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SOMEWHERE IN her on-campus apartment LSU's 6'6" senior center Sylvia Fowles keeps a black backpack that's festooned with little souvenirs of NCAA tournaments past—wristbands, player credentials, Final Four pins, a rainbow of security ribbons. What's missing, she says, "is all the little stuff from the last two days ... that last practice, that final game." � In each of the past four years the Lady Tigers, whether underdogs (2004, 2007) or favorites (2005, 2006), have made a pilgrimage to college basketball's final weekend only to be stopped cold in a national semifinal. The losses have ranged from heartbreaking squeakers to crushing blowouts, but they've all resulted in the same abrupt exit. "We don't say much about it to each other, but I'm pretty sure it stays on everybody's minds," says Fowles. "I'm always thinking about it. You try so hard and you make it so far, and you just can't get over that hump. Of course we want to get back and try again."
Only one team, Connecticut, has made five Final Fours in a row. But the Huskies won the title four times during that stretch, between 2000 and 2004. Any other team falling short as repeatedly as LSU might invite comparisons to, say, the Buffalo Bills, who reached four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s and lost them all. But the Lady Tigers are remembered more for the distractions they overcame during their run than for the opponents they didn't.
When they made it to the program's first Final Four, in 2004, they were fourth-seeded underdogs riding a wave of emotion generated by the illness of longtime coach Sue Gunter, who had stepped down that January to battle emphysema. ( Gunter died in August 2005.) That team, led by future national player of the year Seimone Augustus and interim coach Pokey Chatman, lost to Tennessee 52--50. LSU made it to the 2005 Final Four as the title favorite but lost to Baylor 68--57 after blowing a 15-point lead. A year later, having seen their gym turned into a triage center and morgue for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Lady Tigers arrived in Boston inspired to play in honor of those affected by the storm. The final score: Duke 64, LSU 45.
But last March "was the worst time ever," says Fowles. On March 7, little more than a week before the start of the NCAA tournament, Chatman resigned amid allegations that she had had inappropriate relations with a former player. As the team navigated the tournament as a No. 3 seed under associate head coach Bob Starkey, the players dealt with confusion and intense media attention. "It affected us a lot, especially the players who looked up to Pokey as a mother figure," says Fowles. "You wanted to know the truth, and you didn't know anything, but you kept getting asked about it." ( Chatman, who is now coaching in Russia, considered filing a wrongful termination lawsuit but later reached a settlement with the university.)
Despite the turmoil the Lady Tigers dominated Connecticut in the regional final in Fresno, winning 73--50 as Fowles contributed 23 points, 15 boards and six blocks. It was a tour de force that made their collapse in the national semifinal, a 59--35 loss to Rutgers, even more stunning. "It all caught up with us," says Fowles, who had just five points and seven rebounds against the Scarlet Knights. "That game, we had nothing."
THIS YEAR the Lady Tigers (27--5) have everything they did at the start of last year's tournament, minus the wrenching distraction. In addition to an eight-player senior class and the best scoring defense in the country (they allow just 50.6 points per game), they have a Hall of Fame coach in Van Chancellor, whose credits include 14 tournament appearances with Ole Miss, four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets and the 2004 Olympic gold medal. A folksy 64-year-old grandfather with a gift for boosting players' confidence, Chancellor has brought a welcome light touch. "After all we've been through, it's been a pleasure to have him as a coach," says Fowles. "He adjusted to us; we didn't have to adjust to him. We're finally having fun."
From all accounts, team chemistry is better than ever. "We're fighting together this year," says senior guard Quianna Chaney, who is having a career year (15.0 points a game, 39.2% from beyond the arc) thanks in part to Chancellor's tweaks. "At Tennessee we were down 21--2, and we came back to win. If we had been down like that last year, I don't think we would have come back. "
The key to the Lady Tigers' success remains the player known as Big Syl, a quick and mobile back-to-the-basket center who averages 17.2 points and 9.9 rebounds and was recently named SEC player of the year over Tennessee's Candace Parker. "No team has as many eggs in [one] basket as we have in Sylvia's basket," says Chancellor. "We only go as far as she takes us."
If Fowles feels the pressure of carrying an entire program through another March run, she doesn't let it interfere with her other mission of bringing a bit of sunshine into the lives of everyone she encounters. She makes a point of asking Chancellor about his grandkids and Starkey about his wife (whom she calls Mom) and calling her own mom, Arrittio, five times a day. When faced with kids who are too timid to ask for her autograph, Fowles sweeps them into her long arms and hugs them. "She'll hug grown people too," says teammate RaShonta LeBlanc, "even people she's never met before."
That Fowles does not check her sweet nature at the locker room door vexes Chancellor somewhat ("at the next level she might have to be meaner," he says), but not too much. Though Chancellor likens her forays into the lane to jungle excursions that require a machete "to cut through all the grasping vines," Fowles isn't likely to throw a retaliatory elbow or complain to an official. And that's good for LSU: Though she missed two games earlier this season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her right knee, Fowles has fouled out just once in the last three years. "I have never seen her question a call, hang her head or mope," says Georgia coach Andy Landers. "She just goes out and plays. That's what I love about her."