If some people don't get a grip soon, the 2003-04 women's season
will be launched on a tide of tears. Coaches who are otherwise
as tough as nails are getting all blubbery contemplating their
final seasons with members of the deepest, most talented senior
class in memory. "Do you hear me crying?" says Kansas State
coach Deb Patterson as she reflects on the contributions of
senior center Nicole Ohlde, her program's first-ever first-team
All-America. "It's the hardest part of our job--you look up one
day, and they are gone," says Purdue coach Kristy Curry as she
sings the praises of the first star-studded class she recruited
in West Lafayette. Even Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma,
usually dry as gunpowder, edges toward mushiness when speaking
of his senior guard, Diana Taurasi (page 124). "I think this
year, with Diana, I'm going to try really, really hard to
appreciate all that she is and what she does," he says softly.
Before we cue the violins, though, there are some indications
that the path to the Final Four in New Orleans will not be strewn
with flowers. "Yeah, there are a lot of seniors," says one of the
best, Penn State's two-time All-America guard Kelly Mazzante.
"But most of us still don't have a ring, and we all want one.
This season is going to be one long fight."
Unfortunately for CONNECTICUT's opponents, the Huskies should be
even better this year. The 6'0" Taurasi, who led a group of
mostly green underclassmen to the school's fourth title in nine
years despite playing with a bum right ankle and sore back, is
healthy. Freshman Liz Sherwood of Castle Rock, Colo., a former
Highlands Ranch High teammate of Huskies sophomore guard Ann
Strother, will add a dimension the team hasn't had for either of
its last two championship runs: power. "She is a house," says
Taurasi admiringly of the 6'4" center. "It'll be nice when we get
in a jam to just throw it up to her and say, 'Go get us a
Two-time All-America Alana Beard will have a similar luxury at
DUKE, as the Blue Devils, who made their second straight Final
Four appearance last year, welcome 6'7" freshman shot blocker
Alison Bales from Beavercreek High in Dayton. As skyline-altering
as Bales is, though, it is her 6'3" classmate, Brittany Hunter,
last year's Parade Player of the Year while at Brookhaven High in
Columbus, Ohio, who may have the biggest immediate impact. A
player "destined for greatness," according to coach Gail
Goestenkors, Hunter was the first female to participate in the
McDonald's Slam Dunk contest. She didn't nail one there, but,
says Goestenkors, "I'll do my very best to help it happen in a
game." With those two additions and the return of sophomore
slasher Monique Currie, who sat out last season with a torn left
ACL, the Blue Devils' biggest weaknesses a year ago, rebounding
and inside scoring, should now be strengths.
Since the NCAA started holding a women's championship in 1982,
there have been four Final Fours that featured three or more of
the same finalists back-to-back, and this year should make it
five. TEXAS lost only one significant player, guard Tai Dillard,
from the Longhorns' first Final Four team since 1987. Being at
the Final Four was "a great learning experience," says 6'1"
senior forward Stacy Stephens. "Now everyone has been there but
the freshmen, and we've told them about it enough times that they
feel like they've been there." The rookies' experience may not be
real, but their height certainly is. Center Kalee Carey, out of
Canyon (Texas) High, is 6'5", and forward Tiffany Jackson, one of
the top recruits in the country while at Duncanville (Texas)
High, is a very fast, highly skilled 6'4".
Despite stellar efforts last season by Ohlde, junior guard Laurie
Koehn and junior forward Kendra Wecker, KANSAS STATE was
unexpectedly ousted by Notre Dame in the tournament's second
round. "We may have emptied our tanks too soon," says Patterson.
"We're going to be much more March-oriented this year." At least
three of the five incoming freshmen should provide immediate
help. More important, Koehn is healthy; the three-point ace
missed 10 games last season with a stress fracture of her right
foot. Koehn, Ohlde and Wecker were among the 24 players selected
to play on two USA Basketball teams this summer. The trio has
come back fine-tuned and, says Ohlde, "ready to have fun."
Likewise, GEORGIA is not dwelling on the missed opportunities of
2002-03. Despite a season of turmoil, which included forward Kara
Braxton's suspension for repeated rules violations, there were
still enough bright spots that when players watched a highlight
reel recently, "we got all tingly," says 6'5" senior center
Christi Thomas. Coach Andy Landers is feeling a bit that way too,
because for the first time in several years he has a team that is
experienced and well-balanced. The backcourt features Sherrill
Baker and Alexis Kendrick, a freshman All-America who had 158
assists and 52 treys last year. The front line of Thomas and the
6'6" junior Braxton is the country's most formidable.
