SOMEWHERE IN heron-campus apartment LSU's 6'6" senior center Sylvia Fowles keeps a blackbackpack that's festooned with little souvenirs of NCAA tournamentspast—wristbands, player credentials, Final Four pins, a rainbow of securityribbons. What's missing, she says, "is all the little stuff from the lasttwo days ... that last practice, that final game." ¬∂ In each of the pastfour years the Lady Tigers, whether underdogs (2004, 2007) or favorites (2005,2006), have made a pilgrimage to college basketball's final weekend only to bestopped cold in a national semifinal. The losses have ranged from heartbreakingsqueakers to crushing blowouts, but they've all resulted in the same abruptexit. "We don't say much about it to each other, but I'm pretty sure itstays on everybody's minds," says Fowles. "I'm always thinking aboutit. You try so hard and you make it so far, and you just can't get over thathump. Of course we want to get back and try again."
Only one team,Connecticut, has made five Final Fours in a row. But the Huskies won the titlefour times during that stretch, between 2000 and 2004. Any other team fallingshort as repeatedly as LSU might invite comparisons to, say, the Buffalo Bills,who reached four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s and lost them all. Butthe Lady Tigers are remembered more for the distractions they overcame duringtheir run than for the opponents they didn't.
When they made itto the program's first Final Four, in 2004, they were fourth-seeded underdogsriding a wave of emotion generated by the illness of longtime coach Sue Gunter,who had stepped down that January to battle emphysema. (Gunter died in August2005.) That team, led by future national player of the year Seimone Augustusand interim coach Pokey Chatman, lost to Tennessee 52--50. LSU made it to the2005 Final Four as the title favorite but lost to Baylor 68--57 after blowing a15-point lead. A year later, having seen their gym turned into a triage centerand morgue for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Lady Tigers arrived in Bostoninspired to play in honor of those affected by the storm. The final score: Duke64, LSU 45.
But last March"was the worst time ever," says Fowles. On March 7, little more than aweek before the start of the NCAA tournament, Chatman resigned amid allegationsthat she had had inappropriate relations with a former player. As the teamnavigated the tournament as a No. 3 seed under associate head coach BobStarkey, the players dealt with confusion and intense media attention. "Itaffected us a lot, especially the players who looked up to Pokey as a motherfigure," says Fowles. "You wanted to know the truth, and you didn'tknow anything, but you kept getting asked about it." (Chatman, who is nowcoaching in Russia, considered filing a wrongful termination lawsuit but laterreached a settlement with the university.)
Despite theturmoil the Lady Tigers dominated Connecticut in the regional final in Fresno,winning 73--50 as Fowles contributed 23 points, 15 boards and six blocks. Itwas a tour de force that made their collapse in the national semifinal, a59--35 loss to Rutgers, even more stunning. "It all caught up with us,"says Fowles, who had just five points and seven rebounds against the ScarletKnights. "That game, we had nothing."
THIS YEAR theLady Tigers (27--5) have everything they did at the start of last year'stournament, minus the wrenching distraction. In addition to an eight-playersenior class and the best scoring defense in the country (they allow just 50.6points per game), they have a Hall of Fame coach in Van Chancellor, whosecredits include 14 tournament appearances with Ole Miss, four WNBA titles withthe Houston Comets and the 2004 Olympic gold medal. A folksy 64-year-oldgrandfather with a gift for boosting players' confidence, Chancellor hasbrought a welcome light touch. "After all we've been through, it's been apleasure to have him as a coach," says Fowles. "He adjusted to us; wedidn't have to adjust to him. We're finally having fun."
From allaccounts, team chemistry is better than ever. "We're fighting together thisyear," says senior guard Quianna Chaney, who is having a career year (15.0points a game, 39.2% from beyond the arc) thanks in part to Chancellor'stweaks. "At Tennessee we were down 21--2, and we came back to win. If wehad been down like that last year, I don't think we would have come back."
The key to theLady Tigers' success remains the player known as Big Syl, a quick and mobileback-to-the-basket center who averages 17.2 points and 9.9 rebounds and wasrecently named SEC player of the year over Tennessee's Candace Parker. "Noteam has as many eggs in [one] basket as we have in Sylvia's basket," saysChancellor. "We only go as far as she takes us."
If Fowles feelsthe pressure of carrying an entire program through another March run, shedoesn't let it interfere with her other mission of bringing a bit of sunshineinto the lives of everyone she encounters. She makes a point of askingChancellor about his grandkids and Starkey about his wife (whom she calls Mom)and calling her own mom, Arrittio, five times a day. When faced with kids whoare too timid to ask for her autograph, Fowles sweeps them into her long armsand hugs them. "She'll hug grown people too," says teammate RaShontaLeBlanc, "even people she's never met before."
