Top 25 players of past 25 years
From Cheryl Miller's awe-inspiring athleticism to Diana Taurasi's unfailing ability to come through when it mattered most, dozens of great players have graced women's college basketball since the first women's NCAA Tournament was held in 1982.
Narrowing that list down was no easy task. But we -- ESPN.com columnist Mechelle Voepel, ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman and Melanie Jackson, who coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage -- finally came up with ESPN.com's top 25 players of the past 25 years as we celebrate the silver anniversary of the inaugural NCAA women's basketball season.
The players were selected based on their overall careers, but admittedly, with an emphasis on their NCAA Tournament performances. Winning a national championship was not a prerequisite, but even reaching three consecutive Final Fours -- apologies to a couple of Auburn standouts -- didn't guarantee a spot.
For those keeping score, Tennessee and Connecticut topped the list with four honorees each. Too much? We're sure many will say so, but remember, these two programs have combined for 11 of 24 titles.
And because there were just too many pioneers and legends left off this list simply because they played in the AIAW, also check out our take on the top 25 pre-NCAA era players.
A look at our top 25 players of the past 25 years (listed alphabetically):
The long line of Stanford superstars begins with Azzi. She was Stanford's first Pac-10 player of the year, first Kodak All-American and first national player of the year, winning both the Naismith and Wade Trophy honors as a senior. And long before Nicole Powell put the triple-double in vogue for the Cardinal, Azzi did it -- with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists (which still stands as the single-game assists record) -- as a freshman in 1987. But it's her senior season that people remember most. In December 1989, she went a perfect 7-for-7 from 3-point range in a win over Eastern Michigan, then swept up West Region and Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors in leading Stanford to a then-single-season school record 32 wins and the program's first of two NCAA titles. Azzi finished with 1,634 career points (13.4 ppg), 191 3-pointers made, 751 assists and 271 steals, dishing out at least 191 in three of four seasons. She also remains the single-season record holder in steals (96 in 1987-88). In 10 NCAA Tournament games, Azzi averaged 15.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals.
Like Paul McCartney and the Beatles, James Worthy and the Lakers or Aimee Mann and Til Tuesday, Swin Cash never had the stage entirely to herself during her four years at UConn. Forced to blend in alongside stars like Bird and Taurasi, Cash became arguably the best role player in the history of NCAA women's college basketball. But when the lights shone brightest during the NCAA Tournament, Cash abandoned all pretense of playing a supporting role and repeatedly rose to the occasion. A member of two championship teams (2000, 2002), Cash was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in 2002, leading the way on a roster that included Bird, Taurasi, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams. She also earned Most Outstanding Player honors in the East Region in 2001, helping the Huskies reach the Final Four. For her career, Cash averaged 10.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in 20 NCAA Tournament games.
The first woman from the SEC to win the Wade Trophy, Charles was part of two Tennessee NCAA title runs. As a sophomore in 1988-89, she netted 13 points (she averaged less than 10 points per game that season) in the championship game. Two years later as a senior, Charles tallied 19 points and 12 boards against Virginia in the first overtime NCAA title game (70-67). A two-time Kodak All-American (1990, '91), Charles was a combined 12-for-20 (60 percent) in her NCAA final appearances. Despite missing her freshman season as partial qualifier, Charles capped her career seventh in scoring (1,495 points), sixth in rebounding (858) and second in blocks (97) in Tennessee history.
When Texas went 34-0 to become the first team in NCAA Division I history to go undefeated to win the 1986 NCAA title, Davis helped lead the way, averaging 13.5 points and 7.7 rebounds and earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors -- as a freshman. Davis, who also guided Texas to the '87 Final Four, ended up a two-time Kodak All-American and Naismith player of the year (garnering both in 1987 and '89), and likely would have swept the honors three straight seasons had she not gotten injured after just nine games in 1987-88. Still, Davis overcame a knee injury so serious some thought she'd never play again to average more than 24 points per game each of her final two seasons to amass 2,008 career points (the 2,000-point milestone has been accomplished by just two other Texas players). Her 19.9 career scoring average ranks first all-time in the Texas annals, and she's fourth in career rebounding average (8.7) and fifth in career field-goal percentage (.539). Davis, who also won the Wade Trophy in 1989, holds the single-season records for points scored (843), scoring average (26.3) and free throws made (188).
