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Going to the Dawgs

With the national championship really up for grabs for the first time in years, Georgia figures to pull down the crown

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Posted: Thursday November 11, 1999 12:06 PM

By Kelli Anderson

Sports Illustrated The moment that set the stage for what figures to be one of the most competitive women's college basketball seasons in history began, appropriately enough, with the opening of a door. A car door. "When Chamique Holdsclaw got in her car and drove away from Knoxville, everybody said, 'We've got a shot,'" says Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore.

Sports Illustrated's Top 10
1. Georgia
2. Connecticut
3. Tennessee
5. Rutgers
6. Iowa State
7. Louisiana Tech
8. North Carolina
9. Notre Dame
10. LSU
Indeed, now that Holdsclaw, the 6'2" all-world Lady Vol who led Tennessee to three titles in the last four years and whose team set new standards for excellence, has left the parking lot, a slew of schools are simultaneously on the brink of prominence. Those teams seemed to have learned a thing or two from recent champions. No longer, for example, are the Lady Vols the only contender with key players whose names rhyme, like Tamika and Semeka; Louisiana State has Katrina and DeTrina, and North Carolina has LaShonda and LaQuanda.

Given that, is it surprising that four top women's teams, including Connecticut, Rutgers and Tennessee, barnstormed around Europe in August, following the example of last year's champions, the Purdue women and the UConn men? Is it shocking that the Connecticut women attended a special service by the Pope, something 1996 men's champion Kentucky did? No, it's not. Nor are these things all that important.

When it comes to winning NCAA titles, belief in oneself is more important than belief in papal infallibility, and that's one reason that GEORGIA is SI's choice for No. 1. Above the walkway between the Lady Bulldogs' locker room and the Stegeman Coliseum court hangs a sign that reads down this tunnel walks this year's national champions. That may be presumptuous, but consider that Georgia has four of five starters back from last season's surprising Final Four squad, including junior All-America point guard Kelly Miller and her twin, shooting guard Coco. Sophomore center Tawana McDonald has added 12 pounds of beef to her 6'4" frame, and she will get help inside from last season's top junior college player, 6'4" Shala Crawford. "We have size, height, quickness and shooting, and every player has improved since last year," says coach Andy Landers. "We have a chance to be as good as we've ever been. Unfortunately, 10 or 12 other teams are in a similar position."

That would include CONNECTICUT, which suffered so many injuries last year that only small forward Svetlana Abrosimova started every game. The Huskies went 29-5 and advanced to the Sweet 16 but were the first Connecticut team since 1992-93 to win fewer than 30 games and fall short of the Elite Eight. The Huskies should return to their old form this season if everyone stays healthy and sophomore point guard Sue Bird, who played in just eight games before hurting her knee last year, lives up to her '97-98 Parade All-America billing. "We may be young, but we're experienced, we're competitive, and we're mentally tougher than you might think," says junior guard Shea Ralph. "I think we'll surprise a lot of people."

Here's another surprise: Even though three starters from the TENNESSEE team that many observers ranked as the most talented in college basketball history are gone, the Lady Vols might be better than they were last season. They're still loaded -- their two junior All-Americas, forward Tamika Catchings and guard Semeka Randall, lead the way -- and they're hungry after their 69-63 upset loss to Duke in last March's East Regional final. "Last year we were a great team, but we had the mind-set that we were invincible," says junior point guard Ace Clement. "That loss humbled us, and that's good, because it'll make us work harder."

No Lady Vol has worked harder than Clement, who showed up for Tennessee's preseason trip to Europe slimmed down by more than 15 pounds. Yet she and sophomore post players Michelle Snow and Shalon Pillow will be pushed by coach Pat Summitt's latest crop of high school All-America freshmen, which includes point guard April McDivitt and Kara Lawson, a 5'9" guard who can bench-press 235 pounds. Plus, this figures to be an ornery bunch to face. "We got our behinds embarrassed last year, and we should take it out on everyone we play," says Snow. "Otherwise, Pat's going to take it out on us."

A Nov. 28 visit from Tennessee is just one of the tough games on a UCLA schedule that Bruins coach Kathy Olivier calls "suicidal." UCLA also faces Texas and Old Dominion at home and Louisiana Tech, Rutgers and Connecticut on the road, all before the end of December, when senior point guard Erica Gomez is expected to return from off-season arthroscopic surgery to repair her left shoulder. Until Gomez is ready, sophomore Michelle Greco and heralded freshman Nicole Kaczmarski will see plenty of action at the point. Otherwise, UCLA, which made the Elite Eight last year, will be dominated by seniors, including 6'3" Kodak All-America forward Maylana Martin, who had disk surgery in May in hopes of putting two years of back pain behind her. "This will be the last year for a lot of us," says Martin, a Naismith Award candidate. "That's what will drive us."

