By Jim Furlong
Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress
April 4, 2006
The 2006 women's Final Four looked like an ACC Invitational.
Gathered in Boston, the ACC's newest big city, the Duke, Maryland and North Carolina players, coaches and supporters all shared an identical dream, but only one team could fulfill it. Meanwhile, Louisiana State worked to spoil everything.
For the first time in the history of the 25-year-old NCAA Women's Tournament, three teams from the same conference advanced to the national semifinals. That triple has happened only once in men's history -- in 1985, when Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's all represented the Big East.
The ACC achieved the unprecedented feat on April 2-4, after top-ranked North Carolina (33-1), third-ranked Maryland (32-4) and fourth-ranked Duke (30-3) all won their regional titles, and each team had the regional MVP.
When the Terrapins and the Blue Devils emerged from their semifinal matchups with victories, it set up an all-ACC championship game.
Still not impressed? Consider this amazing fact: For the entire 2005-06 season, the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Terps had only one loss -- combined -- outside of their incredibly competitive triangle. Tennessee beat Maryland 80-75 on Nov. 26.
Prior to the Final Four, UNC's lone loss came at home in overtime against the Terps. Duke lost twice to UNC during the regular season, then against Maryland in the ACC Tournament semifinals. The Terps lost twice to the Blue Devils during the regular season, then against the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament final.
Thanks to relentless recruiting efforts by three ACC head coaches and their staffs, ever-expanding TV coverage and popularity, increased attendance and three teams packed with talent, determination and experience, the league climbed in 2005-06 to its highest national peak since the passage of Title IX more than 30 years ago.
"We've felt like we've had a great conference for the last two years," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said prior to the Final Four. "It may be the best conference in the country from top to bottom, but until you can back it up and get teams in the Final Four and win national championships, it's just talk."
The ACC, for the second straight season, received seven NCAA bids. Entering the title game, the league showed a combined 18-5 tournament record. Boston College went 2-1, advancing to the Sweet 16. Florida State and Virginia Tech each split two NCAA games. N.C State lost its opener.
Overall, nine of the 12 ACC squads advanced to postseason play, the highest percentage for all Division I women's leagues in the country. Virginia and Miami were a combined 3-2 in the NIT.
"People were still skeptical," Goestenkors said, "but now we've shown we have a pretty good conference."
Bernadette McGlade, the ACC assistant commissioner for women's basketball operations, has observed the ACC women's growth for the last 30 years. A record-setting rebounder for UNC in the late 1970s and later the Georgia Tech coach, McGlade knows the overall ACC women's picture as well as anyone, and she said the league and its member schools have worked to boost and support its female athletes.
"The athletic directors at all 12 of our schools have made a major commitment with upgraded facilities, etc.," McGlade said. "All of that takes time, but it's certainly been in progress in the ACC for the last five to 10 years."
To advance to the Final Four, North Carolina and Duke eliminated on March 28 the two biggest names in women's college hoops: Tennessee and Connecticut. The Tar Heels, with star point guard Ivory Latta sparkling, knocked off the Vols in the final of the Cleveland Regional. The Blue Devils out-battled the Huskies, with 6-7 junior Alison Bales dominant at both ends of the court, to grab overtime success in the Bridgeport Regional title game.
Maryland swept four games in the Albuquerque Regional, including a semifinal victory over the 2005 NCAA champion, Baylor, when sophomore post player Crystal Langhorne powered for 15 rebounds and a career-high 34 points.
At the Final Four, coach Sylvia Hatchell, who directed North Carolina to the first -- and, until this season, only -- women's NCAA title in ACC basketball history, hoped to see her Tar Heels duplicate their 1994 crown. Remember 12 years ago, when Charlotte Smith aced a last-second three-pointer to beat Louisiana Tech at the Richmond Coliseum?
"That's the second-greatest miracle to take place on Easter Sunday," Hatchell said.
