Remember the days when the top women's teams entered the NCAA
tournament with no more than one loss, when a flirtation with
perfection was a rite of spring? Remember when unranked teams
knew their place? Ah, last year seems a long time ago. This
season has seen one insurrection after another, with unranked
teams having knocked off top 10 opponents a whopping 11 times.
Two of the AP's preseason top 5--Tennessee and Duke--have lost
three games each. Big 12 power Kansas State and two-time
defending national champion Connecticut, which last year
completed an NCAA-record 70-game winning streak, have lost four
times. Every one of those schools except Tennessee has fallen
to an unranked opponent.
All this floundering by the elite has led to six No. 1s, the most
since the mid-1970s, when Wayland Baptist and Delta State were
slugging it out for the top spot. What does it all mean for this
year's NCAAs, which begin on Saturday? "I see the tournament as
being much more wide open than it has ever been," says Texas
coach Jody Conradt. This new phenomenon of widespread talent
"speaks to parity," says Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. "We've
always talked about it, but this year you actually see it."
How else do you explain CONNECTICUT's up-and-down season? The
Huskies were the overwhelming preseason favorites, with all five
starters returning from last year's championship team, including
the reigning national player of the year, guard Diana Taurasi.
But the way UConn has been playing lately, it may not make its
fifth consecutive Final Four. Among the Huskies' four losses were
two at the Hartford Civic Center, where they had not lost since
1986, and two to unranked teams. The pressure of carrying the
team seems to be wearing on Taurasi. In an uncharacteristic
moment during a Big East tournament quarterfinal game against
Virginia Tech on March 7, she picked up her third foul with 7:54
remaining and then needlessly ran through a Tech screen to pick
up her fourth 17 seconds later. When coach Geno Auriemma yelled
at her as she was coming off the court, Taurasi snapped back.
Auriemma benched her for the rest of what turned out to be the
lowest-scoring game in tournament history, which the Huskies won
And what about six-time champion TENNESSEE? The Lady Vols have
been to so many Final Fours (seven of the last nine) that the
NCAA should name a bracket after them. But this is not the year
to enter the tournament without your point guard and defensive
leader. Since junior Loree Moore tore her ACL in Tennessee's
72-69 win at Duke on Jan. 24, the Lady Vols have been manhandled
by Connecticut and lost to Georgia in the SEC semifinals.
This year's field is littered with spoilers-in-waiting:
MINNESOTA, which lost four games without starting point guard
Lindsay Whalen (broken right hand), now has its leader back; SEC
tournament champion VANDERBILT, Big 12 champ OKLAHOMA and Big
East winner BOSTON COLLEGE are playing their best ball of the
season; and KANSAS STATE could be the most dangerous team in the
tournament if it's hitting its outside shots. "When they are
really effective offensively, I don't think there's anybody who
can beat them," says Conradt. "They shoot the ball as well as
anybody in the country."
But to make it to the championship game in New Orleans, a team
will have to do more than shoot the ball well. That's why we
predict that the two teams still standing on April 6 will be the
two best examples of offensive balance and defensive tenacity,
mature leadership and youthful spirit. Those two teams happen to
be the same schools that opened the season on Nov. 16 in the
Tip-Off Classic in West Lafayette, Ind.: TEXAS and DUKE. Since
the Lady Longhorns beat the Blue Devils 85-77 in that game, the
two teams have been heading toward the Crescent City on a
collision course. Both teams boast scorers at every position, are
outrebounding opponents by more than eight boards a game and rely
on freshmen inside. A starter for the Longhorns for the last 12
games, 6'3" forward Tiffany Jackson, a favorite for national
freshman of the year, averages 12.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per
game. Duke's 6'3" forward, Brittany Hunter, last year's Parade
Magazine high school player of the year, has contributed 8.3
points and 5.0 rebounds in just 16 minutes a game despite being
hobbled at times by plantar fasciitis and a torn lateral meniscus
in her right knee.
Duke's moment of truth occurred at Connecticut on Jan. 3. Down by
14 points with less than four minutes to play, the Blue Devils
turned up the pressure, forcing seven turnovers and outscoring
the Huskies 18-3. Reserve guard Jessica Foley's last-second
three-point shot gave Duke a 68-67 victory, UConn's first home
loss in four years.
Last year Texas had the advantage of being relatively unknown as
it roared to its first Final Four since it went 34-0 and won the
title in 1986. This year the Longhorns were circled on most of
their opponents' calenders. "This team has had to play with
expectations and pressure, and I think it's grown because of
that," says Conradt. Fifth-year senior point guard Jamie Carey
has plenty of scorers to feed in the half-court, including junior
forward Heather Schreiber (12.7 points per game), senior center
Stacy Stephens (12.0) and Jackson. But transition is where Texas
is most dangerous. "They're relentless," says Goestenkors. "We
attack the basket in transition, but we don't shoot the three in
transition like they do."
But Duke does have 5'11" senior All-America guard Alana Beard,
who leads the team in scoring (20.2), steals (2.3) and blocks
(1.3). After playing in the shadow of Taurasi last year, Beard is
a front-runner for player of the year. She needs just six steals
to become the first player in NCAA history--male or female--to
have 2,500 points and 400 steals in a career. Already she has
more points (2,622) than any other Duke player of either gender.
The cast around Beard has improved substantially over last year,
when the Blue Devils had just two scoring threats--Beard and
forward Iciss Tillis, now a senior. This season Duke led the
nation in assists with 20.4 a game and had four players average
in double figures. "That's huge for us because last year was the
Alana Beard show much too often," says Goestenkors. "It goes to
show you how much we are sharing the ball and creating
opportunities for others." After Beard, Duke's top scoring threat
is Monique Currie, a 6-foot sophomore slasher who missed last
season with a torn ACL in her left knee. This season Currie has
averaged 11.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists and has added
"a certain toughness we lacked last year," says Beard. Having
Currie back "is the difference between having a Final Four team
and a national championship team," Beard says.
In the end Beard will be the difference between Texas and Duke.
And when the Blue Devils hoist the championship trophy at the
Superdome for the first time, it will represent not so much a
revolt against the women's basketball establishment as a welcome
addition to it.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN UP FOR GRABS In January, Beard and the Blue Devils beat UConn in Hartford, proving that the defending champs were vulnerable.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON TEXAS STAMPEDE Behind floor leader Carey, the Longhorns will ride their transition game to their fourth Final Four appearance.
Here are five intriguing matchups to watch.
No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 11 UC Santa Barbara (at Santa Barbara) A
showdown of two of the nation's top post players, CU's Tera
Bjorklund and UCSB's Lindsay Taylor.
No. 4 Texas Tech vs. No. 13 Maine (at Missoula) Banged-up Lady
Raiders have lost three of their last four while Black Bears have
won 19 of last 20.
No. 5 Florida vs. No. 12 New Mexico (at Albuquerque) Lobos have
best scoring defense in country (50.8 ppg) and loudest home
No. 6 Stanford vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (at Tempe) Pac-10 champs have
plenty of motivation: a low seed and an OU foul that took out
point guard Susan Borchardt (ACL) three years ago.
No. 7 Auburn vs. No. 2 Connecticut (at Bridgeport) If it comes
down to rebounding, the edge goes to the Lady Tigers, who pull
down 42.2 boards per game compared with the Huskies' 39.8.