Much of Donovan's dominance came before the NCAA era. In 1979, she helped the Lady Monarchs win the 1979 AIAW title as a freshman. In the 1979-80 season, she blocked a single-game school-record 15 shots, followed by a single-game school-record 50-point performance in 1980-81 (both records still stand). Donovan took the game to new heights -- both figuratively and literally -- in the early 1980s. Deceivingly agile and mobile for her 6-8 frame, Donovan led the nation in rebounding in 1982 with 14.7 boards per game, and then the Lady Monarchs to the 1983 Final Four as a senior, en route to winning the Naismith award. She wrapped up her career with averages of 20 points and 14.5 rebounds, and as Old Dominion's all-time leading scorer (2,719 points), rebounder (1,976) and shot blocker (801). The Naismith Hall of Famer also notched 116 double-figure games, including double-digit scoring in a school-record 72 straight outings.
Most often heralded for her Olympic success, Edwards left her mark in Athens, too. The point guard was one of the building blocks behind establishing the Lady Bulldogs as one of the nation's best programs. As a freshman, Edwards helped guide Georgia to its first Final Four appearance, then led the Lady Dogs to the national championship game as a junior. The five-time Olympian graduated as Georgia's leader in career steals (342), though the mark was recently broken. Edwards, a two-time Kodak All-American who was part of three SEC championship teams, remains the Lady Dogs' career assists record holder and her 1,989 points ranks fifth in program history.
Just like the letter G comes before H in the alphabet, Gordon came before Holdsclaw at Tennessee as perhaps the first true Lady Vols "great." Gordon, the first freshman to lead Tennessee in scoring, led the Lady Vols to what was then an unprecedented four consecutive Final Four appearances and a 115-21 record. Most important, she was also part of Tennessee's first two national championships (1987, '89), twice earning regional Most Outstanding Player honors as well as the '89 Final Four MOP. A two-time Kodak All-American, Gordon graduated as the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Tournament history, totaling 388 points over 18 tourney games (21.6 average). In the '87 title game, Gordon had 13 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. In the '89 finale, she scored 27 points, which tied a championship game record, and added 11 boards. Like Holdsclaw, Gordon led the Lady Vols in scoring each of her four seasons, though Gordon ranks second all time behind Holdsclaw in career scoring with 2,460 points. Gordon also is Tennessee's career steals leader (338).
Lacy took a roundabout path to Ruston, but when she finally arrived, she wasted little time making a big impact. After transferring from Old Dominion, Lacy averaged 14.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in helping lead Louisiana Tech to the 1988 NCAA championship. Then, after averaging 24.2 points her senior season -- which remains a Lady Techster record -- Lacy also landed a spot on the Kodak All-American team. Despite playing just three seasons in Columbia blue and Tech red, Lacy scored 2,004 points and snared 1,125 rebounds, which both rank fourth on La. Tech's career charts. The ever-efficient Lacy still holds the mark for career scoring average (20.0) and ranks fifth in field goals made (793) and sixth in blocked shots (164).
Just a sophomore when women's basketball transitioned from AIAW to the NCAA, nobody could have been better at ushering the sport into its new era. Arguably the greatest player in Lady Techster history, Lawrence led Louisiana Tech to the very first NCAA title and two subsequent trips to the Final Four (and that doesn't include her part in La. Tech's AIAW championship in 1981). A versatile post with deceiving ball-handling skills and range, Lawrence -- the '82 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, a three-time All-Final Four honoree, a two-time Kodak All-American and a Wade Trophy winner -- averaged 22.3 points and 8.0 rebounds over 14 NCAA Tournament games. In the Lady Techster record books, she ranks second in career points (2,403), third in scoring average (17.8), fifth in career rebounds (1,097), fourth in blocks (189) and fifth in steals (291).
For as much as Teresa Edwards anchored Georgia's backcourt, McClain teamed with Lady Dogs post Janet Harris to form a frontcourt that dominated the mid-1980s. In her rookie season, McClain attempted just 95 field goals but shot an astounding 69 percent en route to SEC Freshman of the Year honors. She started all but eight games the following season and averaged 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds as Georgia finished as the NCAA runner-up. Still, the best was yet to come as McClain exploded offensively her last two seasons, both of which she averaged a double-double and improved her averages to 24.9 points and 10.7 rebounds as a senior. She earned Kodak All-American honors both seasons, then made history in 1987 as Georgia's first consensus national player of the year. McClain, who lost just 15 games at Georgia, ranks second all-time in program history with 2,195 career points and 1,193 rebounds. Despite the great Lady Dogs who have since come and gone, McClain remains among Georgia's top-10 career leaders in seven categories.
