On the court
A sign of what was in store for the Scarlet Knights
Posted: Saturday April 01, 2000 12:04 PM
By Kelli Anderson, Sports Illustrated for Women
Some people who might have seen the Rutgers team bus --painted in gaudy wraparound red and black letters spelling "Rutgers" -- being stopped by police so the Tennessee bus, complete with police escort, could pass by on the way to the first semifinal game at Philadelphia's First Union Center could have taken that as a sign of what was in store for the Lady Knights. But I took it as evidence that Rutgers could compete with Tennessee in the -- how shall I say this? -- eye-catching accessory showdown, a little-known Final Four statistical category that Tennessee practically owns.
Alas, though they all came out on the court wearing black headbands (a tribute to Slick Watts, perhaps?), the Scarlet Knights were no match for Tennessee center Michelle Snow, who wore knee-high orange socks, or for the fan who wore an orange feather boa. Fortunately, there was a real contest on the floor. As promised, Rutgers' match-up zone, an invention of Temple coach John Chaney, ground Tennessee's high-flying offense to a near halt in the first half. There were turnovers, air balls, trips, face-plants and other spectacular tumbles on both sides of the court. It got so ugly for awhile that rumors started flying around our sector of press row: "ESPN just cut to a Classic Movie!" "Somewhere," said my neighbor on press row, "John Chaney is laughing his ass off."
There was some beauty revealed before the half ended, however: during one reprise of Tennessee's deathless fight song, "Rocky Top" my neighbor's neighbor pulled out the diamond ring he was preparing to present to his girlfriend. (It was a bold move: I'm sure if the jeweler's brand had been visible on the box, NCAA representatives would have confiscated it on the spot, as they often do when they see a can of Coke, a bottle or Evian or the product of some other unsanctioned advertiser on the table.) We oohed and ahhed. And then the nuns arrived. Not on press row, but behind us, in the Penn State cheering section. There were several of them, a whole clutch ("That would be a gaggle," said my neighbor. "I think. A gaggle of nuns. That sounds right") representing Immaculata College, Penn State coach Rene Portland's alma mater. From what I could tell, the nuns sat quietly through this game and the next, though I did hear some loud cowbell clanging from that general direction.
Tennessee went into the locker room at halftime with a slim 28-26 lead. If you think that meeting was tense, you should have seen the Tennessee cheerleader huddle in the hallway. Something had not gone right out on the floor in the first half. A flubbed pyramid? A timeout stolen by the Rutgers cheer squad? But the pompom wielders were discussing it so civilly that I couldn't make out much of what they were saying. One thing was clear: things would be different in the second half. This was a confident bunch. Despite their team's slender lead, the yell squad had no doubts about the game's outcome. "Sunday," said the coach to her cheerleaders, "I'll try to bring fruit."
In the second half, Tennessee justified that presumptuous planning: unflappable point guard Kara Lawson, who sat out five minutes of the first half getting her sore back massaged, added 14 points to her five from the first half to lead the Lady Vols to a 64-54 win. In the face of one of the toughest defenses in the country, she didn't make a single one of the Lady Vols' 18 turnovers, a remarkable feat for a freshman. Tamika Catchings added 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Afterward Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor burst into the Tennessee locker room, handing out candy to players like he used to for the reporters on press row at Comets game. (Apparently college hoops reporters don't rate, though I have to say, his selection didn't look all that great; all Michelle Snow got was a piece of bubble gum.)
By the time I got back to press row, the Penn State-Connecticut game had commenced, a matchup of two teams with similar looks (old-school navy-blue and white colors; modern, sans serif lettering, no frills) if not similar depth of talent. According to a sign in the stands, this was Portland's birthday. But it was not to be her day. But even with her trademark foot-stamping and the nuns' divine connections working for her, the Huskies ruined her party, as expected. It was still a four-point game with 11 minutes to play, but Connecticut won 89-67.
And so the showdown that everyone has been anticipating will happen on Sunday, the rubber match between the two giants of women's basketball. The teams have met twice this year and each has won once (They are 5-5 since 1995.) It promises to be a great clash that could be exhausting to watch. Since I can't rely on Chancellor for sideline nourishment, I think I'll try to bring my own fruit.
Sports Illustrated for Women writer Kelli Anderson is covering the women's Final Four. Look for her full report on the final in the April 10 issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday.