After Purdue's top scorer was felled by injury, her best friend took charge and carried the Boilermakers to victory over Duke in a melodrama-rich NCAA final
Posted: Tuesday March 30, 1999 03:58 PM
By Kelli Anderson
Who could have foreseen that? An Indiana high school legend from West Lebanon (pop. 760), who in her home state is often mentioned in the same breath as Larry Bird and Bob Knight, White-McCarty was closing in on the perfect climax of her career as a Boilermaker. After surviving a team meltdown following her freshman season and playing for four years in the shadow of Tennessee's All-Everything forward Chamique Holdsclaw, White-McCarty had finally earned All-America honors and a shot at the national title. Her last game was not supposed to end with her on a San Jose Arena bench, biting her lip against the pain of a severely sprained left ankle while Figgs and the other Purdue players did all the work. Clutching the hands of guard Tiffany Young and assistant coach Kerry Cremeans, White-McCarty implored them to give her a Willis Reed moment. "Let me back in. I gotta go back in," she said, fighting back tears. If nothing else, she assured them, "I can make my free throws!"
So could her teammates. Led by Figgs, who hit each of her six freebies, the Boilermakers went 15 for 17 from the line in the last 3:49 to turn what had been a 47-42 lead when White-McCarty was helped off the court into a 62-45 victory. "From the moment Steph went down, it was like six against five out there," said Cremeans. "Ukari was not going to let us lose."
While keeping an eye on her friend on the bench, Figgs finished with 18 points -- all in the second half. Unable to hit from the outside, she made up her mind to take the attack to the Blue Devils, fiercely penetrating the lane to help Purdue go on a 23-9 run after intermission. Figgs's forays earned her the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player Award. "She stepped up huge, and everyone rallied behind her," said White-McCarty afterward. "This isn't the way I had pictured it, but it's a great feeling."
No one had pictured this game unfolding the way it did, particularly in the first half, an ugly 20 minutes of misfires and miscues that ended with Duke leading 22-17, the lowest scoring half in championship-game history. But then, the final had been anticipated as much for its subplots as for the promise of a tight, well-played game between two senior-led teams.
Subplot No. 1 was the mere presence of the upstart Blue Devils, whose 69-63 toppling of heavily favored Tennessee in the East Regional final in Greensboro, N.C., on March 22 had made Duke just the second Division I school to have its men's and women's teams reach the Final Four in the same year. (Georgia was the first, in 1983, but both teams lost in the semis.) Though the Blue Devils' conquest of the Lady Volunteers -- which ruined Tennessee's quest for a fourth consecutive title -- ranked among the biggest shockers ever in the women's game, Duke refused to see it that way. "We feel like we belong here," said seventh-year coach Gail Goestenkors (whose last name, almost as difficult to spell and pronounce as Krzyzewski, has turned her into Coach G). "We've been visualizing this from Day One."
Indeed, before every practice this season, the Blue Devils had sat quietly in their darkened locker room as Goestenkors or a senior led them through visualization exercises suggested by Jerry Lynch, a Santa Cruz, Calif., sports psychologist. "Picture yourself playing in the championship game in San Jose," the chosen speaker would intone in the dimness. "Picture yourself cutting down the nets." The Dookies had done so much picturing, it seemed, that unlike the Boilermakers, they didn't feel the need to break out video cameras and Instamatics to capture every press conference or locker room media invasion during the Final Four.
Subplot No. 2 involved Duke's well-traveled senior stars, guard Nicole Erickson and 6'6" center Michele VanGorp, two of the four players who, angered by athletic director Morgan Burke's firing of coach Lin Dunn after Purdue went 20-11 in 1995-96, had transferred from West Lafayette following the season. (Purdue has never detailed the reasons for Dunn's ouster, and in March 1997 Dunn received a $100,000 settlement from the university after filing a grievance.) A matchup of Erickson's current team and her former team was "destiny," she said after Duke dismantled Tennessee. "I've been thinking about that ever since I left Purdue three years ago."
