The ACC was the first conference in women's college basketball history to send three teams to the Final Four. And Duke, UNC and Maryland once again look primed for a deep run in March. But it's unlikely the 61 other teams are going to step aside and wave them through. Plenty of other prorams have what it takes too—specifically, exactly what the trio of favorites has. The road to Cleveland is paved with an inspirational leader (the Terps have Shay Doron, the Heels have Ivory Latta), a peerless point (Blue Devil Lindsay Harding, Latta again, Terp Kristi Toliver) and a dominant glass-eater (Heel Erlana Larkins, Terp Crystal Langhorne). Pick your winner ACCordingly.
THE CREAM Oklahoma big Courtney Paris will tell you she's just doing her job. If that's the case, she may be doing it better than anyone in college hoops history. A sophmore, Paris is already over 1,000 career rebounds. At that pace she'll surely pass Wanda Ford, who cleared 1, 887 boards for Duke in the 1980's. After that, Paris can take a shot at La Salle legend Tom Gola, whose 2,201 is the all-time NCAA record.
Her niumbers don't lie: 57 straight double-doubles.; 25 rebounds against New Mexico and 26 vs. Baylor in the past year; 10 offensive boards (18 overall) in a Feb. 28 win against Baylor that clinched a share of the Big 12 title.
"When I can get a key rebound, it can be a huge momentum-charger," Paris says. "That's a big deal." It's certainly a big deal for team morale. Coach Sherri Coale runs a free throw rebounding drill in which forwards learn to spin away from defensive player along the lane, grab the carom, then immediately head to the rim. If a Sooner successfully executes the play in a game, snagging both board and basket, the team does fewer wind sprints in the next practice. Asked about her most memorable board this season, Paris cites the one she grabbed off a foul shot in a 23-point victory over Tulsa in December. "We got a free sprint-off card," she says.
One more example of a job well done.
THE CROP LSU center Sylvia Fowles posted a double-double in every SEC game this season. That's a conference first. Common wisdom would say the Tigers are in for a post-Seimone Augustus falloff—particularly now, in the wake of coach Pokey Chatman's abrupt pre-Tourney resignation. But Fowles' freakish athleticism—and 12.8 rpg—has kept LSU hanging around the Top 10, and it can win games in March … Old Dominion won 15 Colonial Tourneys in a row; that was then. James Madison, led by senior center Meredith Alexis (18.7 ppg, 11.7 rpg), recently earned its first national ranking in 19 years—and its first NCAA bid in 11 seasons.
ALSO RECEIVING VOTES Kia Vaughn, Rutgers; Candace Parker, Tennessee; Crystal Kelly, Western Kentucky.
THE INSPIRATIONAL LEADER
THE CREAM After watching his team get blown out by 24 by in-state rival Tennessee in late November, Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell was struck by a notion he wanted to share. Sure, his Blue Raiders were 3—3, including a double-digit home loss to South Dakota State. And yes, games with Georgia, Old Dominion and Western Kentucky loomed. Still …
"We can win out the regular season," the coach told his deflated team in the locker room.
"You're right, Coach," someone shouted. "We can win out."
The voice belonged to guard Chrissy Givens (right), and the logic was, to her, inarguable: "Everything Coach says always comes true."
Maybe that's because Insell knows he has a senior who can make it so. Givens first convinced the six new Blue Raiders that Coach wasn't crocked. Just like that, freshman Chelsia Lymon helped harass Georgia into 22 turnovers in a December upset in Athens, and fellow frosh Jackie Pickel knocked down three treys in a game-changing run vs. ODU. Then Givens took over: 22.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.0 spg on the way to her second straight POY trophy. The end result made Givens look like a seer: 26 straight wins and a Sun Belt championship.
"This season has been like a dream, because I remember when we had 20 people in the stands," she says. Now she plays in front of thousands of new MTSU fans who have been spoiled into thinking anything is possible.
THE CROP How indispensable is Purdue senior Katie Gearlds? Even though the Big Ten champ Boilermakers outscored foes by an average of 15.8 points per, coach Sharon Versyp could never bring herself to sit Gearlds (18.5 ppg, 89.3% FT). The guard punches in at a conference-high 36.5 mpg … You'll never hear Arizona State 2-guard Jill Noe complain about playing too much either, not after missing two consecutive seasons with separate ACL surgeries. The former prom queen isn't 100%, but her spirit and determination—not to mention her three-point daggers—have spurred the Sun Devils' best season ever (28—4).
ALSO RECEIVING VOTES Ali Mann, Bowling Green; Candice Wiggins, Stanford; Ashley Houts, Georgia.
THE PEERLESS POINT
THE CREAM If UConn's Renee Montgomery (left) plays like she's been running the show her whole life, it's because she kind of has. "I've been a point guard since biddy ball," Montgomery says. "I was fortunate to have [Tennessee SG] Alexis Hornbuckle as my teammate growing up, so I got to play my position the whole time."
The soph who doesn't play like one has been a gift for a young crew that could honor its team managers only on Senior Night. Because of Montgomery—and despite a loss to Rutgers in the Big East final—lofty expectations still flourish in Storrs. Of course, the seniorless Huskies did win it all in 2003.
Credit Montgomery for keeping hope alive, leading the team in scoring (13.0 pg) and assists (4.7 pg). "Anywhere you are, Renee draws the D and gets you the ball where it needs to be," says Kalana Greene (12.3 ppg), who nearly tripled her scoring from last season.
Montgomery's bread and butter is the pick-and-roll. She can get it to freshman big Tina Charles (58.7% from the field) on the post, Greene or Mel Thomas (43.1% from three) on the wing or Charde Houston rolling to the rim. And in the waning seconds of a tied game in February, LSU found out the hard way what happens when no defender jumps out to contest the pick. "When I saw [LSU G Erica] White go under the screen, I had to shoot it, and I was blessed that it went in," Montgomery says. Wrong, Renee. It's Geno who is blessed.
THE CROP It's become a habit. Iowa State coaches yell out "Lin-ZEE!" and their star does the rest. Lyndsey Medders is not only the latest four-year point in Ames; she's the latest Lin-ZEE, following in the footsteps of ex-Cyclone Lindsey Wilson. Last season's national assist leader has taken a squad with 10 underclassmen to a surprising 25-win season … Speaking of surprises, bet you didn't expect George Washington to crack the final Top 15 in the polls—well, we didn't—but that's where it is, mostly because coach Joe McKeown molded Kimberly Beck into one of the nation's best points. Beck led the A-10 in assists for the third consecutive season while knocking down 38 8% of her shots from beyond the arc.
ALSO RECEIVING VOTES Mandy Morales, Montana; Dee Davis, Vanderbilt; J.J. Hones, Stanford.