Among the dozen women's basketball teams in the Southeastern
Conference, eight still have Lady in their nicknames. But the
spectacle that unfolds when any two of them meet will not be
mistaken for a Helena Bonham-Carter movie.
Go through the SEC standings, more or less bottom to top, and
munch on this pretzel logic: Cellar-dweller South Carolina has
won by 13 points over Kentucky, which has won by four over
Arkansas, which has won by nine over LSU, which has won by 15
over Mississippi, which has won by 10 over Alabama, which has
won by three over Auburn, which has won by 16 over Florida,
which has won by 21 over Mississippi, which has won by six over
perennial power Tennessee, which has won by 16 over Mississippi
State, which has won by three over preseason favorite
Vanderbilt, which whupped first-place Georgia 71-66 last Friday,
thereby ending the 19-game winning streak that had carried the
Lady Bulldogs to the top of the polls.
All of which proves conclusively that a team from the nether
reaches of the SEC is 121 points better than the team at its
summit. Or maybe not so conclusively. Whatever, collectively the
SEC humbles the rest of women's college basketball. Three times
the league has sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament, and it
has averaged 5.7 bids per year since the women's NCAAs began in
1982. All but one of the women's Final Fours have featured at
least one SEC team, and no conference has claimed as many
tournament appearances, wins or titles. Tennessee has won all
three of the SEC's national championships--in 1987, '89 and
'91--but Georgia, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Alabama have reached the
This season the SEC features the likely national player of the
year in Georgia guard Saudia Roundtree and the national freshman
of the year favorite in Tennessee forward Chamique Holdsclaw. It
could boast of a 143-31 nonconference record going into South
Carolina's game on Monday against Wofford. And it has a new
seven-year TV deal with CBS. Small wonder that as many as eight
of this down-and-dirty dozen have been ranked in the Top 25 in
the same week. "But I don't think the number of ranked teams is
the most meaningful stat," says Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster.
"Mississippi State is 13-11, and that's the second-worst record
in the league. In this league nobody's packing for spring break."
Even benighted LSU, which had won three league games in the
previous three seasons and whose troglodyte administration seems
to think that Title IX is about a third of the way down the
shelf of Nancy Drew mysteries, will finish above .500 for the
first time since 1992. "I don't believe in coming back in
another life, but if I did, I'd want to be a women's basketball
coach again, just in a different conference," says Mississippi's
Van Chancellor. "Sometimes I feel I'm out in the Atlantic on a
little raft with only one paddle."
Adds Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, "I recently told our staff
that I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be a ranked
team in a conference with only one or two other ranked teams and
win 30- and 40-point blowouts. But after going overtime with
South Carolina [last Thursday, before winning 79-73], I'm ready
to find out. I'm sick of this."
For years the Lady Vols dominated the SEC with their
pound-it-inside style, but today there's a sophistication to the
basketball played in the league. Georgia applies withering
all-court pressure. Auburn gets after teams too, but with a
bamboozling mix of matchup-zone and pressure defenses. And
Vanderbilt runs the same complex triangle offense the Chicago
Bulls do--and does it so adroitly that Duke men's coach Mike
Krzyzewski, in the studio during ABC's telecast of Vandy's 93-61
victory over North Carolina State on Feb. 4, rhapsodized about
the Commodores' execution.
Scarcely 20 years ago most SEC schools didn't even field a
"girls" team; now, since the first of the year, in a league
where football coaches have been reflexively given the
additional honorific of athletic director, Foster has been
serving as Vanderbilt's AD. Between supervising a game-day
shootaround and guiding his team to a 74-60 defeat of Florida on
Jan. 28, he worked out a deal to keep assistant football coach
Woody Widenhofer from jumping to the Minnesota Vikings, and you
could make the case that it was only the third-most-important
thing he did that day.
How has women's basketball excellence filtered out of Knoxville?
By the late 1980s most SEC schools had decided to plow some of
their football revenue into equipment, air travel and better
coaches' salaries for women's basketball rather than into
plusher carpet for the defensive line coach's office. And there
has been unusual stability among the league's coaches, half of
whom are men. They have 189 years of experience among them, 123
of those years at their current schools. "It becomes a
self-perpetuating proposition," says Georgia coach Andy Landers.
"Recruits say, 'I want to play in these places, with those
people, and win those games.'"
No player in the land has proved to be more up for a challenge
than Roundtree, especially during an 18-day stretch in January.
