Teams out to prove there's more than UConn, UT

Updated: November 15, 2003, 4:59 PM ET
Associated Press

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Women's college basketball is anxious to show that the sport does not begin and end with Connecticut and Tennessee.

The first chance this season comes Sunday at the Women's Tip-Off Classic.

The two traditional powers are not playing in the first event of the season, but that doesn't mean there won't be good basketball.

No. 2 Duke plays third-ranked Texas in the early game, followed by No. 5 Kansas State and Purdue (No. 9 ESPN/USA Today; No. 7 AP).

"You can say Tennessee and Connecticut have obviously won it, but there are a lot of folks knocking on the door,'' Purdue coach Kristy Curry said.

While the Huskies and Lady Volunteers have won seven of the last nine national titles -- UConn four, Tennessee three -- the participants in this field have played big games, too.

Duke and Texas advanced to the Final Four last season. Purdue won the title in 1999 and played in the 2001 Final Four, and Kansas State was ranked as high as second last year.

Duke coach Gail Goestenkors scoffed when asked if it was a foregone conclusion that UConn and Tennessee would be playing in this year's championship game in New Orleans.

"I don't feel that way. Two or three years ago, I did feel that way,'' she said. "But if you polled the top-10 coaches in the country this year, I don't think one would say it's inevitable that Connecticut or Tennessee is going to win this year.

"When you have maybe 15 of the top 20 teams of last year all better, I think it's going to be an exciting year.''

Now it's time to prove it. And Goestenkors' Blue Devils might be up to the task.

The Blue Devils, 35-2 last season, have eight players returning from the team that lost to Tennessee in last year's national semifinals.

That includes their best player. All-American guard Alana Beard averaged 22 points and 6.9 rebounds last season, and might be the only player in the country who can challenge UConn's Diana Taurasi for player of the year.

The Longhorns (29-6 last year) are also loaded, with seniors Stacy Stephens and Jamie Carey (who was recently granted another year of eligibility), junior Heather Schreiber and sophomore Nina Norman all back looking for another shot at the Huskies.

Last season, the Longhorns led by as many as nine in the second half of their national semifinal game with UConn, which rallied to win 71-69, and beat Tennessee for its second straight title.

"They're really scary,'' Goestenkors said of Texas. "Getting to that Final Four and getting so close, they've got the experience, they have the desire, they know what it takes.''

Both teams like to run, so fans should expect a fast-paced, high-scoring affair, Texas coach Jody Conradt said.

"I'd pay my money to see it,'' she said. "That's how the game is supposed to be played. The players like to play it and it's exciting to watch.''

The late game should be equally compelling with Kansas State playing the host Boilermakers.

The Wildcats won a school-record 29 games last season, but were upset at home by Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Every Wildcat is back for another run, with preseason All-American Nicole Ohlde and juniors Kendra Wecker and Laurie Koehn leading the way.

Purdue has four senior starters returning from a team that went 29-6 and lost to UConn in the quarterfinals of the tournament. Point guard Erika Valek and forward Shereka Wright lead a deep team that figures to play at least 10 players.

"This is a March-type scenario here,'' Kansas State coach Deb Patterson said. "It's a scenario and environment you have to look forward to.''

All the ingredients are there for two entertaining games, which the coaches say is necessary to convince a national television audience that women's college basketball is bigger than the Huskies and Lady Vols.

"That's very important,'' Curry said. "We're hoping to have a full house and show everybody in West Lafayette, and across the country, how our game has grown.''

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press