LSU women earn one more shot at elusive title

Updated: March 28, 2006, 5:52 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- It came down to Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins, two players who might one day be playing on the same Olympic team together.

Seimone Augustus
AP Photo/Donna McWilliamThe nation's leading scorer and reigning national player of the year, Seimone Augustus scored 17 of her 26 points in the second half to lead the Lady Tigers to the Final Four.

Here it was, 12 seconds left in the San Antonio Regional final, LSU up by one.

Stanford's Wiggins had just made a huge 3-pointer that cut the deficit to 60-59. Then on LSU's next possession, somehow the ball never found its way into Augustus' hands for a shot. Instead, Scholanda Hoston missed a jumper, Sylvia Fowles lost the rebound and Stanford was left to draw up a play the Cardinal hoped would send the school to its seventh Final Four.

It almost happened … almost.

That has been an annoying, irritating word to Stanford and its fans the past several years. Nicole Powell's 3-pointer at game's end against Tennessee two years ago in the Elite Eight almost went in … the Cardinal rallied against Michigan State last season and almost pulled off the comeback … Stanford almost knocked out No. 1 seed LSU on Monday.

But it didn't happen. Wiggins crashed into Augustus as she passed off to Krista Rappahahn in the corner for a 3. Rappahahn's shot swished … but it didn't count. Augustus had made the big defensive play of the game, taking a charge, and then followed that with two free throws that put LSU up by three.

The Cardinal never got off a last shot. Instead, it's a third consecutive Elite Eight defeat for Stanford.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that all three times, the Cardinal have fallen to a No. 1 seed -- when Stanford was a No. 6, a No. 2 and a No. 3 seed. But that doesn't make you feel much better when "almost" gets you again.

By the same token, though, "almost" has also bothered LSU. Two years ago, LSU point guard Temeka Johnson had the ball in her hands at the end of an NCAA semifinal with Tennessee. That Final Four was in New Orleans, so karma was supposed to be on LSU's side, right?

The teams were tied, it looked as if LSU would get the last shot … and Johnson dribbled into a double team. Lost the ball. Tennessee gets a layup, wins the game.

Last year, LSU appeared to be in the process of blowing away Baylor in the national semifinals, but then watched a big Bears rally end its championship hopes again.

I'm still OK with Sue [Gunter] and her loss, just because of watching her demise. On my worst day of missing her, I wouldn't want her back because she was in such bad condition. … I think we're all OK, but that's because we come to this place called LSU Lady Tiger basketball that we draw strength from.
LSU coach Pokey Chatman on a tumultuous year that included Hurricane Katrina and the death of mentor Sue Gunter

Now, LSU wants to erase the "almost." The Tigers head to Boston looking for the program's first NCAA title -- at the same time the LSU men's team goes to Indianapolis to try to win it all there.

What a twist of fate this is -- a school from the state ravaged by the worst natural disaster to hit our country in our lifetime sends both its men's and women's basketball teams to the Final Four.

The LSU women's players talked this past weekend about how helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina ended up benefiting them emotionally.

As Hoston put it, "Donating whatever we could and visiting people was good for us. We met with them, sat and talked, played with babies -- and as much as it helped them, it helped us.

"Then, being out on the court and doing what we love to do, knowing that we had opportunities a lot of people didn't have, it made us more grateful for it."

LSU coach Pokey Chatman also spoke about the hurricane's effect, including how it hit very personally for two of her players.

"Khalilah Mitchell -- her family was without their home for a while. RaShonta LeBlanc's family was living in her sister's apartment -- about 17 of them in a two-bedroom apartment," Chatman said. "I think basketball and what we do helped. Because it's all about adjustments.

"I think so much of their athletic mettle and strength probably helped them with that. But also, we were so engrossed in it -- we didn't have the opportunity to step back and realize just how devastating it still is."

Baton Rouge wasn't decimated the way New Orleans was, but it was a major relief site for the displaced. Every sad story you can imagine, the residents of Baton Rouge have seen and heard firsthand.

"Maybe when things get back to the new normal, a 'normal' normal, they'll sit back and reflect on all of it," Chatman said of her players. "But it's still a significant part of what we're all going through."

However, the hurricane wasn't the first heavy blow of sadness that Chatman and her players dealt with last fall. In August, the woman who defined LSU basketball for two decades -- Sue Gunter -- succumbed after a lengthy respiratory illness.

Gunter had been Chatman's college coach and then her boss when Chatman became an LSU assistant. Gunter's last months had been a painful deterioration to endure for all the people who loved her. Her death was, in some ways, a relief to them because she would no longer be suffering and struggling for every breath.

To Chatman, Gunter was a role model, a parental figure but -- most importantly at this stage in Chatman's life -- a close and trusted friend.

Chatman had taken over the LSU women's team in 2004, when Gunter became too sick to coach. Still, they communicated regularly. Chatman didn't need advice in running the team, but she knew Gunter would be there to talk to about whatever she was thinking about.

Chatman was asked what the last several months have been like for her.

"Um … I haven't really found a word for it yet," Chatman said. "It's just an ongoing deal. Not necessarily all negative. I'm positive in a lot of things. There's been a process of people getting back their lives, and seeing it move in the right direction, even though it's slow.

"I'm still OK with Sue and her loss, just because of watching her demise. On my worst day of missing her, I wouldn't want her back because she was in such bad condition. I still have my moments where it will just overtake me, but I think that would be the case with anyone who was close to you. She was a really good friend.

"I think we're all OK, but that's because we come to this place called LSU Lady Tiger basketball that we draw strength from."

And, at least for another week, LSU basketball -- a double force of it -- keeps on being strong.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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