2003 Women’s Final Four – Atlanta

The 2003 Women’s Final Four in Atlanta will undoubtedly remembered for the exquisite battles between Connecticut, Texas, Duke and Tennessee as they squared off for the NCAA National Championship. But the diversity and quality of basketball world on display thorough out the days preceding the games highlighted the depth, breadth and future challenges of the women’s game.

“We call this the Super Bowl of women’s basketball,” said Beth Bass, Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). “From grassroots to professional, this is the place to be.”

The WBCA’s National Convention, held in tandem with the Final Four, drew over 5000 attendees, including coaches from the college, high school, AAU and professional ranks. The convention provides opportunities for caches to network and learn from their peers. The WBCA also hosted the “Night of All-Stars”, featuring the WBCA High School All-Star game, an exhibition by a National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Women’s team, and the All-Star Challenge, spotlighting 20 of this past season’s top college seniors.

Though the All-Star Challenge was played under the cloud cast by news the WNBA had cancelled its college combine, the seniors seemed unconcerned about their future as professionals. “What will come will come,” said Clemson’s Chrissy Floyd. Instead, they were content simply to enjoy their final collegiate game, and the chance to get to know some of their fellow stars from around the nation. “It’s been fun,” said Villanova’s Trish Juhline. “You knew what kind of player they were,” she added, “you just didn’t know what kind of person they were.”

The NWBA game was a chance for wheelchair athletes to “showcase our skills and introduce our sport to women’s basketball fans,” explained Program Director Todd Hatfield. The team played a second game at Hoop City, the fan festival where visitors could test their basketball skills. Afterwards, the players participated in the some of the shooting activities, trailed by a group of interested fans. “A couple of us made it in the ‘Around the World’ shooting,” noted player Angela Madsen. The reactions of the fans? “They were in awe,” she said with a grin.

Not surprisingly, the women’s division is significantly smaller than the men’s division; approximately 175 compared to 12 registered women’s teams. Though the specialized equipment is often seen as a barrier (wheelchairs can run as little as $1,200 to as much as $18,000), the Challenged Athletes Foundation provides grants. Additionally, many don’t realize some players are able-bodied. “Our by by-laws state,” explained Madsen, “that if you cannot run, stop and pivot as an able body person on an able body team, then you’re eligible to play.”

The High School game was scheduled in conjunction with the WBCA’s National Convention for the first time. A deliberate choice, explained Bass. “For those kids to be around the [College] All Star game and the Kodak All-Americans,” she said, “that’s the ‘cradle to denture’ code of honor we can build with the WBCA. Bring them through the proper infrastructure – get the right education, be around the right mentors and role models. That’s what it’s all about.”

It is a measure of the game’s growth that the WBCA game, presented by Nike, had a counter event: the 2003 L’adidas Roundball Classic cosponsored by the All-Star Girls Report. Played on the Sunday of the NCAA semi-finals, the game feature 24 ranked players, and was scheduled when, says Cathy Andruzzi, of Druzz Ltd. “we realized there were so many top players left off the WBCA team.”

Andruzzi has deep roots in women’s basketball, as both player and coach and, more recently, as Executive Director of the 2000 Philadelphia Final Four. She’s watched the evolution of women’s basketball since the early AIAW days, and sees the commitment of sponsors to the game as a positive step. “adidas gives credibility to the women’s game,” she explains. “They’re committed to helping grow this sport.” Andruzzi understands growth fosters change – and that change can be perceived as positive or negative. “You can’t control change,” Andruzzi says. “You can,” she adds, “try and shape it.”

That philosophy certainly applies to Sharon Shields, incoming president of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports, as she and current GWS Executive Director Athena Yiamouyiannis outlined present day challenges to Title IX in a report to WBCA convention. Recalling her own basketball experiences 32 years ago, when playing in the NIT meant a $3 per diem for food, and that players bought their own shoes and second uniforms, Shields reflected: “I recognized the inequities then and fought for Title IX. I never thought 30 years later I’d be fighting for Title IX again.”