Goestenkors and Maryland coach Brenda Frese also craved the 2006 grand prize.
"We took a huge step, making it to Boston," Duke senior leader Monique Currie said. "We've tried to keep that in the back of our minds all season. It's finally here. We can get closer to what we want to win."
Goestenkors, who has directed the Blue Devils to six consecutive 30-win seasons, sought her first NCAA title as her program gained its fourth Final Four in eight seasons.
Frese, the ACC's youngest head coach at 35, swiftly has elevated the Terps during her four seasons in College Park, earning the program's first Final Four appearance since 1989.
"I always believed we'd be in the Final Four," Frese said. "Obviously, I didn't know how quickly and what the timetable would be. But that's why each and every day the people involved in the program have invested so much time, to make something like this come true."
While the ACC men missed a 2006 Final Four appearance, one year after UNC claimed the national championship, the ACC women enjoyed a triple treat in New England.
"It's a real tribute to these three programs," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "Certainly, with it being the first time it's happened at the women's Final Four, we're awfully pleased it's the ACC. In a way, I'm not surprised. In watching these three teams throughout the season, it was evident they were three excellent basketball teams."
Frese made the biggest decision of her professional life four years ago. Her choice and her ambitious, sometimes combative personality since have elevated the Terrapins to join the nation's elite programs.
After one season at Minnesota, where she led the Gophers to a 22-8 record and a 2002 NCAA bid, Frese relocated to College Park. Her first Maryland team finished 10-18, but over the last three seasons -- after her aggressive recruiting landed several coveted blue-chippers -- the Terps zoomed to their highest national ranking since 1993 and truly challenged UNC and Duke for ACC supremacy.
Kim Mulkey-Robertson, who coached the Baylor women to the 2005 NCAA title, praised the second-seeded Terps after they eliminated her team 82-63 in the regional semifinal at "The Pit" in New Mexico.
"I believe our kids fought hard," Mulkey-Roberston said, "(but) I thought Maryland was bigger and better than us."
Frese's squad included four of the ACC's top 11 scorers and the last two ACC rookies of the year. The Terps led the nation in rebounding margin (12.3) and three-point shooting (40.5) and were tough in the clutch, with a 5-0 record in overtime games.
The young core was led by 6-2 sophomore post player Crystal Langhorne, a first-team All-ACC selection who led all Division I players in field goal percentage (66.5) and was second in ACC rebounding (8.8 per game). Freshman forward Marissa Coleman, the 2006 ACC rookie of the year, led the league in three-point percentage (48.2) and was its sixth-best rebounder (7.7 per game).
Frese's first top recruit, junior guard Shay Doron, provided many emotional sparks for the Terps. But the three-time All-ACC honoree, who was born in Israel, is a streak shooter who slumped in early NCAA action.
After the 2002 season, Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow (the younger sister of N.C. State coach Kay Yow) saw the then 32-year-old Frese as a rising star who could help increase attendance at the new Comcast Center. Yow offered her a lucrative multi-year contract to replace Chris Weller, whose program had been declining for at least the last five years of her 27-year career.
"(Yow's) vision and my vision met," Frese said. "Our goals were one and the same. To have that kind of support from your AD and your president, the full package is a dream come true for a young coach."
Another big reason that prompted Frese, who played her college ball at Arizona, to switch from a Big Ten program to the ACC was Maryland's obvious recruiting potential. She's within easy reach of top prep talent all along the East Coast.
"You see the kind of players we're trying to recruit," she said. "New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York. It's a tremendous recruiting base for us."
The blonde Frese, who's very vocal and energetic while prowling the sideline during games, comes across to many as brash and sassy, but no one can deny her savvy and zeal to recruit. Her recruiting success head-to-head against long-time powers has created some resentment. There's jealousy and envy, at least in part because she's a new kid on the block who moved up very quickly.
Someone -- the NCAA isn't saying who -- alleged that Frese committed recruiting violations, but nothing has been proven against her and her program. The NCAA recently interviewed some Maryland players about their recruiting experiences.
