Texas Tech seems set to roll

Lady Raiders are calm, comfortable in spoiler role against Tennessee

Mideast at Memphis, Tenn.

NCAA Women's Tournament

March 27, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- If the 11th-ranked Texas Tech women's basketball team is harboring any anxiety about facing No. 2 Tennessee in tonight's Mideast Regional title game, it certainly is doing a good job of masking it.

The Lady Raiders did the tourist thing here yesterday before practicing for tonight's showdown (ESPN, 9), hitting Graceland and a popular doughnut chain store, then facing the media with an air of confidence and anticipation.

After all, Texas Tech (28-4) has played the spoiler role all year, sharing the Big 12 regular-season title after being picked fifth in the league in the preseason.

It knocked off No. 5 Notre Dame here Saturday in the regional semifinal, 69-65, after falling behind 17-0 in the first seven minutes.

So what if there's just one game between the Lady Raiders and the program's second trip to the Final Four, but the opponent is top-seeded Tennessee (31-3), the six-time national champion, in the Lady Vols' home state, with an expected hostile crowd facing them?

Big fat, hairy deal.

"At this point in the season, you can't worry about that," said senior forward Keitha Dickerson. "If everyone was for us, it wouldn't be right. Now we just have to focus on what we have to do."

Said Tech coach Marsha Sharp: "They've played as the underdog all year, in every situation they've been in. I think they've handled it well. For them, it's probably been an advantage because their mentality has been, `Let's go and try to prove it to people.' [Tonight] is not anything different."

The third-seeded Lady Raiders haven't had to prove anything to anyone who has faced them this season, though Sharp said the players needed a season-opening win over Louisiana State -- which plays top-ranked Connecticut in tonight's East Regional final, to believe that they were that good.

"That solidified in their mind that they had a chance to be a good team," said Sharp, who led the 1993 team to a national title. "If we had gotten off to a rocky start, it would have made it difficult to get above what was expected."

Instead, an admittedly undersized, but quick and interchangeable team of players all from west Texas and Oklahoma, led by Dickerson (12.1 ppg), and fellow seniors Aleah Johnson (14.6 ppg) and Melinda Schmucker-Pharies, who had seven assists Saturday, won their first 10 contests.

"A lot of people thought that [versatility] would be a weakness, but we knew that we had to concentrate and make it a strength. I think we've gotten to that point," said Schmucker-Pharies.

Even after dropping their first two Big 12 games to Iowa State and Oklahoma -- which also each reached the Sweet 16 -- the Lady Raiders won 14 of their next 15, before losing in the Big 12 semifinals to Texas.

"They have a similar mentality to the 1993 team," Sharp said. "They want to go win, and they have an overachieving mentality. Of course, we had a great player then in Sheryl Swoopes who could take over. This time, it's more by committee, but there's no less passion."

Sharp, who has compiled a 434-133 record in 18 years at Tech, said the hallmark this season has been the Tech defense, which, heretofore had been a 2-3 match-up zone.

For this season, armed with the most athletic group of players she's ever had, Sharp switched to a man-to-man defense, which has fueled the transition offense the Lady Raiders like to run.

"They bring great quickness, and they can apply pressure to the guards," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "They have an advantage in terms of quickness, and we'll have to be ready to take care of the basketball."

Of course, the Lady Raiders will have their hands full against a Lady Vols' team that seems to be peaking at the right time, with an 18-game winning streak, and brilliant play from All-America forward Tamika Catchings, who had a tournament career high of 28 in Tennessee's 77-56 win over Virginia on Saturday.

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