To that end, Shields outlined the second phase of a grass roots advocacy program to save Title IX: “Backyards and Beyond.” The goal is to engage coaches in educating their athletes about the history and importance of Title IX because, she explained, “they don’t realize what’s at stake.” To support coaches in their efforts, GWS will make meeting agendas and presentations available on their website (nagws.org) by late August. Shields hopes that, since most players participate in outreach programs, eventually the student-athletes themselves will speak within their communities about the impact of Title IX, thereby continuing the cycle of education.

Shields couldn’t have asked for a better advertisement for her cause than the Final Four games. “That women’s basketball has the privilege of being a showcase to see what Title IX can do is something that you take as a responsibility,” said Cheryl Marra, Chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee. “We want to make sure we support the women who are playing the sport, the coaches and administrations that are doing the best job they can to provide the great opportunities and experiences as something like Title IX and the Final Four represents.”

Before two sellout crowds of 28,210 and a national TV audience (up 8 percent from last season), the three games featured four of the profession’s top coaches and some of the brightest stars in college basketball playing the game at its highest level.

The Duke-Tennessee semi-final was a rematch from the regular season with a different result. Duke junior Alana Beard was stunningly brilliant, but no match for the determined pair of orange-garbed seniors Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson, as the Lady Vols earned their second trip to the Finals in three years, 66-56.

For Coach Gail Goestenkors, the loss was totally different than last year’s against Oklahoma. “We were a little bit satisfied getting here with only 8 players,” she said, “and I just remember being very, very proud of the team. We were upset, but it didn’t hurt deep, deep inside. Tonight we hurt. Our expectations have risen with this team and so you know the hurt is going to raise as well.”

The Texas-Connecticut game saw the return of Coach Jody Conradt to the Final Four stage for the first time since 1987. The Longhorns had Geno Auriemma’s young UConn team on the ropes until the final 9 minutes, when suddenly it became Diana Taurasi time. Showing why she earned AP, Naismith, and Wade Trophy Player of the Year honors, Taurasi slung her team on her back and willed them to a 71-69 victory.

Afterwards, coach Conradt spoke of her team that had exceeded everybody’s expectations, except their own. “We are going to be disappointed and we are going to hurt,” she said. “But I reflect back on a year ago when we lost in the Sweet 16, and that was the motivator for this team to come back and show what they are capable of. I know this loss is going to be a motivator as they go over a long, hard off-season.”

The UConn and Tennessee victories set up a Tuesday Night Championship game that people both hated, because is seemed so predictable, and loved, because, as Auriemma stated, “You don’t have to market it.”

The rivalry has developed into one of the best in the game because the two teams have dominated women’s basketball for nearly a decade. Regular season match-ups are the most anticipated games on the national scene. As for the post season, not only have they had combined for seven of the previous nine titles, they’ve also met for a regional final, and two national semifinals. The 2003 national title match marked the third meeting between these two juggernauts.

In the past, legendary Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt has been quoted as saying, “Offense wins you fans. Defense wins you games. Rebounding wins you Championships.” Unfortunately for the Lady Vols, who earned a 40-22 rebounding advantage over UConn, this didn’t hold true during their Championship game against the Huskies.

Instead, Auriemma’s tournament mantra, “We have Taurasi and they don’t,” again proved prophetic, though this time with a twist. Leading from the opening basket, Taurasi was assisted by stellar performances from upstart freshmen Ann Strother and Willnett Crockett, and the unheralded and unflappable junior point guard Maria Conlon. Together, they managed to hold off every stubborn Tennessee challenge, emerging with a 73-68 victory. In claiming an improbable second consecutive National Championship, Connecticut became the first to do so without a senior on their roster.

After the game, Summitt seem to ache more for her two seniors, Jackson and Lawson, than for the loss. “I want them to know how much and I and our Tennessee program appreciates them,” said Summitt. “They have become like two of my daughters. I hurt for them. I know they are going to do great things after they leave here. They have been awesome and role models for our program.”

On the winning side, the usually glib Auriemma seemed humbled by the victory over his favorite nemesis. “To beat Tennessee and to win the National Championship with this group.” said Auriemma in the post-game interview, “is truly one of the more remarkable things that has ever happened. Maybe they are a lot better than I thought,” he continued. “Maybe they are tired of listening to. ‘We’re too young, we’re too inexperienced, we are not talented enough.’ But we’re tough enough. We really are.”

“And,” he added with a grin, “we got Diana and they don’t.”

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