The moment that set the stage for what figures to be one of the
most competitive women's college basketball seasons in history
began, appropriately enough, with the opening of a door. A car
door. "When Chamique Holdsclaw got in her car and drove away
from Knoxville, everybody said, 'We've got a shot,'" says
Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore.
Indeed, now that Holdsclaw, the 6'2" all-world Lady Vol who led
Tennessee to three titles in the last four years and whose team
set new standards for excellence, has left the parking lot, a
slew of schools are simultaneously on the brink of prominence.
Those teams seemed to have learned a thing or two from recent
champions. No longer, for example, are the Lady Vols the only
contender with key players whose names rhyme, like Tamika and
Semeka; Louisiana State has Katrina and DeTrina, and North
Carolina has LaShonda and LaQuanda.
Given that, is it surprising that four top women's teams,
including Connecticut, Rutgers and Tennessee, barnstormed around
Europe in August, following the example of last year's champions,
the Purdue women and the UConn men? Is it shocking that the
Connecticut women attended a special service by the Pope,
something 1996 men's champion Kentucky did? No, it's not. Nor are
these things all that important.
When it comes to winning NCAA titles, belief in oneself is more
important than belief in papal infallibility, and that's one
reason that GEORGIA is SI's choice for No. 1. Above the walkway
between the Lady Bulldogs' locker room and the Stegeman Coliseum
court hangs a sign that reads DOWN THIS TUNNEL WALKS THIS YEAR'S
NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. That may be presumptuous, but consider that
Georgia has four of five starters back from last season's
surprising Final Four squad, including junior All-America point
guard Kelly Miller and her twin, shooting guard Coco (page 120).
Sophomore center Tawana McDonald has added 12 pounds of beef to
her 6'4" frame, and she will get help inside from last season's
top junior college player, 6'4" Shala Crawford. "We have size,
height, quickness and shooting, and every player has improved
since last year," says coach Andy Landers. "We have a chance to
be as good as we've ever been. Unfortunately, 10 or 12 other
teams are in a similar position."
That would include CONNECTICUT, which suffered so many injuries
last year that only small forward Svetlana Abrosimova started
every game. The Huskies went 29-5 and advanced to the Sweet 16
but were the first Connecticut team since 1992-93 to win fewer
than 30 games and fall short of the Elite Eight. The Huskies
should return to their old form this season if everyone stays
healthy and sophomore point guard Sue Bird, who played in just
eight games before hurting her knee last year, lives up to her
'97-98 Parade All-America billing. "We may be young, but we're
experienced, we're competitive, and we're mentally tougher than
you might think," says junior guard Shea Ralph. "I think we'll
surprise a lot of people."
Here's another surprise: Even though three starters from the
TENNESSEE team that many observers ranked as the most talented in
college basketball history are gone, the Lady Vols might be
better than they were last season. They're still loaded--their two
junior All-Americas, forward Tamika Catchings and guard Semeka
Randall, lead the way--and they're hungry after their 69-63 upset
loss to Duke in last March's East Regional final. "Last year we
were a great team, but we had the mind-set that we were
invincible," says junior point guard Ace Clement. "That loss
humbled us, and that's good, because it'll make us work harder."
No Lady Vol has worked harder than Clement, who showed up for
Tennessee's preseason trip to Europe slimmed down by more than 15
pounds. Yet she and sophomore post players Michelle Snow and
Shalon Pillow will be pushed by coach Pat Summitt's latest crop
of high school All-America freshmen, which includes point guard
April McDivitt and Kara Lawson, a 5'9" guard who can bench-press
235 pounds. Plus, this figures to be an ornery bunch to face. "We
got our behinds embarrassed last year, and we should take it out
on everyone we play," says Snow. "Otherwise, Pat's going to take
it out on us."
A Nov. 28 visit from Tennessee is just one of the tough games on
a UCLA schedule that Bruins coach Kathy Olivier calls "suicidal."
UCLA also faces Texas and Old Dominion at home and Louisiana
Tech, Rutgers and Connecticut on the road, all before the end of
December, when senior point guard Erica Gomez is expected to
return from off-season arthroscopic surgery to repair her left
shoulder. Until Gomez is ready, sophomore Michelle Greco and
heralded freshman Nicole Kaczmarski will see plenty of action at
the point. Otherwise, UCLA, which made the Elite Eight last year,
will be dominated by seniors, including 6'3" Kodak All-America
forward Maylana Martin, who had disk surgery in May in hopes of
putting two years of back pain behind her. "This will be the last
year for a lot of us," says Martin, a Naismith Award candidate.
"That's what will drive us."