RUTGERS senior guard Shawnetta Stewart is also driven. Since Stewart signed on as coach Vivian Stringer's first recruit with the Scarlet Knights four years ago, Rutgers has improved from 11-17 in her freshman season to 29-6 last season, when they made the Elite Eight. Stewart desperately wants to take the Scarlet Knights to the next level, the Final Four, which will be played in her hometown of Philadelphia. "Saying she has a sense of urgency is putting it mildly," says Stringer. "You want to cry for her, she's working so hard." So is the rest of this deep, talented and versatile team, which includes junior point guard Tasha Pointer, who averaged 6.8 assists per game last year. "All the pieces are in place," says Stringer. "I feel this is a team of destiny."

IOWA STATE might be as well, if it can keep shooting the lights out. "We're more offensive-minded than defensive-minded, and that's backward, but at least we're fun to watch," says coach Bill Fennelly, whose mantra is "shoot it before you lose it," a strategy that resulted last season in an average of 7.5 threes per game, a 25-8 mark and an Elite Eight finish. The Cyclones' headliners are senior guard Stacy Frese, a .457 three-point shooter, and junior guard Megan Taylor, a .404 trey-maker who's on pace to become Iowa State's career rebounding leader despite being only 5'10". Though the Cyclones insist they're perpetual underdogs -- they listen to the theme from Rocky before every game -- they expect great things this year. "This is our best chance to get to the Final Four," says Taylor. "If we don't, it's going to feel like a missed opportunity."

LOUISIANA TECH missed a golden opportunity to reach the championship game when it fell to Purdue in the national semis last spring and then lost three starters, including WNBA pick Amanda Wilson, to graduation. But Barmore sees success ahead for his young team, which is the biggest he has had in the last 10 years. Helping 6'3" Shaka Massey and 6'2" Ayana Walker in the post will be two promising freshmen, 6'2" Cheryl Ford, the daughter of Tech alum Karl Malone, and 6'1" Catrina Frierson. If the big players can't get the job done on the boards, feisty 5'8" senior shooting guard Betty Lennox has said she'll step up and lead the Lady Techsters in rebounding. Barmore hopes it won't come to that. "Eventually, this will be a good team, but it may not be in the first six weeks," he says.

NORTH CAROLINA will also be bigger, an easy task considering that last year the Tar Heels didn't regularly start anyone taller than 6'1". That lack of size hurt North Carolina, which got hammered by tall teams like UCLA, Duke and North Carolina State on its way to a 28-8 record and a Sweet 16 exit. This year 6'5" sophomore LaShonda Allen, who got significantly stronger, quicker and slimmer over the summer, may help the Heels address their matchup difficulties. "My role is to play D against the big girls like [N.C. State's 6'6" Summer] Erb," says Allen. "She doesn't know it yet, but she won't be making the shots she made on us last year."

Allen's defense will be tested on Dec. 4 against NOTRE DAME and 6'5" junior Ruth Riley, an old-fashioned back-to-the-basket center who led the nation in shooting percentage (.683) and had 3.3 blocks per game last season. Riley is complemented by the speedy senior backcourt of Danielle Green and Niele (Poison) Ivey, who may be the most underrated point guard in the nation (13.2 points and 6.5 assists per game in 1998-99). Ivey missed the final three games last season after suffering her second ACL injury and can't wait for the season to start. "I'm just excited to be playing," she says. "Every time I make it through practice, I want to throw a party."

Speaking of celebrations, the good times rolled often last season at LOUISIANA STATE, which upset Tennessee 72-69 on Feb. 21 and made a surprise appearance in the Sweet 16. Fans of the Lady Tigers toasted the spectacular play of 5'11" forward DeTrina White, who led the SEC with 12 double doubles and was named the conference's freshman of the year. "DeTrina is the kind of player you get once in your career," says coach Sue Gunter, who has been on the bench for 36 years. Another player to watch is senior Katrina Hibbert, a versatile small forward who does "whatever she needs to do for us to win," says Gunter. Hibbert wants to recapture the feeling the Lady Tigers had when they beat Tennessee. "It was like winning a national championship," she says, "and that has to be the best feeling in the world."

Issue date: November 15, 1999

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