It's now or never for six of the Lady Longhorns of Texas. In both 1984 and last season the Horns were ranked No. 1 in the country in final regular-season polls. And both times they failed to make the Final Four. Injuries stopped them one year, destiny the next. And now Kamie Ethridge, Fran Harris, Cara Priddy, Gay Hemphill and the Smith sisters, Annette and Audrey—seniors all—are approaching the end of the road. "After all we've been through," says Harris, "we should go out there and kill people this year."
Texas's tribulations began in the '83-84 season when five Longhorns, including that season's Wade Trophy finalist, Annette Smith (24.9 points, 7.6 rebounds per game), were lost because of knee injuries. The 5'11" Annette Smith—considered by many to be the finest "little" center in the nation—landed so hard on her left leg during a practice session that she cracked the tibia and suffered extensive cartilage and ligament damage. She needed five hours of reconstructive surgery, five months on crutches and 15 months of rehabilitation before she could even begin thinking about returning to the game.
Last season, as Smith sat out, starters Hemphill, Harris, Ethridge and Priddy joined sophomore All-America forward Andrea Lloyd in leading Texas to a 28-3 regular-season record. The NCAA Final Four showdown was to be held at Texas's Erwin Center, and more than 20,000 tickets were sold in anticipation of the Lady Longhorns' presence. But in the Mideast Regional championship game in Bowling Green, Ky., Western Kentucky's Lillie Mason threw up a prayer that was answered at the final buzzer, and the Lady Toppers beat Texas 92-90.
"I'm not over it yet; I'll never get over it," says Texas coach Jody Conradt. "It won't matter if we win 10 national championships from this point on. I'll know that number 11 got away." Conradt's record is 288-49 for her nine seasons at Texas—90-9 the last three years—yet she has never won a title. But this year her squad is hungry and deep, even if Annette Smith doesn't recover 100% of her '83-84 form. Says Georgia coach Andy Landers, "You could take their first five, mix them up with five high school players, take their second five, mix them up with five high school players, and you'd still have four teams probably good enough to be in the Top 10."
At point guard is Ethridge, who's so competitive she once rode the last three miles of a nine-mile bicycle leg in a triathlon with a flat tire. A 1984 Olympic team alternate, Ethridge averaged 7.3 assists per game last year. Harris, known as Auto, for Automatic, as in "when Fran shoots the jumper, you know it's goin' down" was the team's high scorer with 15 points per game. Rounding out the group Conradt calls "my finest recruiting class ever" are Priddy at center and Audrey Smith coming off the bench as the third guard. Hemphill, a forward-center who transferred from Wayland Baptist in 1983, averaged 14.7 points and six rebounds for the Longhorns last year.
Texas plays a full-court pressure defense and runs a fast-break offense that averaged 84.8 points in '84-85, eighth best in the nation. The Longhorns are loaded to the bottom of their roster with the likes of Lloyd, who pulled down 8.5 boards a game last season, and C.J. Jones, an Air Jordan in gherri curls.
But Annette Smith is the X factor, the extra that could transform Texas from a team that should win it all into one that will win it all. If Smith is well, Erwin Center will be the best little scorehouse in Texas. Even if Smith plays at 50% of her old form, the psychological boost she'll provide will go unmeasured on the stat sheets. In early practices her left knee would swell as soon as she rested after exertion, and she was experimenting with ways to keep her leg warm during games. (But she refused to ride a stationary bicycle on the sidelines.) "If I can't play, I can accept it," she says. "But it's going to take a lot for me not to play. A lot."
Now that GEORGIA'S all-time leading scorer, Janet Harris, has graduated, coach Andy Landers is playing coy. "We'll be good," he says. "I just don't know how good." Rest assured, the Lady Bulldogs will be very good. Teresa Edwards, a 1984 Olympic team guard, is back after a 15.5 points-per-game season, as are Lisa O'Connor and center Katrina (Tree) McClain, who averaged 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. McClain also led the SEC with 87 blocked shots last season and then led the U.S. team in scoring at the World University Games. In one torrid game against South Korea, she got 38 points and 13 boards in a 30-minute stretch. Georgia is especially strong in the backcourt, so Landers is likely to employ a three-guard offense often and to align his speedy defenders in a sticky man-on-man.
Northeast Louisiana retains its entire starting lineup, most notably center Lisa Ingram, forward Chana Perry and point guard Eun Jung Lee from a Final Four team that went 30-2 last season. Lee is a bona fide Seoul sister who has become a big favorite in bayou country. She makes seemingly impossible passes and averaged 18 points per game last season. Perry, meanwhile, tossed in a quiet 18.3 points a game and averaged almost 13 rebounds. Just a few defensive adjustments—such as Ingram's learning to move her feet more, and Lee's tightening up her defensive work within the zone—will make coach Linda Harper's Lady Indians, who just three years ago had a 12-12 record, a serious threat for the national title.
