Baylor, Mich. State adjusting to heights in women's NCAAs

Final Four is brand new to Lady Bears, Spartans, but they like atmosphere

College Basketball

April 03, 2005|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - At one point Thursday night, when a local girls youth league basketball team greeted Baylor with screams and yells and green and gold balloons as the players arrived at their hotel, it occurred to Lady Bears forward Steffanie Blackmon that she and her team had come to the site of their hoop dreams.

"It's been amazing," said Blackmon. "[Thursday] was just amazing, with the reception that we got coming into the hotel. It was kind of overwhelming just to be here in Indianapolis. It's like, `I made it. I'm here. This is what we worked for and now it's happening.' It's wonderful."

For Baylor (31-3) and Michigan State (32-3), the two first-time teams in this year's NCAA women's Final Four, green isn't just the color the teams share. It also describes the relative lack of postseason experience the Lady Bears and Spartans bring to the RCA Dome for tonight's national semifinals.

Baylor, which won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles, advanced to the Final Four for the first time in only its fourth NCAA tournament appearance, going from last year's trip to the Sweet 16 straight to a matchup with Louisiana State (33-2) in tonight's first game.

Michigan State, which shared the Big Ten regular-season crown with Ohio State before winning the conference tournament, is making only its sixth tournament appearance. The Spartans will meet Tennessee (30-4), the school with the most tournament experience of all - six national titles and 16 Final Four appearances, as well as playing in all 24 NCAA tournaments.

Michigan State's tournament-experience deficit is somewhat mitigated by the fact that its coaching staff has been here before. Joanne McCallie, who was the head coach at Maine before coming to East Lansing four years ago, was an assistant with Auburn, which got to the national championship game in 1990.

Two of her Michigan State assistants, Al Brown and Semeka Randall, played key roles on the Tennessee teams that won three straight titles from 1996 to '98. Brown was an assistant to Tennessee's Pat Summitt all three seasons, while Randall was the shooting guard on two of those Lady Vols title teams.

"We can just tell the kids what it's like," McCallie said. "It's important for them to have fun and appreciate what they've done, but also focus when they need to and really go after the opportunity.

"It's a delicate balance. You just talk about it a little bit and try to organize it. But these kids deserve to be festive and celebrate who they are and what they can do. And when they get on the court, [they should] really celebrate that."

Summitt, who passed North Carolina coach Dean Smith for all-time Division I career wins as the Lady Vols recorded a second-round win over Purdue, knows what McCallie is going through in terms of getting her players ready for the big stage.

Two of Summitt's players - senior Shyra Ely and junior Shanna Zolman - will be playing in their home state, further adding to the distractions.

"It seems like now at the Final Four there are so many different time demands, but I think that the one thing you do as a coach is try to prepare your freshmen, your first-timers, for what to expect and how to avoid a lot of the distractions," said Summitt. "You can get pulled in a lot of different directions."

Meanwhile, the Lady Bears, who narrowly missed out on a No. 1 seed to North Carolina, whom they beat in the Tempe Regional final, have moved quickly through the ranks, getting here perhaps even faster than their coach, Kim Mulkey-Robertson, even imagined.

"We inherited a program that had won seven games the year before," said Mulkey-Robertson, in her fifth year in Waco. "What I did immediately was hire a great staff and said, `Look, we're at the bottom of the Big 12, we can only go up, so let's get to the middle of the pack as quickly as possible without saying let's do it in two years or three years.'

"We moved up to the middle of the pack, got some sleepers in recruiting because we understood what our strengths and weaknesses were.

"We couldn't go out and sell this program. We got players who wanted to play immediately and who wanted a quality education from Baylor. It's happened rapidly, and I don't think any of us expected it to happen this quickly."

The Lady Tigers, who finished atop the Southeastern Conference regular-season standings before losing to Tennessee in the tournament final, have the benefit of having appeared in last year's Final Four, their first trip, where they lost to the Lady Vols.

LSU coach Dana "Pokey" Chatman, who took over in midseason last year for ailing coach Sue Gunter, has been getting the Lady Tigers ready for tonight.

"We've all played on big stages before, regardless if we were here last year or not," guard Scholanda Hoston told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "The freshmen haven't been through all this, but they've played on the big stage so the games aren't going to be much different. Pokey's taken us to different places, playing in front of large crowds, small crowds, miles away to prepare us."

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