If some people don't get a grip soon, the 2003-04 women's season will be launched on a tide of tears. Coaches who are otherwise as tough as nails are getting all blubbery contemplating their final seasons with members of the deepest, most talented senior class in memory. "Do you hear me crying?" says Kansas State coach Deb Patterson as she reflects on the contributions of senior center Nicole Ohlde, her program's first-ever first-team All-America. "It's the hardest part of our job—you look up one day, and they are gone," says Purdue coach Kristy Curry as she sings the praises of the first star-studded class she recruited in West Lafayette. Even Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, usually dry as gunpowder, edges toward mushiness, when speaking of his senior guard, Diana Taurasi (page 124). "I think this year, with Diana, I'm going to try really, really hard to appreciate all that she is and what she does," he says softly.
Before we cue the violins, though, there are some indications that the path to the Final Four in New Orleans will not be strewn with flowers. "Yeah, there are a lot of seniors," says one of the best, Penn State's two-time All-America guard Kelly Mazzante. "But most of us still don't have a ring, and we all want one. This season is going to be one long fight."
Unfortunately for CONNECTICUT'S opponents, the Huskies should be even better this year. The 6'0" Taurasi, who led a group of mostly green underclassmen to the school's fourth title in nine years despite playing with a bum right ankle and sore back, is healthy. Freshman Liz Sherwood of Castle Rock, Colo., a former Highlands Ranch High teammate of Huskies sophomore guard Ann Strother, will add a dimension the team hasn't had for either of its last two championship runs: power. "She is a house," says Taurasi admiringly of the 6'4" center. "It'll be nice when we get in a jam to just throw it up to her and say, 'Go get us a bucket.' "
Two-time All-America Alana Beard will have a similar luxury at DUKE, as the Blue Devils, who made their second straight Final Four appearance last year, welcome 6' 7" freshman shot blocker Alison Bales from Beavercreek High in Dayton. As skyline-altering as Bales is, though, it is her 6' 3" classmate, Brittany Hunter, last year's Parade Player of the Year while at Brookhaven High in Columbus, Ohio, who may have the biggest immediate impact. A player "destined for greatness," according to coach Gail Goestenkors, Hunter was the first female to participate in the McDonald's Slam Dunk contest. She didn't nail cine there, but, says Goestenkors, "I'll do my very best to help it happen in a game." With those two additions and the return of sophomore slasher Monique Currie, who sat out last season with a torn left ACL, the Blue Devils' biggest weaknesses a year ago, rebounding and inside scoring, should now be strengths.
Since the NCAA started holding a women's championship in 1982, there have been four Final Fours that featured three or more of the same finalists back-to-back, and this year should make it five. TEXAS lost only one significant player, guard Tai Dillard, from the Longhorns' first Final Four team since 1987. Being at the Final Four was "a great learning experience," says 6'1" senior forward Stacy Stephens. "Now everyone has been there but the freshmen, and we've told them about it enough times that they feel like they've been there." The rookies' experience may not be real, but their height certainly is. Center Kalee Carey, out of Canyon (Texas) High, is 6'5", and forward Tiffany Jackson, one of the top recruits in the country while at Duncanville ( Texas) High, is a very fast, highly skilled 6'4".
Despite stellar efforts last season by Ohlde, junior guard Laurie Koehn and junior forward Kendra Wecker, KANSAS STATE was unexpectedly ousted by Notre Dame in the tournament's second round. "We may have emptied our tanks too soon," says Patterson. "We're going to be much more March-oriented this year." At least three of the five incoming freshmen should provide immediate help. More important, Koehn is healthy; the three-point ace missed 10 games last season with a stress fracture of her right foot. Koehn, Ohlde and Wecker were among the 24 players selected to play on two USA Basketball teams this summer. The trio has come back fine-tuned and, says Ohlde, "ready to have fun."
Likewise, GEORGIA is not dwelling on the missed opportunities of 2002-03. Despite a season of turmoil, which included forward Kara Braxton's suspension for repeated rules violations, there were still enough bright spots that when players watched a highlight reel recently, "we got all tingly," says 6' 5" senior center Christi Thomas. Coach Andy Landers is feeling a bit that way too, because for the first time in several years he has a team that is experienced and well-balanced. The backcourt features Sherrill Baker and Alexis Kendrick, a freshman All-America who had 158 assists and 52 treys last year. The front line of Thomas and the 6'6" junior Braxton is the country's most formidable.
One of the Lady Bulldogs' first tests will come on Nov. 30 in Palo Alto, Calif., where STANFORD players have been shedding the extra pounds they gained during their September tour of the basketball arenas and gelaterias of Italy. "My attitude was, I don't know when I'll be coming back here, so I'm going to try everything now," says senior forward Nicole Powell, a two-time All-America. "You have to seize the opportunity when you can." The same goes for basketball. Despite 11 Pac-10 titles in the last 17 years, the Cardinal has not advanced past the Sweet 16 since 1997, and Powell feels the, well, weight of recent history. "There is definitely a sense of urgency here," she says. Powell, who missed the first nine games of last season with a bulging disk in her lower back, is healthy again, and there is still enough depth, versatility and experience to present coach Tara Van Derveer with a full menu of lineup options.
Tennessee is somewhat lower in the rankings than usual. Since Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson left last spring after three fruitless trips to the Final Four—theirs was the first senior class since 1986 to depart from Knoxville without at least one championship ring—the Lady Vols have been digging deep to replace the duo's scoring (a combined 30.5 points a game) and court leadership. While Tennessee showed grit and cohesiveness winning the championship of a tough August mini-tournament in Athens, Greece, the team's most important player, junior point guard Loree Moore, wasn't on hand because of another commitment, with the silver-medal-winning U.S. squad at the Pan Am Games. "Loree is our key," says coach Pat Summitt. "She has to get more vocal and improve her game management, and the team will have to improve in the half-court game offensively and defensively. But I expect this team to be in New Orleans."
Louisiana State coach Sue Gunter would dearly like to be there too, after the promise of last season was unexpectedly cut short by Texas at the West Regional final. "I'm not sure we're over that yet," says Gunter, a 40-year veteran who has yet to make it to the Final Four. The Lady Tigers have more speed than a lot of track teams. Their trio of guards—Seimone Augustus, Tamecka Johnson and Doneeka Hodges—will give LSU one of the best perimeter attacks in the nation. After collecting hardware as National Freshman of the Year and MVP of the Young Women's World Championships in Croatia, Augustus claims she's improved her confidence and her range.