As we embark on the 1999 Women's NCAA Tournament, there is one absolute truth we can cling to: Rocky Top is the most stubbornly ineradicable fight song in all of academia. Once it is in your head, it will not go away. But can the same still be said for the team that the tune follows everywhere, Tennessee's Lady Vols?
Though this year's Tennessee club is more experienced than last year's 39-0 juggernaut, it's not invincible. In fact, the Lady Vols have fallen twice in the past four months, exposing a vulnerability that brings a ray of hope to other teams heading to the NCAAs. Now, instead of no examples of how to beat Tennessee, there are two. In November, Purdue beat the Lady Vols 78-68 by hitting the three (4 of 10), breaking the press and winning the battle of the boards (36-25). And last month LSU, an undersized but exceedingly quick team—no starter is over 5'11"—defeated Tennessee 72-69 despite getting punished on the boards 48-24. The Lady Tigers pulled off the upset by breaking the press, limiting turnovers (only 11 to Tennessee's 17) and, perhaps most important, sagging into a 2-3 zone and forcing Lady Vols slashers Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall to take outside shots. "You have to meet Tennessee's aggression, and you have to get them into a half-court game to have a chance," says LSU coach Sue Gunter. "Also, you have to hope they don't bring their A game, which I don't think they did against us. When they're hitting on all cylinders, they're very tough to beat."
The No. 2-ranked Lady Vols are gunning for their fourth straight title. Here are some of the teams that might have what it takes to knock them off.
Purdue The No. 1-ranked Boilermakers (28-1) may not be especially quick, but they make few mistakes and have several good ball handlers. The best backcourt in the nation—Stephanie White-McCarty, Ukari Figgs and Katie Douglas—sometimes expands to include reserve Kelly Komara, creating a four-guard offense that is difficult to defend.
UConn The fourth-ranked Huskies (27-4) are one of the few teams that have the size, depth and athleticism to run with Tennessee. Led by Big East Player of the Year Svetlana Abrosimova, UConn has the best rebounding margin (+13.2) and field goal percentage (52) in the country and a murderous press. The only thing the Huskies lack is experience, especially at the point: Injuries knocked out the first- and second-stringers, leaving sophomore Marci Glenney as the starter. At home against Tennessee on Jan. 10, the Huskies had three freshmen and two sophomores on the floor at crunch time and lost 92-81.
Louisiana Tech Granted, the third-ranked Lady Techsters (26-2) looked unimpressive in their 92-73 loss to Tennessee in November, but they are more polished now. Louisiana Tech has won its last 18 games by an average of 35 points, and the team is loaded with the kind of athletes who are capable of carrying out coach Leon Barmore's defensive strategy against the Lady Vols: Allow Holdsclaw and Randall their points while smothering Catchings.
Clemson The 10th-ranked Tigers (24-5), who beat North Carolina for the ACC tournament title, are quick, athletic and deep. They can line up big or small. They are excellent defensive rebounders. And they have the essential ingredient for challenging Tennessee: an experienced and unflappable backcourt in seniors Itoro Umoh and Amy Geren. Unlike the Lady Vols, the Tigers have a strong inside game, anchored by seniors Nikki Blassingame and Erin Batth, a 6'4" rock who provides the invaluable Willis Reed effect by having played in the last five games despite tearing her right ACL in January. A certain logic suggests that this could be the team to upend the Lady Vols: "We beat LSU, and they beat Tennessee," says Clemson coach Jim Davis. "So I guess when we play Tennessee, we'll win!"
So which teams, besides Tennessee, will find the way to San Jose, site of this year's Final Four? We think Purdue, Louisiana Tech and Clemson are up to the challenge, but we just aren't sure about their fight songs.