Sunday, March 28, 1999

Familiar foes meet in women's final

The Associated Press

        SAN JOSE, Calif. — Two left, two stayed behind, and now, three years later, they are facing each other for the national championship.

        Purdue's Stephanie White-McCarty and Ukari Figgs will meet former teammates Michele VanGorp and Nicole Erickson when the No.1 Boilermakers play Duke tonight in a title game that will produce a first-time champion.

        All four played on Purdue's 1995-96 team, which was torn apart when coach Lin Dunn was fired after the season. VanGorp and Erickson headed for Duke; White-McCarty and Figgs remained at Purdue with only one other player, Jannon Roland, who would be a senior the following season.

        “My freshman year, things were rocky, and I think that everybody took a look at (transferring),” Figgs said. “I don't know if you could judge how serious that look was.”

        As if one coaching change wasn't enough, another quickly followed. Dunn's replacement, Nell Fortner, left after one season to coach the U.S. national team and was succeeded by her top assistant, Carolyn Peck. Three coaches in three years, yet White-McCarty and Figgs still stuck with it.

        With one more solid effort on their part, they could receive the ultimate reward for their perseverance: an NCAA championship.

        “I can't explain how excited I am and I can't tell you how excited we are for Ukari and Stephanie,” Purdue's Michelle Duhart said. “They've been through so much to get here, and it's exciting for them. We want to win for them.”

        After the top 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament all advanced to the regional round, the March marathon will end with a most untraditional championship game, the first since 1993 not to have Tennessee or Louisiana Tech.

        Duke (29-6) eliminated Tennessee, winner of the last three titles, with an upset in the East Regional finals, then beat Georgia 81-69 in the national semifinals Friday night.

        Purdue (33-1), which has won 31 straight, beat Louisiana Tech 77-63 on Friday night. So not only will there be a first-time champion, it's the first time these two teams have ever reached the final.

        They've done it with much the same strengths: sound, smart team play, offensive balance and solid defense, especially by Duke, which lacked the quickness and athleticism of many of its opponents.

        “I don't think you have to be athletic to be a great player,” said Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, a former assistant at Purdue. “We have very smart players. We give them a game plan and they stick to the game plan.

        “And they know personnel very well. So if someone has got a weakness, we take advantage of it.”

        Duke was able to keep Georgia's talented twins, Kelly and Coco Miller, from taking over the semifinal game. The Blue Devils' perimeter defense was especially effective on Kelly Miller, who scored only 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting after burning Iowa State for 33 points in the regional finals.

        Purdue, however, is tough to defend, because its players are so versatile and have a knack for picking each other up. Friday night, for example, White-McCarty was 1-of-7 in the first half. But Figgs scored 18 points in the opening half, and the Boilermakers led by 13.

        Purdue doesn't have anyone as big as the 6-foot-6 VanGorp inside. If guards Erickson and Hilary Howard can get the ball to VanGorp for her turnaround jumpers and hit a few outside shots, the Blue Devils could be hard to stop.

        Though Purdue held the No.1 ranking the final three weeks of the season, many wondered if the Boilermakers truly were the best team, even though they beat Tennessee in November, even though they defeated Louisiana Tech in December.

        Tonight, they have a chance to remove all doubt.

        “I don't think we're out to show anybody anything,” Figgs said. “We've believed all year that we were one of the best teams in the country.”