AFTER DUKE crushedLSU and two-time national player of the year Seimone Augustus 64-45 in anational semifinal in Boston on Sunday night, Alison Bales, the Blue Devils'6'7" junior center, explained why it had looked so easy. "We had a goodgame plan, and playing in the ACC prepares you for just about anything,"she said. "The fact that three of the four teams here are from the ACCspeaks for itself."
In the earliersemifinal Maryland--a team that started two freshmen, two sophomores and ajunior and had the classic ACC makeup of quick, long-armed guards, and postplayers who can run and handle the ball--knocked off overall No. 1 seed NorthCarolina 81-70, its second victory over the Tar Heels this season. TheMaryland-Duke matchup in Tuesday's final guaranteed that the national championin women's basketball would come from the ACC for the first time since 1994,when North Carolina won the league's only other title.
Of course, theodds of an ACC school's winning the national championship this year couldhardly have been better. This was the first time three teams from oneconference made the Women's Final Four (it has happened just once in the men'stournament, in 1985, with the Big East's St. John's, Georgetown and eventualchamp Villanova), but the Beantown staging of what Maryland coach Brenda Fresecalled "the ACC tournament, Part 2" was no surprise. For the secondstraight season the ACC had the nation's highest conference RPI and landedseven teams in the NCAAs. The last of those clubs, ACC newcomer Boston College,finished the league schedule 6-8 but justified its surprise NCAA bid by beatingNotre Dame and upsetting No. 1 seed Ohio State before losing a nail-biter toUtah.
How did the ACC,historically a one- or two-horse conference in women's hoops-N.C. State in the'80s, Virginia and Maryland in the late '80s and early '90s, Duke in the lastfive years or so-become so deep? A commitment from athletic directors toupgrade facilities and hire first-rate coaches helped. So did the arrival ofFrese, who left Minnesota in 2002 to take over the foundering program inCollege Park. A quick glance at Maryland's roster reveals Frese's imprint: Sixof the Terrapins' top seven scorers are freshmen or sophomores, includingforward Crystal Langhorne, who had two 30-point games in the NCAAs, and pointguard Kristi Toliver.
"Brenda'scoming to Maryland has made us all better," says Duke coach GailGoestenkors. "A couple of years ago we at Duke were recruiting againstConnecticut and Tennessee; we weren't recruiting against the ACC. Now we are. Ithink we raised the recruiting bar, and now everyone has stepped up. Now we allhave better teams."
Don't expect adrop-off anytime soon. Among the league's three Final Four participants, therewere just four senior starters. Several other clubs, including N.C. State,Virginia Tech and Florida State, are young and on the rise. Hard as it is toimagine, says North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, "the ACC women may beeven better next year."
BILL FRAKES (BALES)
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (TOLIVER)