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Could there be any better evidence of the widespread appeal of women's basketball than what took place last season? Sell-out crowds squeezed into games everywhere from Lubbock, Texas, to Burlington, Vt. New teams entered the Top 20 nearly every week. The Final Four in Atlanta had four teams that had never before reached the semis. To top everything off, Texas Tech, a low-visibility team composed almost entirely of West Texans, gave hope to every upstart program in the nation by winning it all.
Parity, it seemed, had been achieved. Accordingly, beginning this season the NCAA tournament will be expanded from 48 to 64 teams. But will any of those 16 extra teams reach the '94 Final Four in Richmond? Not a chance. Actually, it doesn't look too good for 40 or so other teams that will make the field, either.
Remember the schools that used to hog all the glory back in the pre-parity years—Tennessee, Auburn, Louisiana Tech? They're back, they're hungry, and they don't give a damn about parity. Every team in our top six has been to the Final Four, and of the 12 women's tournaments that have been played under NCAA auspices, these teams have won nine.
The coach of three of those title winners, Pat Summitt of Tennessee, spent the last Final Four weekend belting out Supremes tunes at an Atlanta karaoke bar with fellow Final Four regular Tara VanDerveer, whose Stanford team had also lost a week earlier. "Trust me, I hope that was my last performance," says Summitt, who won her 500th game on Sunday, an 80-45 victory over Ohio State. With seven experienced players back and three freshmen who hold the title of Ms. Basketball in their home states, the Lady Vols are loaded. Junior point guard Tiffany Woosley will run Summitt's wide-open offense along with either Nikki Caldwell or sophomore Michelle Marciniak, who is now eligible after transferring from Notre Dame.
Across the Cumberland Plateau but in the same state is Vanderbilt, a new powerhouse that strikes a small blow for parity even as it sinks the cause of geographic diversity. The Commodores, who have depth and speed to go with the inside game and outside shooting that took them to last spring's Final Four, will most likely field the tallest women's team ever. Crowding the air space of 6'10" center Heidi Gillingham (page 68) will be 6'4" junior jump-hook specialist Mara Cunningham and two freshmen, 6'5" Jennifer Cox and 6'7" Angela Gorsica.
But will Vandy's towering front line be enough to hold off Auburn, the hungriest team in the SEC? Having lost national championship finals in '88, '89 and '90, coach Joe Ciampi is so eager to win a national title that he holds an annual preseason "etiquette dinner" to teach the Lady Tigers proper utensil management—just in case they are invited to a White House celebration banquet. Auburn features 6'6" newcomer Malgorzata Raubo, a native of Poland and an All-America at Independence ( Kans.) Community College, who comes with a reputation for trash-talking in Polish. Raubo was nailed with a technical last season when a ref decided the word she called him sounded a lot like "idioso." SEC Freshman of the Year Kristen Mulligan is back from last season's 25-4 team.
Like Auburn, Louisiana Tech is itching to make the finals, something the Lady Techsters have not done since winning their second national title, in 1988. Aiding the Tech cause is the best backcourt in the nation—sophomore shooting guard Vickie Johnson and senior point guard Pam Thomas, a Shreveport native who is so quick she'll be singing Blew by You to opposing guards.
While there is some doubt whether new coach Cheryl Miller can make the transition from dazzling player to astute strategist at Southern Cal, no one questions that the Trojans have the talent to go all the way, as Miller did as a player at USC in 1983 and '84. She will be looking for big numbers from new shooting guard Karleen Shields, a 25-year-old mother of two who led all collegians in 1992-93 with her 42.2-point average at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Calif. Shields is already getting big assists from 6'5" senior All-America forward Lisa Leslie, who walks Shields's six-year-old daughter, Keisha, to school every morning.
Because Stanford has no obvious replacements for Val Whiting, the Pac-10's alltime leading scorer and rebounder, and Molly Goodenbour, the 1992 Final Four MVP, VanDerveer would seem to be embarking on another rebuilding year. But remember, the last time Stanford was supposedly rebuilding, in 1991-92, it won the national title. Success this season will depend on two factors: the healing of numerous preseason injuries—"We're starting to look like the Golden State Warriors," says VanDerveer—and the maturing of what might be the Cardinal's best-ever freshman class. Top recruit Jamila Wideman may start at point guard.
With Iowa and Ohio State both depleted by graduation, Penn State should own the Big Ten. Coach Rene Portland has so much confidence in her back-court, junior shooter Katina Mack and 5'3" sophomore point guard Tina Nicholson, that she has scrapped her infamously controlled offense. "They are going to do things this year with my blessing that I don't even know about yet," says Portland.