovich: "As I followed our women's basketball team, I began to believe in it the way the players and coaches obviously did. This is the start of something positive. The example set by Coach Fro and her team will do more for this university than anything I can think of to get us moving forward."

Happy birthday, Shea

Shea Ralph celebrated her 21st birthday along with a packed house at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., last Friday night. Throughout the second half of UConn's NCAA Tournament opener, Ralph was serenaded with choruses of "Happy Birthday to You." The 6'0" guard from Fayetteville, N.C., tallied 13 points and two assists. She also led the charge in the Huskies' full-court press, which smothered St. Francis and forced 22 turnovers in the 97-46 victory.

Said senior guard Amy Duran after the game: "We really jumped down their throats in the first five minutes. If we can do that every game then we'll be right where we want to be."

Where the Huskies want to be is in San Jose, Calif., playing for the national championship on March 28.

The neutral zone

For the first time since the women's tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994, the top four seeds in each region advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Thus, more fuel has been added to the fiery debate about whether or not first- and second-round games should be held at neutral sites or on campuses, as they are now.

The NCAA women's championship committee will vote on a proposal in August which, if approved, would move tournament games to predetermined sites starting next year. This would not guarantee neutral courts, as powerhouses like Tennessee and Connecticut could still bid to host. But tournament chairperson Bernadette McGlade says, "The ultimate goal is full-blown neutral sites in a few years."

For now, though, there are still some unhappy coaches who believe they were sent home early unfairly, as well as some who still favor the current system. Here's what several coaches are saying:

  • Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, after the Irish lost 74-64 at LSU's Maravich Center in the second round: "It was definitely the most hostile crowd -- I think that's the nicest way I could put it -- that we've faced. We've played before much bigger crowds, but it was more the things they were saying. Things that were uncalled for. It's time to go to neutral sites. If we're at home, we're moving on."

  • Because she feels that home-court advantage is necessary until the women's game becomes more popular nationwide, Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt, who's team has hosted at least one tournament game for 18 consecutive years, says: "We're still at a position in women's basketball where we have to have the [current] format."

  • Kansas head coach Marian Washington, before defeating Marquette and earning the right to lose to top-seeded Purdue in Mackey Arena: "I understand money is always the bottom line. But you have very few Cinderella teams, and you have some great teams who don't get a chance because they're on the road. As hard as players like mine have worked to get into this tournament, it's not fair to make them start with such a disadvantage. They deserve a fair shake."

  • Washington's counterpart, Purdue coach Carolyn Peck, on her home court advantage: It's like a compliment, a trophy for hard work. I'd hate to see it go away."

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