Rebecca Lobo is a basketball star, and she is just as popular as Ray Allen and Donny Marshall. Women’s basketball, men’s basketball, it doesn’t matter here at the University of Connecticut. Everybody wins. You put on the Huskies uniform and you are a star.
Lobo signs autographs everywhere she goes in Storrs. Her poster is stuck on dormroom walls, and little kids practice her twostep move to the basket and want to wear her No. 50 jersey.
Lobo is a 6-foot-4 center with a big, toothy smile and the basketball instincts of a point guard. She is a senior and the subject of halftime feature stories on television. She was a candidate for a Rhodes scholarship, and if she didn’t finally get the scholarship, she has achieved a whole lot of other things: good grades, the dean’s list, victories in every basketball game she has played this season. Even a victory Monday, when UConn, ranked No. 2, beat Tennessee, ranked No. 1, and beat it soundly, 77-66.
There is basketball fever in New England, that’s for sure. UMass is ranked No. 1 in the men’s poll, UConn No. 2. When the new women’s poll comes out later today, UConn will be No. 1.
Allen and Marshall and the rest of the Connecticut men beat No. 10 Georgetown 93-73 on Monday night in Hartford, a big game and all, but Monday belonged to the women and especially to Lobo.
It was 2 hours before the 1 p.m. tip-off, and several hundred fans already were pressed against the doors of the Gampel Pavilion. Waiting. Tickets had long been sold out, with 8,241 people smartly planning ahead, and ESPN technicians were inside, setting up cameras. The game was to be on live, and Rebecca Lobo had said “wow” to that when the TV schedule had been announced.
Lobo says “wow” a lot. And “oh, geez” and “golly, no.” The people standing in line, waiting to get in, called her a sweetheart and a doll and a honey, and before you get upset and say that’s sexist, really, it wasn’t. The rabid Huskies fans, who don’t go just to the big women’s games but to almost all of them, adore Lobo because she is sweet and smart, and because she knocks the sweat right off the center who tries to guard her.
This was the biggest game of Lobo’s career, she said afterward. Maybe that’s not what she would have said if UConn lost, but it didn’t.
On Friday, while Connecticut was beating Seton Hall, Lobo had suffered a fractured little finger on her right hand while trying to steal a cross-court pass. That’s how she is. She might be 6-4, but she tries to be everywhere.
The finger was taped and splinted, and Lobo was at practice Saturday and Sunday. She caught a couple of balls hard on that finger Monday and never winced. It didn’t hurt a bit, she said afterward, but below and above the splint and the tape, the finger was bright, throbbing red. You suspected Lobo was lying.
But there was no way Lobo was going to miss the game. This 13-0 Huskies team belongs to her. You can tell. The other players look to her, ask her questions, watch her shout out the offenses and defenses, accept her behind-the-back passes, recover the shots she blocks, get out of her way when she moves toward the basket - and raise their arms when she swishes a trey.
After Tennessee swiped the ball from UConn’s guards twice right off the bat and converted the steals into layups and a 4-0 lead, Lobo opened her arms and gathered in her four teammates and yelled. Pretty soon, the Huskies were leading by 15-6, and they would never be behind again.
It turned out that this wouldn’t be the best game Lobo had played. She got herself in foul trouble. She stuck herself to a seat in the second half with four fouls, came back in for a while, and then got No. 5. The charging call came after she got the ball beyond the freethrow line, with her back to the basket. She turned, dribbled, plowed into Tennessee’s Latina Davis and - boom - was gone, with 4 minutes, 52 seconds left in the game and UConn leading by 69-57.
That was tough, Lobo said, talking about having to sit on the bench for good. She yelled at teammate Kara Wolters, a 6-7 sophomore, to post up high. She shouted at forward Jamelle Elliott to get every rebound. Then she pretty much alternately chewed on a towel and screamed incomprehensibly until the last minute, when the victory was safe, and then she kept having to brush tears from her eyes.
Lobo is the first player, man or woman, in Big East history to be an All-American both academically and athletically. She is a playerof-the-year candidate, and even playing only 27 minutes Monday because of the foul trouble, she collected 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals and five blocked shots.
The game, live on TV on a Monday afternoon, No. 1 vs. No. 2, was going to bring more people to women’s basketball, Lobo had hoped. It is not men’s basketball, she says, and don’t expect it to be.
There are no dunks. But when the house is filled and the noise constant, and when Rebecca Lobo, nearly a Rhodes scholar and always smiling over the fun of the game, takes the ball to the hoop, what’s not to like?