Washington, SMS Advance To West Finals The Hard Way
March 26, 2001
SPOKANE, Wash. - Washington's surprising Huskies will be the overwhelming crowd favorite Monday night against Southwest Missouri State in the final of the NCAA women's West Regional.
Yet a fanatical few hundred fans from Springfield, Mo., surely will make far more than their share of noise, too.
The Lady Bears and their spectacular star Jackie Stiles have one of the most enthusiastic followings in women's college basketball. Their last five home games drew an average of 9,000 in an arena with a listed capacity of 8,800.
About 600 of them are in Spokane. Some drove to Piscataway, N.J., for the team's first two tournament games, then motored west to Spokane for the regional.
"It's just amazing. People just really don't understand what our fans are all about," said point guard Melody Campbell. "Not only are there 500 or 600 of our fans here in Washington after traveling to New Jersey, but they are fanatics. They're going wild. They're on their feet constantly. You really want to win for them."
With Stiles, Southwest Missouri State always has a chance to win.
She has scored more points than any woman in NCAA Division I history. After her 41-point performance in the Lady Bears' 81-71 upset of top-seeded Duke Saturday night, she has her team one victory away from the Final Four.
"Something makes that motor run in there that she is just an unbelievable competitor," Washington coach June Daugherty said. "She takes that team and definitely puts it on her back and is skilled enough to put up unbelievable numbers. I don't know that I've seen anyone who scores like that - Sheryl Swoopes come to mind."
Standing in the way is the tournament's biggest surprise. Sixth-seeded Washington shocked No. 2 seed Oklahoma 84-67 Saturday night.
In the stacked-deck format of the NCAA women's tournament, these two survivors defied the odds.
They are the only two of the eight teams still alive that did not play their first two tournament games at home. The Lady Bears beat fourth-seeded Rutgers in Piscataway, while sixth-seeded Washington knocked off No. 3 seed Florida in Gainesville.
The Huskies (22-9) play a tough zone defense that held Oklahoma to 35 percent shooting. But with Stiles, and several other sharpshooters, the Lady Bears (28-5) looked forward to facing a zone.
"I hope my shot is going to be there," said Tara Mitchem, who scored 40 in Southwest Missouri State's first-round victory over Toledo. "I know Carly (Deer) will step up. Erica Vicente is a great outside shooter. Melody is a shooter, and Jackie is just incredible. So we're excited that they're playing a zone."
Washington will throw players at the Lady Bears in waves.
"Everybody contributes, not only in the starting lineup but also off the bench," Daugherty said. "We've had the opportunity to wear people down this year. That's something that's been tough for other people to match up with. We'll go 12 deep if we have to. We'll play everybody."
And most of them can shoot from long-range.
"The number of 3-point shots that they take and have taken for the season (690) is absolutely incredible," Lady Bears coach Cheryl Burnett said.
Washington was 8-for-24 from 3-point range against Oklahoma. Andrea Lalum, a 6-4 freshman, was 3-for-4. Megan Franza missed her first five, then made three of four, including two in a row that ignited the late rally that buried the Sooners.
Except for the rabid SMS fans who have followed their team to Washington, Spokane Arena will be filled with Huskies' supporters.
If the Lady Bears win, they'll enjoy the same kind of homecourt advantage at the Final Four in St. Louis.
Washington already has exceeded everyone's expectations, except possibly its own.
The Huskies were 8-22 last year, lost their home opener to Connecticut this season 100-54 and blew a shot at an outright Pac-10 title by losing their final two regular-season games at Southern California and UCLA.
"The tournament is all about who is hot. We knew to go as far as we wanted to, we were going to have to be hot," Franza said. "We were going to have to forget about that last weekend (in Los Angeles). We did a good job of it."
By BOB BAUM