KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Heidi and Heather Burge didn't waste time outgrowing their classmates.
Entering kindergarten, Heather asked her mother if she could be in a class where the kids were her size.
"I told her she could not because that was second grade and she was only 5," Mary Burge said.
But as identical twins, at least the two were sprouting together, and they eventually decided to make the best of being tall.
As freshmen at Palos Verdes High School, they already topped 6 feet, getting the attention of Coach Wendell Yoshida.
The amiable, blond girls immediately became a collective force on the court, transforming the Sea Kings into Southern Section 3-A champions in 1987 and concluding their high-school careers last season atop the school's all-time list of girls' scorers, Heather with 1,345 points, Heidi with 1,183.
But the towering twins have since come a long way--east, to Virginia, choosing the school from among dozens of others.
"We ended up liking Virginia's basketball team and academics as a combination, versus just the academics," Heidi said. "We found the better schools that had the better basketball (programs) were mostly in the East or the South."
Stanford was an exception, but Coach Tara VanDerveer had already signed center Val Whiting and had room for only one more post player.
And to separate these two was out of the question, Heidi said, "because we dominate together when we're on the court, and we have a lot of fun playing together."
Heather once put it this way: "If I didn't always have another person around as tall as me, I don't know what I'd do."
Their choice of schools propelled them into the Final Four, and they will play key roles as 18-year-old freshmen against Stanford in tonight's first semifinal game at 4:15, PST.
Heidi Burge, perhaps a bit excited with game time getting closer, said after Thursday's practice: "It's so hard to perceive (being in the Final Four). It's just a great thing, that's all I can say."
Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan expressed her delight at how fast the twins have developed--and amazement that the Burges continue to soar to new heights.
"They started out at 6-4 and have grown to 6-5, so that's been kind of nice," she said with a smile.
Heidi starts, and Heather spells her sister or forward Tekshia Ward when either tires or gets into foul trouble.
Together, the three have given Ryan something she has not had in her 13 years at Virginia--an inside game.
"I found (the Burges) to be quick learners, and they just transformed our whole approach to the game," Ryan said. "We have gone inside a lot more than in years past, and we actually \o7 have \f7 an inside game now--not only with those two, but with Tekshia Ward and Audra Smith, all adding a little bit to that inside punch."
Both Burges have played in every game this season, Heather averaging 12.2 points and 6.7 rebounds a game, and Heidi 8.3 points and 6.3 rebounds. Together, they have blocked 58 shots.
Still, the Cavaliers remain a guard-oriented team.
Guards Dawn Staley, who scored 25 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead Virginia over defending national champion Tennessee in the East Regional, and Tammi Reiss do most of the offensive damage for the Cavaliers, whose starting lineup has two freshmen, two sophomores and one senior.
Staley and Reiss, both 5-6 sophomores, are averaging 18 and 15 points per game, respectively. However, they figure to have their hands full against Stanford's Jennifer Azzi and Sonja Henning, perhaps the nation's best backcourt combination.
Stanford (30-1), ranked No. 2 nationally most of the season, has five players averaging in double figures, all close to the 15-point mark.
"If we did have a 25- or 30-point player on our team, I don't think we would be as successful as we have been, because a player like that is pretty easy to stop," Azzi said. "You just put a good defensive player on her and shut her down, and you shut down the team.
"Our whole philosophy is if someone is being shut down, you get the ball to someone else, because anyone on our team can score."
It has been a philosophy that has worked well for Stanford, which, like Virginia, is making its first appearance in the Final Four.
Azzi, a native of Oak Ridge, Tenn., and winner of this year's Naismith Award as the nation's top women's college basketball player, can pass with precision and shoot extremely well from outside. She is averaging about 15 points and six assists and has made 61 of 141 three-point shots this season.
Katy Steding, a 6-foot forward averaging nearly seven rebounds a game, has made 63 of 135 three-pointers while compiling a 15-point average.
Henning, the Cardinal point guard, takes the ball downcourt and looks first to Azzi on the outside, but she can find the lane as well. She leads Stanford in assists with an average of almost seven.
"We like to run," Henning said. "But we \o7 can \f7 play inside if we have to."
The outside threat posed by Azzi, Steding and Henning tends to open up the inside for center Trisha Stevens and forward Julie Zeilstra, both 6-3, who are averaging 17.7 and 14.2 points.
Whiting, a 6-3 freshman, comes off the bench to average nearly 13 points and eight rebounds.
VanDerveer jokingly refers to No. 12-ranked Virginia as "the Kiddie Corps," but she respects what the Cavaliers have accomplished.
"Virginia is very young, but they're a team that has won an incredible number of close games," she said. "They find ways to win. They found a way to beat Tennessee, which was stronger and more experienced."
On the freshman twins playing key roles in such a pressure situation, Ryan shook her head and said: "They may make some mistakes defensively, but the good thing is, the size sometimes negates a lot of mistakes that you make."
Besides, the Burge sisters tend to grow on you.