One of the Lady Bulldogs' first tests will come on Nov. 30 in
Palo Alto, Calif., where STANFORD players have been shedding the
extra pounds they gained during their September tour of the
basketball arenas and gelaterias of Italy. "My attitude was, I
don't know when I'll be coming back here, so I'm going to try
everything now," says senior forward Nicole Powell, a two-time
All-America. "You have to seize the opportunity when you can."
The same goes for basketball. Despite 11 Pac-10 titles in the
last 17 years, the Cardinal has not advanced past the Sweet 16
since 1997, and Powell feels the, well, weight of recent history.
"There is definitely a sense of urgency here," she says. Powell,
who missed the first nine games of last season with a bulging
disk in her lower back, is healthy again, and there is still
enough depth, versatility and experience to present coach Tara
Van Derveer with a full menu of lineup options.
TENNESSEE is somewhat lower in the rankings than usual. Since
Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson left last spring after three
fruitless trips to the Final Four--theirs was the first senior
class since 1986 to depart from Knoxville without at least one
championship ring--the Lady Vols have been digging deep to
replace the duo's scoring (a combined 30.5 points a game) and
court leadership. While Tennessee showed grit and cohesiveness
winning the championship of a tough August minitournament in
Athens, Greece, the team's most important player, junior point
guard Loree Moore, wasn't on hand because of another commitment,
with the silver-medal-winning U.S. squad at the Pan Am Games.
"Loree is our key," says coach Pat Summitt. "She has to get more
vocal and improve her game management, and the team will have to
improve in the half-court game offensively and defensively. But I
expect this team to be in New Orleans."
LOUISIANA STATE coach Sue Gunter would dearly like to be there
too, after the promise of last season was unexpectedly cut short
by Texas at the West Regional final. "I'm not sure we're over
that yet," says Gunter, a 40-year veteran who has yet to make it
to the Final Four. The Lady Tigers have more speed than a lot of
track teams. Their trio of guards--Seimone Augustus, Tamecka
Johnson and Doneeka Hodges--will give LSU one of the best
perimeter attacks in the nation. After collecting hardware as
National Freshman of the Year and MVP of the Young Women's World
Championships in Croatia, Augustus claims she's improved her
confidence and her range.
For a team with little height, no depth and one star shooter,
Mazzante, who struggled with the lingering effects of
mononucleosis, PENN STATE did all right for itself last season,
winning the Big Ten and making it to the Sweet 16. Now the
pressure will be on local (Montoursville, Pa.) hero Mazzante to
take the team further. Along the way, she'll want to break a few
of the scoring records within her reach; with 2,238 career
points, she is 16 shy of the school's record for men and women,
and 341 short of the seven-year-old Big Ten record set by Ohio
State's Katie Smith. Mazzante also hopes to show that declining
an invitation to the USA Basketball tryouts this summer so she
could work on her conditioning and ball handling was the right
Just winning the much-improved Big Ten again is going to be a
struggle, especially with the continued challenge presented by
PURDUE. Perhaps no group of seniors is more driven than the
Boilermakers' senior quartet of forwards Lindsey Hicks and
Shereka Wright and guards Beth Jones and Erika Valek, who were
part of the nation's No. 1 recruiting class four years ago. They
have reached the Final Four, the second round, and the Elite
Eight, respectively, in their three seasons at West Lafayette.
New team T-shirts read up on the front; on the back are the words
SENSE OF URGENCY and, on the next line, SENSE OF PURPOSE. These
Boilermakers, led by Wright and point guard Valek, will be
smaller but quicker than recent editions. "It's a whole new look
for Purdue," says Wright, "so no one knows what to expect."
Actually, we do. Purdue and every other senior-led team will feel
a sense of urgency and purpose all season, and come April, the
rest of us--like Patterson, Curry and Auriemma--will feel a sense
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES TIP-TOP Healthy at last, Penn State's prolific Mazzante (13) has her sights set on the Big Ten scoring mark.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN F. GRIESHOP LAST SHOT Wright (driving on Strother) is hoping that her Boilermakers class can finally live up to expectations.
4. Kansas State
9. Penn State