Frese, who was born five days before the infamous 1970 Kent State shootings during an anti-war protest, long has been known for being hard-working and feisty.
Bill Fennelly, the long-time Iowa State coach who once had Frese on his staff, recalled when she drove through a blizzard in Minnesota to make sure she attended a high school game to scout a prospect.
"Brenda isn't going to back down from anyone," Fennelly said. "She's not afraid to stick her nose into the fight. I'm sure some coaches think she hasn't waited her turn long enough, and it probably bothers them, too. ... If people don't like her, she really doesn't care."
While the Maryland men's program slumped this season, Frese always knew and encouraged her team's potential. Before the Terrapins played at Boston College on Jan. 5, she organized a shoot-around and later took her players on a bus ride to an unknown destination. When the players arrived, they walked inside the 2006 Final Four arena.
"We told them this is where the Final Four would be," Frese said. "This is what we all wanted, what we are playing for. And we talked about what it would take to be a part of it."
NCAA Championship: Maryland 78 - Duke 75 (OT)
During her team's run to Boston, Goestenkors felt a mixture of elation and disappointment. The Blue Devils were flying high, but many Duke people were distracted by something else.
The coach thought her team's advancement to the Final Four should have been the biggest sports story on the Duke campus and in the Triangle, and she felt shortchanged that the success was overshadowed by a lingering scandal.
White members of the Duke men's lacrosse team were accused in late March of raping a black exotic dancer at an under-age drinking party on March 13. After the team's schedule was suspended, the national media rushed to the Duke campus to report the on-going story, which involved anger among some Duke students and in the racially charged Durham community.
After the Duke women toppled five-time national champion Connecticut in overtime to win the Bridgeport Regional, they went home to a lesser welcome than the coach thought they deserved.
"Obviously, we've been on the road. We read the papers," Goestenkors said. "But when you come back from winning a regional and a trip to the Final Four and the headline is not actually about your team, it makes it a little tough. ... I feel like it's a time of celebration for our team."
At the Final Four press conference in Boston, a day before the Blue Devils beat LSU in the national semifinals, an NCAA official refused to allow the media to ask the Duke women any questions about the lacrosse controversy.
Goestenkors, whose Blue Devils have averaged more than 30 victories for the last eight seasons, didn't want that distraction. All season, she wanted to decrease the pressure she and her players felt about never accomplishing their biggest dream.
The Duke coach made that a priority because she recalled the anguish and pain her 2004 players, especially three-time ACC player of the year Alana Beard, felt after they fell short of the Final Four.
The Blue Devils, who have been to three Final Fours in the last five seasons, were destined to win a national championship, Goestenkors believed all along. She just wasn't glued to a timetable.
"Every season is a journey to learn and to grow," Goestenkors said, prior to the title game against Maryland. "You aim to be your best at NCAA time."
This season certainly looked like a very strong possibility for a breakthrough from the start. She described her 2006 squad as the "deepest and most talented" she'd had during her 14 seasons in Durham.
Entering the Final Four, Duke led the nation in scoring (87 points per game), assists (20.8 per game), scoring margin (28.9 points) field goal percentage (50.1) and blocked shots (7.7 per game). In addition, the Blue Devils were second for rebound margin (11.1) and fifth for field goal percentage defense (35.1).
The top-seeded Blue Devils enjoyed three NCAA romps before out-fighting second-seeded Connecticut 63-61 in overtime on March 28. That stopped the Huskies' 29-game NCAA winning streak in their home state.
"That was the most beautiful, ugly win we've ever had," said Goestenkors, as Duke survived its 20-for-69 shooting performance.
The team leader was Currie, the No. 11 career scorer in ACC history with 2,087 points. The 2005 ACC player of the year became the first league woman to collect more than 2,000 points, 800 rebounds, 400 assists and 200 steals.
