Last week, the night after Duke won the ACC women's tournament
title for the second straight year, Blue Devils coach Gail
Goestenkors had no need to watch tape of an upcoming opponent for
the first time in four months. So she turned on her television
and watched Connecticut and Notre Dame in the women's Big East
tournament final, whereupon she saw two things that summed up
this women's basketball season: Huskies All-America guard Shea
Ralph's crumpling to the floor with a season-ending ACL
injury--her third in four years--and the Irish's pushing the
defending national champions to the last second before
Connecticut won 78-76 on a buzzer-beating shot by Sue Bird. "Even
though UConn pulled it out, that game illustrated that this is a
new era, when anybody can beat anybody else," says Goestenkors.
Unfortunately, the new dawn isn't unrelated to the fate of Ralph,
who joins teammate and fellow All-America Svetlana Abrosimova
(torn ligament in her left foot) and last season's national
player of the year, Tamika Catchings of Tennessee (torn right
ACL), on this year's extraordinarily long and star-spangled
injured list. What will the absence of these three players mean
for the tournament? On the one hand, it will be diminished
without their brilliant play. On the other, it will be more wide
open because Connecticut and Tennessee, who between them have won
five of the last six NCAA titles, look a little more vulnerable
than usual. "Tennessee and Connecticut still have an aura about
them, and it will take a team with great belief in itself to beat
them," says Goestenkors, "but I think several teams have that
One of them is NOTRE DAME, which presents the biggest threat to
Connecticut and Tennessee, and not only because last November the
Irish finally won a recruiting battle with the Huskies by signing
high school center Teresa Borton of Yakima, Wash. Even before
Notre Dame took UConn to the wire in the Big East tournament, it
had beaten the Huskies 92-76 on Jan. 15 in South Bend. It was the
first time Notre Dame had defeated Connecticut in 12 tries and
led to the Irish's first No. 1 ranking. (Only one other team,
Purdue, has broken the Huskies-Vols lock on the top spot in the
last four years.) "I feel like this team plays with a confidence
we haven't had before," says Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.
"Last year we went into big games hoping to win. This year we go
in believing we'll win."
That confidence flows from the three-point shooting of Niele Ivey
(45.3%) and Alicia Ratay (53.8%), the rebounding of Kelley Siemon
(7.2 per game) and, most critically, the improved judgment of
6'5" All-America center Ruth Riley (17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds
a game), who's far less foul-prone than she was in her first
three years, when she was disqualified a total of 15 times. "I
would always foul rather than give up an easy shot, and every
opponent knew that," says Riley, who has fouled out just twice
this season. "Finally, the coaches convinced me that it's better
to give up a basket sometimes and stay in the game than to be
sitting on the bench."
Working with Irish assistant Carol Owens, once a star post player
at Northern Illinois, Riley has also sharpened her passing skills
and learned to move better without the ball. "She is the only
player I've had who always asks, 'What can I do to get better?'"
says Owens. Even now that she has been named Big East player of
the year and was selected as Big East defensive player of the
year for the third time, Riley remains humble. She answers each
of the dozen pieces of fan mail she gets every week, writes
thank-you notes to the corporations that host tournaments and
bakes cakes for teammates on their birthdays. After a game she
gives her sweaty white headband to the first little kid who asks
for it. "We've still got a lot ahead of us," she says. "St. Louis
[the site of the Final Four] is our goal."
To make sure the DUKE players had similar aspirations,
Goestenkors sent St. Louis postcards to the Blue Devils over the
summer and hung a poster of the Gateway Arch in their locker
room with the words SEE IT. BELIEVE IT. ACHIEVE IT. When Duke's
flock of heralded freshmen arrived in the fall, senior guard
Georgia Schweitzer told them she didn't want to go just to the
Final Four as she had in 1999; she wanted to win it all.
Unlike the team that upset Tennessee in the Elite Eight before
losing to Purdue in the final two years ago, these Blue Devils
haven't been tested against a heavyweight like Connecticut, Notre
Dame or Tennessee. However, thanks to fleet and versatile young
players like point guard Alana Beard, the ACC rookie of the year
and Duke's leading scorer (16.5 points per game), these Blue
Devils are quicker and more athletic. Beard, who concedes that
she had never considered going to Duke before it upset Tennessee
in 1999, is all for keeping an open mind. After Purdue won its
title, she says, "all of a sudden teams other than Tennessee and
UConn started believing it was possible to go all the way."