Some 35 miles down I-20 LOUISIANA TECH is preparing its own ambush. The Lady Techsters are in transition: Where once they relied on one or two prolific shooters, this season the offense will be more evenly distributed. Three veteran starters return—center Tori Harrison, guard Teresa Weatherspoon and center-forward Stacey Davis—but Tech desperately needs someone to back Weatherspoon at the point. Tech is strong in the wing position, however. Keep an eye on 6-foot freshman forward Nora (Let's Get Physical) Lewis, the nation's prep player of the year in 1985. The team's greatest loss came with the resignation of co-coach Sonja Hogg, who shared credit with Leon Barmore for Tech's six Final Four appearances in the last seven years.
"My philosophy defensively, and in general, is to be unpredictable," says Marianne Stanley, coach of OLD DOMINION. Last season the Lady Monarchs confounded Georgia enough in the NCAA final to walk away with the national title. So don't count ODU out this time. Two full-time starters, Marie Christian and Dawn Cullen, are back at point guard and center, respectively, and guard-forward Adrienne Goodson and guard Bridget Jenkins move into the lineup with plenty of experience. So what if the squad is young, with five freshmen joining the ranks? Stanley wasted no time in breaking them in her way. Before regular practices began, she had her players participate in a confidence-building program called Ropes and Initiative. Among other required tasks, they descended from a 60-foot-high platform on ropes and pulleys.
The starting five who helped WESTERN KENTUCKY achieve a 28-6 record in '84-85 is back this season, led by top Lady Toppers Lillie Mason (16.2 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) at forward, and Kami Thomas (14.1 points per game) and Clemette Haskins (212 assists) at guard. Through plyometrics (a fancy name for jumping exercises), weightlifting, flag football games and two-mile runs to a local Baskin-Robbins, Western can boast of having perhaps the best-conditioned team in the nation. Expect the Lady Toppers to again confound opponents with their Mad Dog (1-2-2, three-quarter-court press) defense.
"We're the best-kept secret in the South," says AUBURN coach Joe Ciampi, but not for much longer. Although the Lady Tigers finished second in the SEC behind Georgia, they aren't afraid to show their claws, as evidenced by their 80-65 thrashing of the Lady Bulldogs last season. Auburn will go even more to a power game this time around, with forward Mae Ola Bolton (12.7 points), point guard Helene Baroody (4.8 assists) and freshman center-forward Vickie Orr leading the way.
USC went 21-9 last year—not bad for a squad that carried six freshmen. Now, after a year of playing alongside the Franchise, Cheryl Miller (page 124), those young women have come of age. Miller led USC to two national titles in her first two years. She'll be looking for a third in her senior season, along with point guard Rhonda (Magic) Windham, forward Holly Ford, both starters last season, and 6'4" center Cherie Nelson. Should the Women of Troy survive a schedule that includes Texas, Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion, NCAA tournament time may be Miller time once more.
If height makes might, OHIO STATE will come up short. The two tallest Buckeyes, Rhonda Winters and Teresa Dombkowski, are all of 6'3", while the shortest is 5'1" Gennifer Johnson. Three starters from last season's 28-3 team are back: guard Liana Coutts and forward-guards Francine Lewis and Tracey Hall. First-year coach Nancy Darsch hopes to build a strong, if not tall, inside game on offense while sticking with the Buckeyes' bread and butter—the scrappy man-to-man on defense.
Each year since 1982, LONG BEACH STATE has lost the West regional final to the eventual national champion. This year 6'2" forward Cindy Brown is the 49ers' only returning starter. But coach Joan Bonvicini is not without some divine inspiration and hope. While vacationing in Italy last summer, Bonvicini visited her uncle Guido, a tailor who makes vestments for the Vatican. "Next time, if I call early and let him know I'm coming, he'll get me an audience with the Pope," Bonvicini says. "I may need that to win the national championship."
SUSAN AIMEE WEINIK
Players who endured the failures but say it won't happen again are (clockwise from top left): Harris, Ethridge, Priddy, Hemphill, Audrey Smith, Annette Smith.
Many an opponent is likely to fall before the Tree, Georgia's 6'2", 181-pound McClain.
SUSAN AIMEE WEINIK
Northeast Louisiana's Wild Boys are especially wild about their Seoul sister, Eun Jung Lee.