?Men's freshman of the year: Jameer Nelson, St. Joseph's. Nelson was the third freshman in Atlantic 10 history to lead the conference in assists, with 6.2 a game in the regular season. Aside from Nelson, the Hawks, who were 24-5 through Sunday, are basically the same group that went 13-16 a year ago.
?Women's player of the year: Ruth Riley, Notre Dame. Season-ending injuries to Connecticut's Svetlana Abrosimova and Tennessee's Tamika Catchings opened the door for Riley, a 6'5" center who through Sunday was averaging 18.1 points (on 63.6% shooting) and had swatted 86 shots while committing only 68 fouls. She also had her best game when it counted most: 29 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks against No. 1 UConn on Jan. 15.
?Women's coach of the year: Sherri Coale, Oklahoma. After finishing 5-22 in her first season in 1996-97, Coale has turned the Sooners into an NCAA tide contender. Oklahoma (24-4) has clinched the Big 12 regular season tide and was ranked No. 7.
?Women's freshman of the year: Alana Beard, Duke. Beard, a 5'11" freshman guard from Frierson, La., dominated the already talented No. 4-ranked Blue Devils with her all-around skills. She led them in scoring with 16.5 points a game and had set a school record with 94 steals despite missing four games with a dislocated thumb on her non-shooting hand.
Eastern Illinois Shocker
A Comeback for The Ages
Facing a 21-point deficit with 8:26 to play in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament final against No. 4-seeded Austin Peay last Saturday in Nashville, Eastern Illinois, the second seed, didn't look as if it had much of a shot at earning an NCAA tournament berth. But scoring points in a hurry is a Panthers specialty. Entering the game against the Governors, they ranked 10th in the country in points per game and were on the verge of becoming the first team in NCAA history to have two players—6'4" sophomore forward Henry Domercant and 6'2" senior guard Kyle Hill—finish among the nation's Top 5 scorers. Sure enough, with a furious finish, Eastern Illinois rallied for an 84-83 win to earn its second NCAA bid in school history.
Domercant started the comeback with two baskets, and Hill erupted for 11 of the Panthers' next 15 points to bring Eastern Illinois to within 10 with 3:15 remaining. From that juncture, they contributed three field goals and two assists before the final points came from 6'11" sophomore center Jan Thompson, who rebounded a Hill miss with 0.6 of a second to play and, after a gutsy—and correct—goaltending call by referee Jeff Nichols, gave Eastern Illinois (21-9, 11-5 in the Ohio Valley) its only lead of the game. "I knew if I started it, everybody else would follow," said Hill, who was named the tournament's MVP after averaging 33.0 points in the Panthers' three wins.
Hill, whose 23.5 points per game through Sunday was third in the country, may have been the only person who believed he was bound for stardom when he arrived at Eastern Illinois in 1997 from Argo Community High in Summit, Ill. He was chronically tardy that first season. Once, when the Panthers were leaving for a game at Michigan State, Hill was a few minutes late for the bus, so coach Rick Samuels ordered the driver to leave without him. (An assistant coach stayed behind to take Hill in a car to the game, during which he sat on the bench in street clothes.) Later that season, Hill went through a 10-game stretch when he didn't play a minute because of his attitude and lack of experience. "That year was hard, but it helped me more than it hurt me," he says.
Domercant has undergone similar growth since redshirting his freshman year. After averaging 9.3 points while shooting 39.2% from the field last season, he took about 100 shots early each morning last summer, and he has tried to follow that regimen during the season as well. This year he made 50.0% of his shots, including 43.8% from three-point range, while averaging 22.9 points, fifth best in the nation. "When we recruited Henry, I thought he'd be a very good scorer," Samuels says. "I didn't think it would happen in his sophomore season."
Though Domercant and Hill have been jockeying for the conference scoring title all season, they insist they haven't spent the season talking about who's ahead. If anything, says Domercant, the battle is over who's the better assist man. "We're always yelling in practice about who's throwing more passes," says Domercant, who averaged 2.1 assists a game to Hill's 4.0. "We know there's no way we can do this by ourselves."