This was not the finale Stephanie White-McCarty had imagined for herself and her best friend, Ukari Figgs. Oh, she had pictured the two of them in Purdue uniforms in the NCAA championship game; that was a vision that had sustained the backcourt-mates through their first two tumultuous seasons in West Lafayette, Ind. She just hadn't seen herself landing on a Duke player's foot with four minutes left in that game and, for the first time in her career, as her father, Kevin, would note afterward, "falling down and staying down."
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 tide—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."