For two coaches, it's Finally Four N.C. State's Yow joins with Arkansas' Blair for first dance tonight

March 27, 1998|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dominating the women's Final Four, there's the Tennessee story, and then there's the coaching story.

The Tennessee story is easy enough. With two wins, the Volunteers will earn an unprecedented third consecutive NCAA title and only the third undefeated season since the NCAA started holding the tournament in 1982.

On the other hand, "It's time you see some new faces here," Arkansas coach Gary Blair said, referring to himself and N.C. State coach Kay Yow, both making their first appearance in the Final Four. "And what you see in Kay and I are a couple of new, old, tired faces that are very happy. I don't think there will be anybody smiling more than Kay Yow and myself."

Blair and Yow have done the time, combining for 40 years of head coaching without a smidgen of Final Four glory to show for it.

After 23 years at N.C. State and 27 overall, Yow gets her shot tonight, opening the event with a 7 o'clock game against Louisiana Tech, followed by Blair (13 years), whose team plays the top-ranked Lady Vols.

"We've all had this dream of being in the Final Four, and the dream has become a reality for us," Yow said. "And it's above and beyond my expectations."

It's not as if Yow or Blair had never come close or achieved great heights. Yow has won two Olympic gold medals, first as an assistant on the 1984 U.S. team, then as head coach at the 1988 Games, and was named Women's Coach of the Year in 1990.

She compares the latest achievement to a childhood trinket bought with allowance money.

"When I saved enough money and I got something, I really appreciated whatever it was," Yow said. "I've been saving for a long time. Now it's here and I really appreciate it."

Before beating Duke in the West Regional final to get here, Blair had a Women's Coach of the Year award, too, in 1995, after his second season at Arkansas. Before arriving in Fayetteville, Ark., he spent eight seasons building Stephen F. Austin into a quiet national power, so quiet that Blair almost seems a newcomer.

"I've got no world premiere TV show tonight, and I've got no book coming out," Blair said, referring to the celebrity of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

Indeed, Yow and Blair look like serfs compared with Summitt and Louisiana Tech's Leon Barmore.

This is Summitt's 11th trip to the Final Four, and her next championship will be her sixth, both totals surpassed only by UCLA men's coach John Wooden.

Barmore's back is also weak from carrying NCAA hardware. Beating Purdue in the Midwest Regional final made this his ninth appearance in the Final Four, winning a title in 1988.

However, Louisiana Tech hasn't seen the Final Four since the 1993-94 season, getting only to the Sweet 16 after never falling short of the regional finals in Barmore's first 12 years at the school.

"When you get to my age, you really don't know if you'll ever do a lot of things again," Barmore said. "And I didn't know if we'd ever get back to the Final Four. We're just as excited as any team, I want to assure you that."

Setting aside its scare against North Carolina in the Mideast Regional final -- the Lady Vols rallied from a late, 12-point deficit -- Tennessee is the only team with no hint of a "happy to be here" story line.

The Lady Vols instead have a chance to make history, something that has given them celebrity status in the three weeks since the tournament started.

But National Player of the Year Chamique Holdsclaw said the hype hasn't distracted the team.

"I think it's prepared us for what we're going to see this weekend, all the attention we're going to get nationally," Holdsclaw said. "We have level heads, and Coach keeps us down to earth and enables us to go out and handle things pretty good."

Two of the Final Four participants, Louisiana Tech and Arkansas, have felt the Lady Vols' wrath, losing by 14 and 30 points, respectively, this season.

But Louisiana Tech has won its past 15 games. Top-notch Arkansas point guard Christy Smith -- rusty for the first meeting with Tennessee after knee surgery -- is in much better shape. And in the ACC, N.C. State finished ahead of the North Carolina team that gave Tennessee fits on Monday night.

"I read a statement by the North Carolina coach that nobody else could do what they did," Barmore said. "Well, I believe if a fourth-place team in the ACC can give Tennessee a run, North Carolina State can give Tennessee a run. I think Arkansas can. I think Louisiana Tech can. So, believe me, there's hope."

Women's Final Four capsules

At Kansas City, Mo.

Louisiana Tech (30-3) vs. N.C. State (25-6)

Line: Louisiana Tech by 3

Conference records: Louisiana Tech won the Sun Belt regular-season title with a 13-1 mark. N.C. State finished third in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 12-4 record.

Coaches: Leon Barmore is 458-70 in 16 years at Louisiana Tech. Kay Yow is 495-201 in 23 years at N.C. State, 552-220 in 27 years overall.

Starting lineups:

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