Hope springs eternal at Stegeman Coliseum Arena, where GEORGIA
players still walk beneath the sign that coach Andy Landers hung
at the beginning of last season: DOWN THIS TUNNEL WALKS THIS
YEAR'S NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. GET COMFORTABLE WITH IT. That's pretty
brash considering that the Lady Bulldogs haven't won a national
title despite making five Final Four appearances. Will this
finally be their year? Led by the senior perimeter trio of Kelly
and Coco Miller and Deanna Nolan, Georgia has five players
averaging double figures. But a series of illnesses and injuries,
including a broken hand that kept the hyperathletic Nolan out of
action for eight games, has kept the Lady Bulldogs in a state of
constant readjustment. "What we haven't done yet is put together
two complete games back-to-back," says Landers, whose team
nevertheless won its first SEC tournament crown in 15 years, "but
Fortunately for Georgia, it has no early-round appointment with
SEC foe VANDERBILT, which beat the Lady Bulldogs in the regular
season and Tennessee in the SEC tournament before losing to
Georgia in the conference title game. The Commodores aren't fast
or athletic, and they have precious little depth, but they are
disciplined and patient enough to have led the country in
shooting at 55.0%. "We aren't going to beat anyone one-on-one,"
says sophomore center Chantelle Anderson, who shot a nation's
best 73.1% from the field and averages 21.1 points. "So we play a
lot of zone, and that works well for us because we totally trust
Vanderbilt's thin bench leaves no margin for injury, as the
Commodores found out in midseason when sophomore point guard
Ashley McElhiney missed four games with a stress fracture
and they went 1-3. However, if Vandy remains healthy, watch out.
"Anderson would be excellent on any team, but on this one she has
even more potential because she's surrounded by four great
shooters," says Landers. "If you help inside, they'll shoot the
three. If you guard the perimeter, they'll beat you inside. You
have to choose your poison."
OKLAHOMA went from 5-22 to last year's Sweet 16 in a
breathtaking three years. "I know from the outside it looks like
we made the turnaround overnight," says fifth-year coach Sherri
Coale, "but I swear that first season lasted five years." When
Oklahoma hired Coale, a Norman high school coach with no college
coaching experience, in 1996, many thought the school was taking
another stab at killing the program, which it had shut down for
eight days in 1990 after a 7-22 season with an average home
attendance of 65 fans. Coale, though, had a vision and a
brilliant recruiting strategy. "We went after kids with
character," she says. "They had to believe we were going to turn
around this program, or I was moving on to the next house."
One such believer is Big 12 player of the year Stacey Dales (16.1
points a game), a flashy junior point guard from Brockville,
Ont., who spent the summer as a starter on the Canadian Olympic
team. A raw and sometimes wild talent when she joined the
Sooners, Dales has developed into a complete player on both ends
of the court. She attributes much of her defensive improvement to
a torn ACL in her left knee that she suffered two minutes into
her freshman season. "I know it sounds awful, but I needed that,"
she says. "It made me tackle the weight room, and by becoming an
observer, I finally learned about defensive principles and
Oklahoma is small--the Sooners' tallest active player is 6'2"
Jamie Talbert--but it's quick and adept at playing its
unpredictable motion offense. Says Coale, "Our best plays are
the ones I don't know are coming."
The same can be said for this year's tournament. For the first
time in a while, we can expect the unexpected.
Up for Grabs
Here are the teams SI sees as strong contenders to win the NCAA
TEAM (RECORD) PPG. FG% REBOUND RECORD VS.
MARGIN TOP 25
Connecticut (28-2) 87.7 50.7% +10.2 8-2
Duke (28-3) 74.7 45.3% +3.4 8-1
Georgia (26-5) 80.1 45.8% +3.7 6-5
Notre Dame (28-2) 76.4 49.5% +6.5 5-2
Oklahoma (26-5) 83.2 48.4% +4.8 8-5
Tennessee (29-2) 83.1 46.7% +10.8 14-2
Vanderbilt (21-9) 77.7 55.0% +6.5 5-6
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN Post presenceBy avoiding foul trouble, the hardworking Riley (00) has become an even taller order for opponents.
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Depth chargeWith Catchings injured, players like the Lady Vols' Ashley Robinson (43) have had to pick up the slack.
COLOR PHOTO: DUKE UNIVERSITY PHOTOGRAPHY New facesBeard, who's a freshman, is a big reason that the Blue Devils are contenders.