RUTGERS senior guard Shawnetta Stewart is also driven. Since
Stewart signed on as coach Vivian Stringer's first recruit with
the Scarlet Knights four years ago, Rutgers has improved from
11-17 in her freshman season to 29-6 last season, when they made
the Elite Eight. Stewart desperately wants to take the Scarlet
Knights to the next level, the Final Four, which will be played
in her hometown of Philadelphia. "Saying she has a sense of
urgency is putting it mildly," says Stringer. "You want to cry
for her, she's working so hard." So is the rest of this deep,
talented and versatile team, which includes junior point guard
Tasha Pointer, who averaged 6.8 assists per game last year. "All
the pieces are in place," says Stringer. "I feel this is a team
IOWA STATE might be as well, if it can keep shooting the lights
out. "We're more offensive-minded than defensive-minded, and
that's backward, but at least we're fun to watch," says coach
Bill Fennelly, whose mantra is "shoot it before you lose it," a
strategy that resulted last season in an average of 7.5 threes
per game, a 25-8 mark and an Elite Eight finish. The Cyclones'
headliners are senior guard Stacy Frese, a .457 three-point
shooter, and junior guard Megan Taylor, a .404 trey-maker who's
on pace to become Iowa State's career rebounding leader despite
being only 5'10". Though the Cyclones insist they're perpetual
underdogs--they listen to the theme from Rocky before every
game--they expect great things this year. "This is our best chance
to get to the Final Four," says Taylor. "If we don't, it's going
to feel like a missed opportunity."
LOUISIANA TECH missed a golden opportunity to reach the
championship game when it fell to Purdue in the national semis
last spring and then lost three starters, including WNBA pick
Amanda Wilson, to graduation. But Barmore sees success ahead for
his young team, which is the biggest he has had in the last 10
years. Helping 6'3" Shaka Massey and 6'2" Ayana Walker in the
post will be two promising freshmen, 6'2" Cheryl Ford, the
daughter of Tech alum Karl Malone, and 6'1" Catrina Frierson. If
the big players can't get the job done on the boards, feisty 5'8"
senior shooting guard Betty Lennox has said she'll step up and
lead the Lady Techsters in rebounding. Barmore hopes it won't
come to that. "Eventually, this will be a good team, but it may
not be in the first six weeks," he says.
NORTH CAROLINA will also be bigger, an easy task considering that
last year the Tar Heels didn't regularly start anyone taller than
6'1". That lack of size hurt North Carolina, which got hammered
by tall teams like UCLA, Duke and North Carolina State on its way
to a 28-8 record and a Sweet 16 exit. This year 6'5" sophomore
LaShonda Allen, who got significantly stronger, quicker and
slimmer over the summer, may help the Heels address their matchup
difficulties. "My role is to play D against the big girls like
[N.C. State's 6'6" Summer] Erb," says Allen. "She doesn't know it
yet, but she won't be making the shots she made on us last year."
Allen's defense will be tested on Dec. 4 against NOTRE DAME and
6'5" junior Ruth Riley, an old-fashioned back-to-the-basket
center who led the nation in shooting percentage (.683) and had
3.3 blocks per game last season. Riley is complemented by the
speedy senior backcourt of Danielle Green and Niele (Poison)
Ivey, who may be the most underrated point guard in the nation
(13.2 points and 6.5 assists per game in 1998-99). Ivey missed
the final three games last season after suffering her second ACL
injury and can't wait for the season to start. "I'm just excited
to be playing," she says. "Every time I make it through practice,
I want to throw a party."
Speaking of celebrations, the good times rolled often last season
at LOUISIANA STATE, which upset Tennessee 72-69 on Feb. 21 and
made a surprise appearance in the Sweet 16. Fans of the Lady
Tigers toasted the spectacular play of 5'11" forward DeTrina
White, who led the SEC with 12 double doubles and was named the
conference's freshman of the year. "DeTrina is the kind of player
you get once in your career," says coach Sue Gunter, who has been
on the bench for 36 years. Another player to watch is senior
Katrina Hibbert, a versatile small forward who does "whatever she
needs to do for us to win," says Gunter. Hibbert wants to
recapture the feeling the Lady Tigers had when they beat
Tennessee. "It was like winning a national championship," she
says, "and that has to be the best feeling in the world."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Still tough Despite losing three starters, Louisiana Tech, led by Walker (12) and Lennox, has the size and talent to challenge for No. 1.
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL C. HEBERT/SPURLOCK PHOTOGRAPHY Battle stations LSU's April Brown (right) and Tennessee's Catchings will lead their teams in an SEC dogfight.
COLOR PHOTO: BRETT HANSBAUER/BRSP Cyclone force Iowa State's Frese, one of the nation's top three-point gunners, proved to UConn that she can also drive to the hoop.
6. Iowa State
7. Louisiana Tech
8. North Carolina
9. Notre Dame
Tennessee isn't the only contender with key players whose names
rhyme, like Tamika and Semeka.