LEXINGTON, Ky. — As wave after wave of players streamed off the Texas bench Sunday, fresh and eager, and shot after shot went astray for USC, Cynthia Cooper began to get the idea that this was Texas' game.
Cooper had watched as teammate Cheryl Miller, for four years a player who was never better than when the game was close, struggled through one of her worst games this season. Cooper also saw that the Trojan bench was no match for a team where three starters can sit and there is no appreciable drop in the level of talent on the court.
Cooper saw what was evident to the 5,662 fans in Rupp Arena Sunday afternoon--Texas was not to be denied. The Longhorns won the national championship of women's basketball with a 97-81 victory over the Trojans.
More than that, Texas gave its six seniors warm memories to take with them. In six previous seasons, agonizingly close losses have denied Texas teams a trip to the women's Final Four.
Miller will have less pleasant memories of this game. Of her 16 points, only four came from the field, and she fouled out with 7:30 to play, which left her watching from the bench as USC (31-5) tried desperately to catch up.
No one this season has caught Texas. For the first time since women have been in the NCAA, a team has gone undefeated--Texas ended its season 34-0.
They did it without stars of Miller's brightness, by calling on more good players than any other team can.
Texas averages 30 points from its bench, and, as usual, all 11 Texas players played Sunday. The non-starters were the key for Texas, which had a huge, 58-4 advantage in bench-scoring.
Texas Coach Jody Conradt officially ushered out the Miller Era when she ended the post-game press conference by holding up a sign Texas fans had made, "Miller time is over, we want Lone Star."
Conradt was savoring a win that was a long time in coming. For seven years her Longhorns have been in the playoffs, six times they were sent home early. Criticism began to fall around Conradt.
Conradt's vision of a national championship receded with every knee that collapsed on her team--there had been five serious knee injuries on this team. All-American guard Kamie Ethridge sprained both ankles in January, C.J. Jones broke her right foot, and Gay Hemphill has congenital curvature of the spine and must play with a hard-plastic brace girding her midsection. Second-leading scorer Clarissa Davis is asthmatic and has to be played sparingly.
"No one knows what this team has gone through, no one," Conradt said. "All year long we have been labeled underachievers, but those who knew what we had struggled with and gone through, know what this means.
"What a fitting way to end the season. In athletics, we always strive for perfection, and to think you'll ever achieve this kind of a perfect season is a dream. It's overwhelming."
Conradt would not have guessed such an ending earlier in the season as she watched the injuries mount. Conradt had daily meetings with team trainer Tina Bonci, who would tell Conradt which players could practice that day. "I had to make a decision early on, do they practice or do they play," Conradt said. "Some of the players had only a certain amount of time left on their legs. Players like Andrea Lloyd have literally not practiced for weeks."
Texas didn't need them. Davis, a freshman who averages 13 points, doesn't even start. Conradt uses her as the sixth player, a spark off the bench. Davis sparked for 32 points and 18 rebounds in Texas' semifinal win over Western Kentucky Friday night and she had 24 points and 14 rebounds in only 24 minutes Sunday. Davis was named the tournament's outstanding player.
Texas successfully executed its defensive plan--keep the ball away from Miller. She was 2 of 11 from the field and did not score in the second half.
If not for the 12 free throws she made, Miller would have had the worst offensive game of her career.
"Considering it wasn't one of my best games and you wait until the championship game to be off, yes, I'm frustrated," a subdued Miller said.
In contrast, Cooper had her best game, leading all scorers with 27 points before fouling out with 45 seconds left.
Despite shooting only 35% from the field in the first half, USC kept it close and even led several times. Texas began a run with 5:12 left in the half and the Trojans leading, 30-29. By the time Miller hit a jump shot at 2:06, the Longhorns held a 39-32 lead.
"We came out a little tense and loosened up but we weren't able to keep our lead in the first half," USC Coach Linda Sharp said. "We came out strong in the second half and narrowed Texas' lead, but when Miller fouled out we lost some momentum."
USC got to within nine points when Cooper's free throw made it 70-61 with 9:30 left. Then the Longhorns began to shuttle players in and out to spell the tired ones, and USC's starters just had to hang on, knowing there was no help from their bench.