Whether Cheryl Miller is the greatest player in women's college basketball history is debatable. But her impact on the game, both in how it was played and in attracting unprecedented attention to the sport, is fact. As noted in her Naismith Hall of Fame bio, "Miller did for women's basketball what Julius Erving did for men's basketball: She took the game off the court and put it into the air." Miller, who brought an athleticism to the sport that hadn't been seen, led USC to then-unprecedented back-to-back NCAA titles in 1983-84. But Miller's career might have made the biggest impact in 1986, when Sports Illustrated named her the best male or female player in college basketball. Miller, a four-time All-American and three-time Naismith winner who netted 3,018 points for a 23.6 career scoring average, averaged 20.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.2 steals and 2.3 blocks in 16 NCAA Tournament games. The two-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player is the NCAA Tournament career leader in field-goal percentage (79.4, 121-for-245) and most free throws made (91), ranks second in free throws attempted (121) and rebounds (170), and holds records in nine USC categories.
The school's media guide says "it's the biggest shot in North Carolina women's basketball history." But actually, most fans of the game think it's the most memorable moment in all of women's NCAA Tournament history. Smith's 3-pointer from the right wing with just 0.7 seconds on the clock in the 1994 national championship game not only secured UNC the NCAA title but set up one of the most dramatic finishes in sports history. The Tar Heels, who edged Louisiana Tech 60-59, had finished last in the ACC just three years earlier. Smith's clutch shot was only the exclamation point on her performance. Though she shot just 7-for-19 from the field, Smith finished with 20 points and a Final Four-record 23 rebounds. Smith, who earned Kodak All-American honors the following season, wrapped up her career with 2,094 points (third all-time at UNC) for a 16.2 average. Ironically, she never made more than 13 3-pointers in a season and was a 26.6 percent career 3-point shooter. Still, one trey at the right time was all it took.
Sometimes it's hard to remember that Staley, with all her numerous accomplishments, never won an NCAA title. But she did everything else. Guiding Virginia to three consecutive Final Four appearances (1990-92), including a spot in the 1991 championship contest, Staley was a two-time Naismith winner, three-time Kodak All-American, the '91 Final Four Most Outstanding Player and a three-time regional MOP. The NCAA record holder for career steals (454), she's the only player, male or female, in ACC history to tally more than 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 700 assists and 400 steals, and was just the second person in conference history to record a triple-double, a feat she did twice. Staley has always been applauded for her leadership, playmaking and passing skills, and her NCAA Tournament averages (18.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 6.1 apg, all of which are higher than her career averages) speak volumes. She's the epitome of the type of player who truly left it all on the court.
The 1991 junior college player of the year (South Plains, Texas) recorded just two seasons in the NCAA. But her 47-point night in the 1993 NCAA title game is arguably the most outstanding championship performance of all time. In leading the Lady Raiders to the '93 title with an 84-82 win over Ohio State, Swoopes played all 40 minutes, hitting 16-for-24 from the field (all but eight of Tech's 24 field goals), 4-for-6 from beyond the arc and 11-for-11 at the foul line, with three assists, two blocks and a steal. The only thing that stopped her was the clock. But by the time the final whistle blew, she had set Final Four and championship game records for points, field goals made (16) and free-throw percentage. At Tech, Swoopes tallied three triple-doubles, 22 double-doubles, scored in double figures in 64 of 66 career games, including the last 38 straight. The 1993 consensus national player of the year, Swoopes also scored a still-standing single-season school record 955 points that season on her way to 1,645 career points and a 24.9 career scoring average.
After a rookie season that included Pac-10 and national freshman of the year accolades, as well as Stanford's first national championship, how could Whiting get any better? Two years later, as a junior, she guided the Cardinal to the 1992 NCAA title. Along the way, Whiting twice earned Kodak All-American honors, led Stanford to four consecutive Pac-10 championships and a 114-16 mark (.877 winning percentage). Whiting wrapped up her career as Stanford's all-time leading scorer (her 2,077 points now rank second overall) and rebounder (her 1,134 career boards now rank second), and still holds career marks in blocked shots and free throws. In 16 career NCAA Tournament games (which included three trips to the Final Four), Whiting averaged a double-double of 15.6 points and 10.1 rebounds.
Among those also considered: Cindy Brown, Long Beach State; Vicki Bullett, Maryland; Kamie Ethridge, Texas; Janet Harris, Georgia; Carolyn Jones, Auburn; Pam Kelly, Louisiana Tech; Lisa Leslie, USC; Pam McGee, USC; Paula McGee, USC; Kim Mulkey, Louisiana Tech; Vickie Orr, Auburn; Ticha Penicheiro, Old Dominion; Jennifer Rizzotti, Connecticut; Saudia Roundtree, Georgia; Katie Smith, Ohio State; Kate Starbird, Stanford; Valerie Still, Kentucky; Teresa Weatherspoon, Louisiana Tech; Sue Wicks, Rutgers
Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. ESPN.com's Graham Hays contributed to this report, writing player information for Swin Cash, Jackie Stiles and Diana Taurasi.
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