That Fowles doesnot check her sweet nature at the locker room door vexes Chancellor somewhat("at the next level she might have to be meaner," he says), but not toomuch. Though Chancellor likens her forays into the lane to jungle excursionsthat require a machete "to cut through all the grasping vines," Fowlesisn't likely to throw a retaliatory elbow or complain to an official. Andthat's good for LSU: Though she missed two games earlier this season afterundergoing arthroscopic surgery on her right knee, Fowles has fouled out justonce in the last three years. "I have never seen her question a call, hangher head or mope," says Georgia coach Andy Landers. "She just goes outand plays. That's what I love about her."
If her quieton-court dignity makes Fowles a bit of a throwback, so too do her hobbies,which include sewing, knitting, cooking and braiding her teammates' hair. Shedoesn't know how to play video games and doesn't want to learn. "I playGuitar Hero," says Chaney, Fowles's roommate. "Sylvia plays the realthing."
There's nothingold-fashioned about her basketball skills, however. Seven years ago, when shewas a 6'3" ninth-grader at Edison High in Miami, Fowles became the firstfemale high schooler to dunk in a game, beating Parker to the mark by almost ayear. Though it's not a weapon she deploys often—she never dunked again in highschool and didn't do it in college until she slammed on Louisiana-Lafayette inNovember—it is a hallmark of a thoroughly modern game. Covering the court witha kind of regal lope, Fowles has no problem keeping up with her team's speedyguards. "No big player has ever run the floor as well as she does, andshe's the best I've ever seen at catching the ball in a crowd," saysChancellor. Once the ball is in Fowles's hands, her collection of soft hooksand scoop shots hit their mark at a 60% clip. She's not bad at collectingboards, either: Her 1,507 rebounds are just 18 shy of the SEC record, and sheholds the conference mark for career double doubles (82).
Her one glaringweakness is her free throw shooting (64.8%), a deficiency she shares withformer Tigers star Shaquille O'Neal (page 100), who seeks out Fowles forspecial teasing every time he visits campus. (Shaq once introduced Fowles to agroup of student-athletes as "my future wife," much to herembarrassment.) "There are a lot of comparisons to be made between Sylviaand Shaquille," says Starkey, who was a men's assistant at LSU when O'Nealplayed there from 1989 to '92. Besides being dominating fixtures in the paint,"they are both very outgoing, very coachable and very popular withteammates." Fowles's middle name, we kid you not, is Shaqueria—a name sheis considering attaching to the clothing line for tall women she plans tocreate someday.
Fowles developedher love for basketball and fashion design growing up in Liberty City, one ofthe most dangerous neighborhoods in Miami. "My mom did everything she couldto raise us like a normal family," says Fowles, the youngest of Arrittio'sfive children. "Inside the house we had everything we wanted. Outside wastough. You saw a lot of things kids aren't supposed to see."
Her brotherMorris did his best to steel her for the hard knocks of the basketball court."I'd be the only girl there, and he never picked me for his team," sherecalls. "Every time I'd drive to the hole, he'd foul me hard on theconcrete court. I'd have cuts on my arms and knees, and tears in my eyes, andhe'd say, 'You cry, I'm going to make you go home to your mama.' It made metough."
The streetseventually took down Morris, who is now in a Florida prison serving a 25-yearsentence on a murder conviction. But a lot of people looked out for Sylvia,including her grandmothers and great-grandmother, who kept her indoors onweekends and taught her how to sew, and the guys in the neighborhood, who urgedher to run home as darkness fell. "They took care of the people theythought had potential," she says.
Turns out theywere right about her. A WNBA career awaits, as does, very likely, a stint withthe U.S. Olympic team in Beijing. When Fowles completes her degree in generalstudies in May '08, she'll be the first in her family to graduate from college.But before that happens, she has one more chance to pull off another first:leading the Lady Tigers to a championship.
"It'simportant for us to win," say Fowles, "but win or lose, this is goingto be the year I've enjoyed the most. Every year, it seems, we've had somebodyelse to play for—Coach Gunter, the hurricane victims, Coach Starkey. This year,finally, we're playing for ourselves."
The Lady Tigers are remembered more for theDISTRACTIONS THEY OVERCAME during their run than for the opponents theydidn't.
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Photograph by Bill Feig/AP
SWEET SUCCESS Though Chancellor (inset) wishes Fowles were "meaner" on the court, he raves about her diverse talents.
Photograph by Bill Feig/AP
[See caption above]
SENIOR'S MOMENT Enjoying a career year, shooting guard Chaney is LSU's No. 2 scorer behind roommate Fowles.