Diana Taurasi did it at Connecticut. So did Chamique Holdsclaw at Tennessee. When Notre Dame made its national championship run, the Irish knew they could always count on Ruth Riley.
In the NCAA tournament, teams need a player they can look to at crucial times.
“You need that single, clear-cut, go-to individual,” said Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp, who had such a player in Sheryl Swoopes when the Lady Raiders won the 1993 title. “There’s not a better example of that than Taurasi in the NCAA the last three years, a player who can just go make plays.”
Taurasi has gone on to WNBA and Olympic fame after leading Connecticut to the last three national championships, so the door’s open for somebody to fill that role this year. Who will it be?
The answers should start coming today, when the 24th NCAA women’s tournament begins with 16 games at four sites. The remaining first-round games will be played Sunday at four other sites.
“I see teams that have a little bit more balance, which is why we’re seeing the parity in the game this season,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. “But when you get into the postseason, players have to step up. I do think that might be one of the determining factors – who has that consistent performer during the playoffs.”
Summitt certainly had that with Holdsclaw, who led Tennessee to three straight national championships from 1996-98. The Lady Vols don’t have a player like that now, relying more on balance and defense, but LSU does.
If anyone can carry a team, it’s Seimone Augustus, who did just that last year when she averaged 26.3 points in the first four rounds of the tournament to lead LSU to its first Final Four.
The 6-foot-1 junior can slice up a defense off the dribble, hit the pull-up jumper and post up. As a bonus, she plays alongside a heady point guard, Temeka Johnson, who knows when and where to get her the ball.
“They have that superstar presence to sort of take over the game if necessary,” said ESPN analyst Stacey Dales-Schuman, who’s picking LSU to win it all.
There are others capable of March magic. Candice Wiggins, just a freshman, has shown she can deliver at crunch time for top-ranked Stanford. Baylor has a dynamic inside duo with Sophia Young and Steffanie Blackmon.
Ivory Latta led North Carolina to the ACC championship and Duke was right behind with Monique Currie. Few can match the versatility of Kansas State’s Kendra Wecker and 6-5 sophomore Jessica Davenport has become a dominating presence at both ends of the court for Ohio State.
What of Connecticut? UConn still has talent with players such as Barbara Turner and Ann Strother, but no one has matched Taurasi’s gritty determination and ability to will her team to victory. That’s a big reason the Huskies (23-7) have lost more games than any UConn team since 1992-93, giving rise to a feeling that someone else finally might win this thing.
“I think a lot of programs and players and coaches believe the opportunity is more realistic, that teams we may never have heard from could win it,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said.
But Connecticut won the Big East Conference tournament and could build additional momentum with its first two NCAA games at home, so don’t count the Huskies out just yet.
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