LSU, Fowles prepare for tourney without Chatman

Updated: March 13, 2007, 11:06 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU officials instructed Sylvia Fowles that she didn't have to answer any questions about the stunning departure of head coach Pokey Chatman.

LSU women's basketball players
AP Photo/Bill FeigWatching the NCAA Tournament Selection Show provided LSU players, including Sylvia Fowles, second from left, a welcome respite.

But the 6-foot-6 Fowles, who goes by "Big Syl" and has led the Lady Tigers all year with her imposing inside presence, wasn't about to pass when offered a chance to speak her mind on Monday night as the team learned of their seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

"Pokey's always been a great person, she's like my mom and it's going to stay that way from here on out," Fowles said. "No matter what people say, I'm not going to look at her any different."

People are saying a lot about Chatman since her abrupt resignation last week amid allegations that she had an alleged sexual relationship with a former player while that player was still on the team.

The timing of her departure could not have been much worse for the Lady Tigers (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today; No. 12 AP), who on Monday night found out they'd be a No. 3 seed in the Fresno Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Their first game will be Saturday night in Austin against North Carolina-Asheville.

Having beaten Tennessee before losing to Vanderbilt in the final of the Southeastern Conference tournament, LSU appeared primed to make a run for a fourth-straight Final Four appearance. Then Chatman, winner of 90 games in her first three seasons as full-time head coach, abruptly resigned.

Although Chatman cited unspecified career opportunities as the reason she left, multiple sources told ESPN.com that Chatman's resignation stemmed from allegations by assistant coach Carla Berry that Chatman had improper contact with a former player, and that Berry's allegations were made in February.

Berry's motivation for making the allegation to university officials isn't clear. One athletic department insider said that Chatman continued to seek advice from Berry, a longtime friend and colleague, as late as Thursday, the day after Chatman unexpectedly resigned. By then, the scandal was reaching critical mass.

Berry, 37, played guard at LSU for Sue Gunter from 1989 to 1992, and she joined Gunter's staff as an assistant coach in 1999. Berry is still working as an assistant to interim head coach Bob Starkey.

Players had been off-limits to the media until LSU made Fowles and two others available Monday night.

Ashley Thomas and Rashonta LeBlanc said they preferred not to discuss the circumstances surrounding Chatman's departure and preferred to focus on the tournament.

"It's back to business," Thomas said. "I just try to maintain focus on the task at hand and do what I know how to do best."

Said LeBlanc: "As a team, we've come to the conclusion that's something we're not going to talk about. We're going to focus on playing basketball, hopefully trying to make it to the Final Four. So as long as that's our focus, we have no problem."

Starkey and his players said that Chatman's departure has not been disruptive in terms of getting things done at practice, which Starkey often ran anyway when Chatman was recruiting or at speaking engagements.

Herb Vincent, LSU's associate athletic director in charge of external affairs, told The New York Times "we want to be the story of the NCAA Tournament but for all the good reasons -- for winning it and for overcoming adversity."

Vincent told The Times he watched the Lady Tigers' last few practices and said, "To me, it looks like when they step onto the court, they step into a whole different dimension. It's like they regain some sense of normalcy."

Fowles said losing Chatman meant losing "her demeanor that she brings to the team, but a lot of people don't know that Bob also brings the same things to the table even though he was always behind the scenes."

Starkey said he continues to hold Chatman in high regard and may even call the departed coach during the tournament to seek advice.

And Fowles said she felt somehow that Chatman would remain with the Lady Tigers in some form throughout the tournament, even if not in person.

"She's going to always keep up with us," Fowles said. "She might not show up to the games, but I'm pretty sure she'll be keeping up with us."

Information from Wright Thompson, a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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