Which leads us to Subplot No. 3: the fortitude and endurance of White-McCarty and Figgs, both of whom considered leaving Purdue in the wake of the mass exodus in '96 but decided to stick it out when Louisiana Tech assistant coach Nell Fortner replaced Dunn. At the time, the team had lost not only the four transfers but also two recruits who asked for releases from their letters of intent, leaving the Boilermakers with three returning players, one All-America heptathlete, four freshmen and a handful of walk-ons.
Fortner went 17-11 with that motley crew, then left to coach the national team. She was replaced by 31-year-old assistant Carolyn Peck, who led Purdue to a 23-10 record and an Elite Eight finish last year before being hired away by the Orlando Miracle, a WNBA expansion team. (Subplot 3A: If Burke hadn't worked out a deal with the Miracle enabling the Boilermakers to keep Peck through this season, Figgs and White-McCarty would have been playing for their fourth coach in four years.) "Kari and I have been through a lot together, no question," says White-McCarty. "I don't think I could have done it alone. But we've accomplished a lot, too."
Especially this year. Bookended by wins over Tennessee and Duke, Purdue's 34-1 season was almost perfect, a 73-72 loss at Stanford in November its only blemish. But until last weekend there hadn't been much of a Boilermakers bandwagon. Though Peck's team had been ranked No. 1 since Feb. 21, when the Lady Vols lost to LSU, few believed Purdue could win it all, at least not while Holdsclaw was still wearing a Tennessee uniform. "There were naysayers all along the way," said Boilermakers assistant Pam Stackhouse after Sunday's game. "I think it was because we didn't win with a lot of dominance. But pretty or ugly, we always found a way to win."
Purdue relied largely on the leadership of its two senior stars, who are so close they can sense each other's moves on and off the court. Figgs roomed with White-McCarty last year but had to find her own lodgings this year after her roomie married high school sweetheart Brent McCarty last May. Without consulting each other, the two ended up in the same apartment building anyway. "They always find each other," says junior forward Michelle Duhart. "In fact, I don't think they can get away from each other."
They do, occasionally. Before almost every game this year, Figgs, a perpetually composed mechanical engineering major from Georgetown, Ky., took a nap while White-McCarty, a communications major, and her other teammates busied themselves with a laundry list of superstitious rituals. Manager Heather Scott had to put a Mountain Dew and a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup on a bus seat for White-McCarty to consume on the way to the arena, and White-McCarty had to give half the candy to freshman guard Kelly Komara. Sophomore guard Katie Douglas had to have a Dr Pepper and hear something funny -- and usually unprintable -- from Cremeans before the opening tip. The final pregame meal in San Jose consisted of chicken, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, corn and fruit, the 35th such repast the Boilermakers had eaten together this year. Said Cremeans late on Sunday, "You know, I think I might be ready for a steak now."
After the victory, a few moments had to be recorded for posterity. As the Purdue players took turns climbing the ladder to cut the net, McCarty taped the scene with the video camera he had bought for Stephanie earlier in the week. "We read the instructions on the plane out here, or at least she read the instructions," said McCarty, who appeared to be momentarily filming the floor after taping the scene of Figgs's helping his wife hop up the ladder. "All I know is that this red light means it is on."
Actually, after arriving in San Jose last Friday, McCarty became a skilled enough documentarian to capture commentary and good-luck messages for White-McCarty from such luminaries as Fortner, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and Mimi Griffin, the ESPN analyst who had predicted that North Carolina would make toast of the Boilermakers in the regional semifinals and had been receiving offerings of charred bread from Purdue fans ever since. "Steph had no idea I was making that tape," said McCarty on Sunday evening. "When I showed it to her last night, she couldn't believe it."
One hopes he captured a few other opinions on tape before he went back to Indiana, like the one expressed by the label on the forehead of the Duke mascot, which read PURDON'T. That would be worth archiving for the grandchildren. Because, thanks largely to his wife and her best friend, Purdid.
Issue date: April 5, 1999
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