Through fearless scheduling Landers has turned the Lady Bulldogs
into a national power--"When you're as talented as we are," he
says, "you're not looking for a chicken basket and a blanket for
a picnic"--and in five consecutive victories over ranked
opponents Roundtree did much more than consistently score 20 or
more points. She added eight assists as Georgia ended
Tennessee's 42-game SEC regular-season winning streak with a
77-71 victory. Though only 5'7", she had 10 rebounds in a 79-71
win at Auburn. At Connecticut, as the Lady Bulldogs put a 75-67
halt to the 44-game home winning streak of the defending
national champions, she regularly whizzed by Husky point guard
Jen Rizzotti and then celebrated a critical late-game hoop by
sticking her tongue triumphantly out for the ESPN cameras. After
Georgia spoiled the inaugural women's game at Penn State's Bryce
Jordan Center with a 79-78 victory, Rene Portland, coach of the
then 10th-ranked Lady Lions, said, "She was hitting shots most
of us couldn't make in a game of P-I-G." And in a 72-61 defeat
of Florida, after a 13-0 Lady Gator run had whittled a Georgia
lead to two, Roundtree nailed a momentum-muffling three-pointer.
Player of the year? "I don't think there's a whole lot of
debate," says Foster. "She's had a [Sheryl] Swoopes kind of year."
Roundtree came within a hairsbreadth of quitting basketball
after being twice named South Carolina player of the year at
Anderson's Westside High. Georgia had a scholarship waiting for
her, but she fell one point short on her ACT score. Only the
persistent jawboning of Evelyn Blaylock, coach at Kilgore
(Texas) Junior College, persuaded her to continue playing. After
two seasons at Kilgore, during which she was subjected to
Blaylock's strict discipline and was named national juco player
of the year as a sophomore, Roundtree signed with Georgia--again.
During the summer of 1994, before going to Athens, Roundtree
worked the graveyard shift on an assembly line at a Frigidaire
plant in Anderson. A doorless refrigerator would pass in front
of her, and she had a second, maybe two, to slip a washer onto a
particular bolt to which a hinge would be attached. After coming
off work at 7 a.m., she might sleep until 11, then play ball
until three or four, maybe catch a nap for two hours and then
play more ball from twilight until it was time to return to
work. She haunted an outdoor court in Anderson populated by
playground lifers, guys like Chuckie (never misses) and Cedric
(a rugged rebounder) and Shamick (he of the spidery arms). They
had once told her she couldn't play because she was a girl; now
she was everybody's first pick.
Roundtree's ambition is to be the first woman to direct a
Division I men's team. "This is probably the funniest thing
you'll hear, but I think I could relate," she says. "For me it's
a big adjustment to play on an all-girls' team because I've
played with guys all my life. I feel so comfortable around guys.
With girls you've got to watch what you say. They're so
sensitive. Take things so serious."
Roundtree, a senior, injects a little of her in-your-face
schoolyard spirit into Georgia's ballyhooed junior class, which
features La'Keshia Frett, a former national high school player
of the year. You've heard of the Fab Five; these are the Sense
and Sensibility Six, a civilized group that likes to play cards
and fix potluck suppers. Within a month of Roundtree's arrival
last season, Landers says, "they'd ruined her. She was exactly
like them, ma'am-ing and sir-ing. Fortunately she got away from
them this past summer and got back to the playground in Anderson
and discovered that ma'am and sir didn't work. She's played more
basketball than the people she has to beat, and she knows it.
That's why she can slam the door better than anybody."
Last Friday, Vanderbilt's Sheri Sam did the door-slamming,
scoring 32 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and helping to hound
Roundtree into missing 19 shots. Asked how she might fill out an
All-America ballot, Sam says, "I could find it all in the SEC.
[South Carolina's Shannon] Pee-Wee [Johnson] would be my point
guard. Saudia would be my 2. Of course I'd be the 3. And
Chamique--she's a great rebounder."
With the Final Four set for North Carolina's Queen City, it
might be appropriate to save a spot for LaCharlotte Smith, a
senior guard from Mississippi State, who's among the SEC leaders
in scoring, three-pointers, free throw shooting, assists and
LaCharlotte: a good name, a good place, for any team
representing the SEC, the Shangri-la of women's hoops.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND With assists from players like Pam Irwin, Georgia was the top dog in the country for three weeks.
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEYRoundtree, a 16.1-point scorer, is head and shoulders above other player of the year candidates. [Saudia Roundtree shooting basketball over two opponents]