Duke, LSU stars chase the one that's gotten away
BOSTON -- It's fitting that even in eventual defeat in a national semifinal on Sunday night, either LSU's Seimone Augustus or Duke's Monique Currie will provide the other with an opportunity to play in the one game they've chased their entire college career.
Running out of time to put a stamp on their generation's place in the women's game, the old guard will ultimately sacrifice one of its own for a final shot at a national championship.
When the nation's best players gathered on Saturday morning in a hotel conference room in Boston for the announcement of this year's Kodak All-America team, there were as many underclassmen as seniors among the 10 players on the dais.
And while the seating arrangements were purely linear and alphabetical, it was hard not to notice the four seniors -- Augustus, Currie, Cappie Pondexter and Sophia Young -- grouped near the ends, slightly in shadows, with the lights shining brightest on the underclassmen in the center. The four seniors represent a talent bonanza of almost unprecedented depth in this year's WNBA draft, but with college careers wedged between the likes of Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker, they've at times appeared to be long on substance but short on style.
And short on titles, with Young winning the quartet's only national championship.
The season coming to a close over the next few days in Boston introduced fans to fresh faces like Oklahoma freshman Courtney Paris and Tennessee redshirt freshman Parker, players with crossover appeal to even casual fans. It also offered confirmation of the prowess of players like Stanford sophomore Candice Wiggins and Georgia sophomore Tasha Humphrey, young foils who will be around to battle the freshmen for two more years.
In their collective hands, the future of the women's game isn't just bright, it's high-powered halogen. Young stars with the charisma and personality to match their on-court skills tower, literally and figuratively in the case of Paris and Parker, over the competition.
But when Augustus was announced as this year's Wade Trophy winner at the same Saturday event, joining Nancy Lieberman as the only two-time winners of the award, the old guard, in its own gracious and quiet way, got in the first of what might prove to be several parting shots in a city known for revering its elders.
Augustus and Currie might not have rock-star profiles off the court, but in a city that treasures the lengthy and substantive history visible in landmarks like Old North Church and Fenway Park as much as the modern flash of skyscrapers such as the Prudential Center, their consistent and understated excellence should finally earn them the spotlight.
It's not an opportunity either takes lightly after so many past postseason disappointments.
For Currie and Duke the challenge was overcoming back-to-back losses in regional finals, something the Blue Devils accomplished by gutting out an overtime game against Connecticut in Bridgeport to advance to the Final Four.
"I think we've worked really hard this season, so that we could prepare ourselves to take the next step," Currie says of this final chance in her third trip to a Final Four (Currie sat out Duke's 2002-03 Final Four season as a medical redshirt). "It's been a goal of ours since the beginning of the year to win the national championship. And to get over that hump of getting past the Elite Eight and finally make it here, it means a lot to me and it means a lot to my teammates."
The backbone of a team which increasingly appears to be discovering ways to use its other metaphorical anatomy through players like Alison Bales and Abby Waner on the offensive end, Currie remains the one player most capable of creating points when LSU's suffocating defense disrupts Duke's precision offense. Bales, Waner, Lindsey Harding and the rest of the Blue Devils did a lot of the work getting Duke through the first four rounds, but being first among equals in the Final Four might not be enough.
Augustus' second Wade Trophy speaks to her leading role for the Lady Tigers on the court, but it's not just the points (22.8 per game on 58 percent shooting for the NCAA's leading active scorer) that matter. Augustus arrived at LSU with the talent to be an All-American but has used her illustrious career to grow as a leader.
"You guys get to witness a very small portion of the 'Seimone Factor'," coach Pokey Chatman said on Saturday. "In the locker room, at team functions, the star player being the biggest cheerleader or the silliest one on the team. There's several things. I compliment Seimone on how she's grown as a person and an athlete, through this team, with this team and the community. We're all better people because of Seimone."
Whether finding out how to lead an offense built on spreading the wealth or learning how to lead a locker room without sacrificing or losing a carefree spirit, the learning process continues for both players, even as the weeks and months remaining in their college careers become mere minutes and hours.
The true legacy of this group of players, including Pondexter and Young, might be its inability or unwillingness to fit the mold of what we expect from star players.
"At certain times, you get a player of her caliber, and because of prior star players, you have this expectation," Chatman said of Augustus. "And she extinguished them immediately."
And for that reason, perhaps it's unfair to judge Augustus or Currie by whether one of them wins two more games.
Augustus, fresh off her award-winning morning, put things in perspective.
"I'd still feel complete," she said of the prospect of another Final Four loss. "I'd be disappointed, but it wouldn't overshadow everything that has happened here at LSU. Through my years here, I feel good about the situation and the fact that I made the decision to come here."
It's not difficult to imagine Currie saying the same thing.
Which is exactly why a lot of people, including Sunday's loser, will be rooting for one of them to win it all on Tuesday night.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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