Goestenkors aimed to go inside more this season and increase her post scoring. The trio of Bales, 6-3 senior Mistie Williams and 6-5 sophomore Chante Black gave Duke a front line rotation second to none.
The return of speedy point guard Lindsey Harding, who was suspended for the entire 2005 season, boosted the running game and team defense. Harding improved her outside shooting and court awareness, racked up 150 assists and was named the 2006 ACC defender of the year.
Bales, with 274 career blocked shots, was named the MVP of the Bridgeport Regional. She dominated UConn on both ends, with 15 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks.
The Blue Devils also were often potent from long range. Six players made more than 20 three-pointers, including a team-high 47 by freshman guard Abby Waner, the 2005 national high school player of the year from Colorado.
Goestenkors and long-time assistant Gale Valley had molded a program that was the equal of Tennessee and Connecticut, except for lacking a national championship.
Before beating LSU, Goestenkors, 43, was 1-3 in Final Four games. She lost the 1999 NCAA title game against Purdue in San Jose.
"Hopefully, I do give the players confidence," Goestenkors said, "because I do know what (the Final Four) is all about."
Entering the Final Four, the top-seeded Tar Heels owned the nation's best combined record (63-5) for the last two seasons.
Latta -- providing constant energy, vocal leadership, second-to-none enthusiasm, three-point sharpshooting, flashy, effective passing, and her versatile skills to spark fastbreaks -- was the No. 1 asset. All season long, the Heels were described as the fastest and most athletic team in the country.
"I love to hear people say they love to watch us play," said Hatchell, who just completed her 20th season in Chapel Hill. "I try to think of ways we can speed it up and do more things."
While senior forward La'Tangela Atkinson, versatile junior Camille Little and sophomore post player Erlana Larkins all were substantial contributors, the 5-6 Latta was the star of the show. She may have received the most face time on TV for all women's players, and she was one of the shortest first-team All-Americans in history.
"She empowers the players around her to play better," said Debbie Ryan, the Virginia coach for the last 29 years. "Latta is one of the finest point guards I have ever seen."
Hatchell was always confident that Latta would emerge as a top-notch floor general. The leading career scorer in South Carolina high school history with 4,319 points, Latta averaged 44.6 points per game as a prep senior.
"She is our heart and soul, the engine that makes our offense go," said the 54-year-old Hatchell, a college head coach since 1975.
Before Latta ever made her first dribble for the Tar Heels, Hatchell made a prophecy in October 2003.
"Some of you guys probably rolled your eyes at me when I said that at (ACC) media day, before the kid ever walked on a (college) court, put on a uniform," Hatchell said. "I said: This league has never had a player like Ivory Latta.'"
While leading North Carolina to back-to-back ACC Tournament titles, Latta earned back-to-back MVP honors for the event.
Latta, the youngest of seven children, has heard dozens of "small" jokes, and she knows most people think she's really about 5-4.
"In high school, somebody told me I was too short to play in the ACC," she said. "I just said, OK, wait and see.' My (UNC) teammates see me as a big person. I've been criticized my whole life. My parents always told me how tall you are doesn't matter. Heart is what defines you."
Latta, 21, has become a source of delight and inspiration for many people.
"It's true there are 12- and 13-year-old girls who come up to me and are my height and I'm like, Wow,'" Latta said. "A lot of parents come up to me and say, You are an inspiration to my son or daughter. They want to do the same thing you do.'"
The Tar Heels were eliminated by Maryland in the NCAA semifinals, but Latta and Larkins in particular are likely to find the spotlight again. They figure to be contenders to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team.
"Erlana is a warrior," Hatchell said. "She loves the physical contact, and loves to compete and win."
With Latta, Larkins and Little all eligible to return, the Tar Heels also figure to be a top-five preseason pick in 2006-07.
Until then, the ACC women will be able to celebrate the 2005-06 season, which likely will stand alone for many years as the greatest in league history.
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