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Monday, March 11, 2002
Updated: March 13, 2:26 PM ET
Sophomore slump? Never heard of it

By Melanie Jackson
Special to

This time last season, women's college basketball fans were getting nostalgic and teary-eyed as the Class of 2001 played its final games.

Stacy Stephens
Stacy Stephens has helped lead Texas to its first Sweet 16 bid since 1990.
It seemed as if no one wanted to embrace life after Tamika Catchings, Svetlana Abrosimova, the Miller twins, Jackie Stiles or any of the other members of the vaunted senior class.

But slowly and quietly -- and consistently -- this year's sophomores have emerged as some of the best players in the nation. One led the country in scoring. Another has helped her team to a perfect 33-0 record. Three others -- including one who has three triple-doubles on the season -- took home conference player of the year honors. One has helped bring her program back from the brink. Several rank among the candidates for the 10-member Kodak All-America team, and will no doubt steal the headlines when the NCAA Tournament opens Friday.

And in the end, the Class of 2004 might be the best class in women's college basketball to date.

"By the time this class is a group of seniors, they'll have taken the game to a whole new level," said Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, whose two sophomore Blue Devils, Alana Beard and Iciss Tillis, rank among the nation's best.

Goestenkors said she and the rest of the coaches around the country knew this class was special when the athletes were still in high school.

"It was not only a very talented class, but one with a lot of depth," said Goestenkors, who credits AAU programs and USA Basketball for the wealth of talent. "Most years, you'll get maybe five or 10 players who can have an immediate impact at the college level. But this class was so deep there were 20 or 25 that we felt could legitimately have an impact on the major programs in the country. It's one thing to do that in high school, but now they're following through and becoming stars at the next level."

Statistically, the sophomores have been stellar. Penn State's Kelly Mazzante leads the nation in scoring with a 25.3 average entering the NCAA Tournament. Florida's Vanessa Hayden ranks fourth in the country in rebounds (11.8 per game) and tops the shot-block charts with 4.4, or 111, on the season. Valerie King of Cincinnati is the nation's top free-throw shooter, sinking a blistering 91.3 percent from the foul line.

They all have such a will to win, to be the best players they can be. They're the type who work hard in the summer on their games to come back even better, which is scary when you think about what they'll be like as seniors.
Duke coach Gail Goestenkors

Duke's Alana Beard, who led the ACC in scoring with a 19.1 average, became the first sophomore in league history to be named ACC Player of the Year. It has happened only twice in the Big Ten and Pac-10, including this season. Stanford's Nicole Powell, who has four career triple-doubles, won the honor out west, while Lindsay Whalen was the Big Ten's best. Mazzante and Purdue's Shereka Wright, another sophomore, challenged for the award, too.

And then there's Connecticut's Diana Taurasi, who ranks second on the Huskies in scoring at 14.4 points and first in assists at 5.2. She led the Big East in 3-point field-goal percentage (45.5) and boasts a Big East-best 2.69 assist-to-turnover ratio. With the exception of last season's national semifinal against Notre Dame, the Husky sophomore seems to excel in big games.

Taurasi, who last season became the first rookie ever to be named the Big East tournament's Most Outstanding Player, notched a team-high 24 points against both Tennessee and Louisiana Tech (in the Elite Eight) in 2000-01, then poured in a career-high 32 points on 11-for-16 shooting from the floor against the Lady Vols in January.

As Goestenkors points out, Taurasi is one of several sophomores who thrive under pressure.

"This class in particular is very comfortable in the limelight," she said. "If you look at them individually, they seem to play their best games in their teams' biggest games. So in the NCAA Tournament, I think we'll see many of these sophomores lead their teams to new heights.

"They all have such a will to win, to be the best players they can be. They're the type who work hard in the summer on their games to come back even better, which is scary when you think about what they'll be like as seniors."

We'll see.

In the meantime, here's a look at some of the super sophomores who'll be on the courts beginning Friday:

Alana Beard
Alana Beard Duke | 5-11 | guard
The 2002 ACC Player of the Year averaged 22.7 points over three games en route to guiding Duke to a third consecutive ACC tournament title. Only thing missing last season was a 3-point shot, but it's there this year. Extremely versatile. Both Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma have said they missed the boat in recruiting Beard.

