POMONA — In NCAA Division II women's basketball circles, Cal Poly Pomona's Darlene May is a coach who has few peers.
May's lifetime coaching record of 280-75 (.789 winning percentage)--best in Division II history--over 11 years at Cal Poly certainly will attest to that.
But May admits that she was taught a valuable lesson midway through this season when the Broncos lost their California Collegiate Athletic Assn. opener, 70-53, to Chapman on Jan. 17.
"We learned a little about ourselves," May said. "We were uptight and we felt a lot of pressure. We found that this team does not play well when it's not relaxed."
The solution was simple enough.
"After the Chapman game, the coach decided we were going to settle down, play our game and take our time," said Janine Phillips, a 6-2 senior center who is the team's top scorer.
That was 14 games ago when Pomona was struggling with a 10-7 overall record.
It is no coincidence that the Broncos have not lost since.
Pomona has a 24-7 record heading into its Division II semifinal game against Hampton Institute (30-3) of Hampton, Va., at 3:35 (PST) today at the Springfield, Mass., Civic Center.
Defending national champion and top-ranked Central Missouri State (27-3) meets Mercer (24-6) of Macon, Ga., in the other semifinal at 5:35.
The winners meet in the championship game Saturday night--a game the Broncos have grown accustomed to playing.
It is the third time that Pomona has reached the final four since women's teams joined the NCAA Division II four years ago. The Broncos won the title in 1982, finished second in 1983 and lost in the NCAA Western Regional final in 1984.
Much Like Champs
May says the 1985 team is similar to the team that won the championship, maybe even stronger.
"There's a lot in common between those teams, especially from a physical standpoint," she said. "I feel that we're stronger inside than we were (in 1981-82). That team had the outside game. This year's team has the outside game and the inside game, which makes us difficult to defend."
Most of Pomona's strength up front has come from Phillips and 6-0 junior forward Vickie Mitchell. Phillips is averaging 12.3 points and 8.6 rebounds and Mitchell 11.9 points and 10.4 rebounds.
Mitchell has been impressive in Pomona's last two playoff wins over Chapman (63-54) in the Western Regional final and St. Cloud (Minn.) State (71-59) in the quarterfinals. She scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebound against Chapman and had 18 points, 7 steals, 6 rebounds and 2 blocked shots against St. Cloud.
Another standout in postseason play is 5-10 senior forward Sheri Jennum, who is averaging 10.3 points for the season. She has scored a total of 50 points in Pomona's three playoff games, including a game high of 19 against St. Cloud.
Pomona's strength inside will be especially important against Hampton, which is led by 6-3 center Darlene Chaney, one of the most dominating front-line players in Division II.
Chaney averages 20.4 points and 12.9 rebounds and is one of the Division II leaders in both categories. Hampton also has 5-10 forward Anita Cooper, who averages 19.6 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Those are two reasons why big, fast Hampton is the top scoring team in Division II (an average of 90 a game). May said that could present problems for her team, which averages 67.8 points and is accustomed to a slower tempo.
"We hope we can slow down the pace and get into a very patient use-the-clock-up type of offense," May said. "They (Hampton Institute) play a full-court press but we hope that won't bother us since we know it's coming.
"They average 90 points a game but you just don't know what kind of defense is being played against them or how tough their schedule is."
Played Division I Teams
Make no mistake about it, Pomona has played a difficult schedule. How tough?
"We definitely have the toughest Division II schedule," May said. "That I'm positive of. After facing (top Division I) teams like Louisiana Tech, USC, San Diego State, Louisiana State and Washington, we feel that we won't be facing any better this week."
That alone should have Pomona primed for Hampton, but with the coaching of May and her top assistant, Barb Thaller, the Broncos are ready to face most teams.
"Our success is based on the fact that we are prepared before each game," May said. "I feel that I can outthink another coach because of our preparation. We have the ability to make adjustments, read things on the court and go to the strength of our team at that particular second."
May said that because of solid coaching, she didn't panic when the Broncos struggled through the first half of the season.
"Even when we were 10-7, I felt we had a chance to go all the way, and now we're just two big games away from that. I have to give a lot of the credit to Barb Thaller for our continued success. She has a great mind and sees things on the court that I don't see."