Women's game looks for new stars

Posted: Wednesday, November 17, 2004

No Diana Taurasi, no Alana Beard. Nicole Ohlde is gone and so is Nicole Powell. Lindsay Whalen and Kelly Mazzante? They've moved on, too.

A class that might have been the best ever in women's basketball is no longer around. It's time for some new stars to emerge.

There are plenty of talented candidates - and just as many questions because players who once had complementary roles now must lead. And those questions start at the very top.

If Connecticut is to win a record fourth straight national championship, the Huskies will have to do it without Taurasi, the fiery, flashy All-American who now stars in the WNBA and owns an Olympic gold medal.

Someone - Barbara Turner? Ann Strother? Former Colony High star Jessica Moore? - has to give UConn the heart and calm under pressure that Taurasi always provided.

Duke, the No. 1-ranked team at the end of last season, no longer has Beard, a three-time All-American, or 6-foot-5 Iciss Tillis. The Blue Devils hope Monique Currie can step up.

Who'll keep Stanford in the national picture now that the versatile Powell is gone? Senior guard Kelley Suminski made the preseason watch list for the Wooden and Naismith awards and senior forward Azella Perryman, a former East Anchorage star, will get a lot of playing time.

Center Janel McCarville was unstoppable during Minnesota's surprising run to the Final Four last season. Can she be as effective without Whalen getting her the ball and occupying defenses? One thing is certain: McCarville will get a late start after breaking a bone in her left hand in practice.

Ohlde dominated inside while leading Kansas State's rise to national prominence. Now it's up to Kendra Wecker and Laurie Koehn to carry the Wildcats.

Mazzante has left Penn State after breaking the Big Ten's career scoring record and leading the Lady Lions to the NCAA East Regional final. Tanisha Wright and Jess Strom, it's your team now.

"Last year ... there were a lot of great players and leaders on a lot of different teams," said Currie, the ACC's preseason player of the year. "This year, I think there's a lot more parity. A lot of players have to come into new roles."

With seniors filling all 10 spots on the first two All-America teams last season, there was little room for players such as Seimone Augustus of LSU, Jacqueline Batteast of Notre Dame and Sophia Young of Baylor to get much recognition, though Augustus did get a third-team berth. Now they have that chance.

So will some touted freshmen - assuming they're healthy. Three players from Tennessee's highly regarded rookie class are sidelined with injuries, including top prospect Candace Parker, who beat the boys in a slam dunk contest last spring.

Other freshmen of note include LSU's Sylvia Fowles and Stanford's Candice Wiggins. Fowles had 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Lady Tigers' first exhibition game.

This changing of the guard extends to the coaching ranks.

After guiding LSU to its first Final Four appearance while filling in for the ailing Sue Gunter, Pokey Chatman is now the Lady Tigers' coach from the start. Gunter retired after winning 708 games in 44 seasons, and she wasn't the only veteran coach bowing out.

• Marian Washington, who took a medical leave during the season, resigned from Kansas and was replaced by Virginia Tech's Bonnie Henricksen.

• Auburn's Joe Ciampi retired after 36 seasons as a college coach. The school hired Nell Fortner, who guided the U.S. team to the Olympic gold medal in 2000 then coached the WNBA's Indiana Fever for three seasons.

• Jim Bolla, who last coached in 1996 in UNLV, succeeds longtime coach Vince Goo at Hawaii.

Some things, though, never change. Pat Summitt starts her 31st season with 852 victories at Tennessee, which lost to UConn in the NCAA finals last April.

Summitt still has three healthy players from her recruiting class, but blending them with veterans Shyra Ely, Shanna Zolman and Loree Moore has been a challenge, even for a coach with six NCAA titles.

"They are quick learners," Summitt said, "but sometimes I go home and I feel like a first-grade teacher."

Connecticut has matched Tennessee as the only school with three straight NCAA titles, and the Huskies have won four of the last five. Fans have become so spoiled that coach Geno Auriemma hopes championships are still seen as something special and not as just part of the routine at UConn, which also won the men's title last season.

"I think the general feeling is that Connecticut is going to win the national championship every year, regardless of who the players are, and that when you do it's like, 'Yeah, they're supposed to win. It's Connecticut,"' Auriemma said.

"I worry about that because I don't want to demean or diminish the accomplishment, because it's easy to do that."

Auriemma still has plenty of talent with Strother, Turner and Moore, who's trying to come back from offseason knee surgery. Guard Nicole Wolff finally is healthy after two injury-marred seasons, and the Huskies again are the favorites in the Big East, smaller now with the departure of Virginia Tech and Miami.

Jody Conradt keeps going strong at Texas, where she's starting her 29th season and is right behind Summitt with 847 wins. Second-team All-American Stacy Stephens is gone, but standouts Heather Schreiber, Jamie Carey and Tiffany Jackson return.

The goal, of course, is the NCAA tournament, and that, too, has a different look. There are eight first- and second-round sites with eight teams each, a change from the four-team, 16-site format of the past.

Even more changes await in 2006, when Selection Sunday moves to Monday.

Those early games will start the weeding out process for the Final Four in Indianapolis. Who'll be there?

It could depend on who among the new stars shines the brightest. Currie, for one, is eager to give it her best shot.

"I wouldn't call it pressure," she said. "I'm more excited than anything. I'm to ready to step up and show the coaches and everybody else that I can be a leader and help this team win."

Many others will be trying to do the same thing.

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