Vanessa Hayden Florida | 6-4 | center
Led the SEC in rebounding (12.0 average), blocked shots (4.4) and double-doubles (15), while ranking fourth in scoring (17.6). Already has set school single-season record for blocked shots. Against Kent State on Dec. 29, notched just the second triple-double in program history with 16-point, 12-rebound, 10-block performance.

Kelly Mazzante
Kelly Mazzante Penn State | 6-0 | guard
Set school and league single-game record with 49 points; also set Penn State marks for points in a season (777). Perhaps the best shooter in the country. Said Goestenkors: "Last year, she was just a great shooter. This year, now she's a great scorer. She has added the pull-up jumper to her game and drives to the basket more and become more of a complete player."

Nicole Ohlde Kansas State | 6-4 | forward/center
Wildcats went 12-16 last season, but Ohlde has helped turn around K-State, which needs one more victory to post its first 25-win season in 18 years. Averages 7.7 rebounds, 22. blocks and a team-high 17.6 points while shooting 56.8 percent from the field. Needed just 578 games to reach 1,000-point plateau. Last season, became first K-State rookie to lead the team in scoring and rebounding.

Jia Perkins Texas Tech | 5-8 | guard
Led Lady Raiders in scoring in 13 of 29 games, and scored at least 20 points in 11 outings. Dished out 10 assists against Texas; scored season-high 32 points against St. Peter's. Lady Raiders have undergone many personnel changes this season, but Perkins is the player behind the No. 4 seed. "Jia could possible be the best player to ever wear a Lady Raider uniform," coach Marsha Sharp has said. Quite a compliment, considering Sheryl Swoopes spent some time in the red and black.

Nicole Powell
Nicole Powell Stanford | 6-2 | guard
Can do it all -- passing, shooting, scoring -- from any position on the floor. Posted career-high 37 points and had 14 rebounds in Pac-10 tournament semifinal. Just the second sophomore in Pac-10 history to be tabbed Player of the Year. The first? Kate Starbird in 1996-97. Perhaps the most versatile player in the country. Averaged 16.7 points, 6.7 assists in Pac-10 play.

Diana Taurasi
Diana Taurasi Connecticut | 6-0 | guard
Led Big East with 2.69 assist-to-turnover ratio and in 3-point percentage (45.5). Future of UConn rests on her shoulders, especially when you realize there are no juniors on this season's roster. Said Goestenkors: "Right now, UConn doesn't need her to score 20, but she's capable of doing it. We'll probably see her even step up to a new level next season when UConn needs her more."

Iciss Tillis
Iciss Tillis Duke | 6-4| forward
Amazing versatility for 6-foot-4 player. Averages 8.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.4 steals while hitting 28 3-pointers this season. Buffed up low post game in the offseason. Said Goestenkors: "She has to be one of the most versatile players in the country when you factor in her ball-handling and passing skills with her ability to go down on the block and score with her left or right hand."

Lindsay Whalen
Lindsay Whalen Minnesota | 5-8 | guard
Player most responsible for Gophers' incredible turnaround averaged 22.0 points and shot 56.4 percent from field in Big Ten games. Five-time Big Ten Player of the Week ranked among league leaders in assists (5.3, third), steals (2.7, fourth) and rebounding by guards (5.4 , first). Just the second sophomore in conference history to earn Player of the Year honor.

Shereka Wright
Shereka Wright Purdue | 5-10 | forward
Forward broke an 11-year-old record when she shot 71 percent from the field to score a school-record 40 points against Michigan on Feb. 17. Led the Big Ten with a 19.9 scoring average in league games and shoots nearly 50 percent from the field. In regular season, scored at least 20 points in 11 games, and scored in double figures in 25 of 26 games.

Others sophomores in the NCAA Tournament that shouldn't be missed:

Shameka Christon, Arkansas; Doneeka Hodges, LSU ; Temeka Johnson, LSU; Valerie King, Cincinnati; Amber Obaze, Louisiana Tech; Stacy Stephens, Texas; Candace Sutton, UNC; Christi Thomas, Georgia

Melanie Jackson covers women's college basketball for Click here to e-mail her any story ideas, suggestions or feedback.