Up For Grabs
March 15, 2001
Niele Ivey can sympathize with Tamika Catchings. She knows the pain that Shea Ralph is going through, understands the disappointment that Svetlana Abrosimova feels.
Catchings was the best player at Tennessee, Abrosimova and Ralph were stars at Connecticut. All three are injured and will be missing when the NCAA women's basketball tournament starts Friday. Ivey, Notre Dame's point guard, knows what that is like because it happened to her in 1999.
Ivey tore ligaments in her left knee in the semifinals of the Big East tournament that year. When the Irish played in the NCAA tournament, all she could do was watch.
"It's a devastating thing for any player to go down, especially in the prime of their game and at the end of the season," Ivey said. "It's really frustrating, because you work so hard on your overall game, your confidence, your physical shape, and then you have to start over from scratch."
Ivey was on the court when Ralph tore the ACL in her left knee in the championship game of the Big East tournament last week. She knew right away what happened.
"I said a couple of quick prayers for her," Ivey said. "I recognized that scream. It kind of shook me up a little."
Ivey is healthy now and so is her team, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional and one of the favorites to reach the Final Four in St. Louis. The Irish play their first game Saturday, meeting Alcorn State in South Bend.
Notre Dame was one of three teams to hold the No. 1 ranking this season. The Irish shared the regular-season Big East title with Connecticut, which beat them in the conference championship game on Sue Bird's last-second shot.
"I think we're very capable of winning it all," said Ivey, a third-team All-American. "We just have to be more prepared and mentally focused for the next couple of games. Hopefully that carries us through like it's been doing this whole year."
Tennessee, which was No. 1 for two weeks, will be the only top-seeded team in action Friday, playing host to Austin Peay in the Mideast. The Lady Vols quickly overcame the shock of losing Catchings on Jan. 15 and have lost only once since, to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals.
Vanderbilt, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest, bears watching. The Commodores, who play Idaho State on Saturday, beat Georgia and LSU in the last three weeks of the season ,in addition to Tennessee.
They're difficult to defend with 6-foot-6 sophomore Chantelle Anderson inside and sharpshooting Jillian Danker, Jenni Benningfield and Ashley McElhiney on the perimeter. That trio has made 139 3-pointers and Anderson leads the nation in field goal percentage at .731.
Vandy coach Jim Foster said after battling through the SEC, his team is ready for NCAA play.
"It prepares you to play at such a high level," Foster said. "I can't imagine that we could have played at a higher level the last 12 games."
Connecticut, ranked No. 1 and the top seed in the East, still has enough talent to make a run for its second straight national title. Abrosimova, a first-team All-American last season, got hurt in a Feb. 1 loss at Tennessee. The Huskies haven't lost since, though their margin for error is much smaller now with both Abrosimova and Ralph out.
They start tournament play at home Saturday against Long Island.
"I actually wish those two weren't hurt," Long Island coach Tony Bozzella said. "They're such great ambassadors for the game. We want to get women's basketball as much attention as we can and we need players like that."
This will be the first NCAA tournament appearance for Long Island, which two years ago was 2-24 and had the worst RPI in the country.
Drake will be an inspiring story no matter how far the Bulldogs get in the tournament. They were left reeling in December when, five days apart, sophomore Martha Chaput was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and freshman Mandy Kappel was found to have a brain tumor.
With a seven-player rotation, Drake tied Southwest Missouri State for the Missouri Valley Conference title. The Bulldogs play Villanova in the East Regional on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.
"We are a family," first-year coach Lisa Stone said. "We've all kind of redefined what family is all about. We realized we're stronger together than out there all alone."
By CHUCK SCHOFFNER