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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL MIKE TERRY

Sooners' Success Continues

January 08, 2003|MIKE TERRY

In a land where football is a 24/7 topic, the 2001-02 college basketball season was magical for the Oklahoma's men's and women's teams. The women made it to the NCAA championship game and the men reached the Final Four.

Considering that four starters from last season's 32-4 women's team graduated -- three were drafted by WNBA teams -- it would not have been surprising if Oklahoma had fallen off the women's college basketball map for a rebuilding season or two.

But Coach Sherri Coale has kept the Sooners respectable, even after losing Caton Hill, her top returning player, and Erin Higgins, her leading freshman scorer, to season-ending torn knee ligaments in the season opener against Tennessee.

The 25th-ranked Sooners are 9-4 as they start Big 12 Conference play this week.

And Oklahoma, which has won the last three Big 12 championships, expects to be a factor again, even as Coale pleads for patience.

"You have to balance realistic expectations with wanting people to expect great things from you," Coale said. "For us, it has been exceptionally hard. I knew the experience would be the toughest thing to replace. Our young people are trying to show leadership, but they haven't been through this before. Caton was our anchor for that.

"But our nonconference schedule also took some of the mystery away. We have seen the best of what's out there."

The Sooners have played traditional powers Tennesse, Connecticut, North Carolina and Stanford in nonconference games.

Coale said the Sooners have gotten a lift from Venezuelan guard Maria Villarroel, a junior college transfer who is averaging 16.9 points, and freshman guard Chelsi Welch.

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UCLA is off to a surprising 4-0 start in Pacific 10 play, already equaling the number of conference games the Bruins won last season. Coach Kathy Olivier isn't predicting how long they can stay in first place, but she says her undersized team's 9-4 overall record is not a fluke.

"The team is doing what it did last year but with more talent," Olivier said. "Of course Michelle Greco is back; she was huge for us to lose last season. Then add our other seniors, who are great leaders. Now add our freshman class, which is a talented group. It's a good mix. And we like each other."

Greco, the conference's scoring leader, sat out most of last season because of recurring concussions.

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At the beginning of the season, Vanderbilt's Chantelle Anderson and Mississippi State's LaToya Thomas were considered the first and second picks in this year's WNBA draft, in that order.

If the draft were held today, however, the order might be reversed.

Thomas, a 6-2 forward, is having a big season. She is averaging 24.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and making 60% of her shots.

Anderson, a 6-6 center, is making 63.2% of her shots.

But she's averaging 17.9 points and 6.1 rebounds, numbers that do not make for a franchise player.

Still, Anderson, with her size and potential, casts a shadow over a draft many WNBA officials expect will have few impact players.

"If she's not No. 1, she will be top three," a scout for a West Division team said. "She can't hurt herself, even if she has a [poor] season."

Thomas, meanwhile, is raising her value.

"She has a strong inside game and seems to score at will, even when double-teamed," an East Division scout said. "She has pro size and a good mid-range game."

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Connecticut junior guard Diana Taurasi is considered by many as the best college player. But Clemson Coach Jim Davis can make a case for Duke's Alana Beard after watching the guard shred his Tigers for 26 points in the top-ranked Blue Devils' 69-53 victory on Monday.

"Beard is the heart and soul of that team, and she makes everyone around her better," Davis said. "She is Jordan-like, and that's the ultimate compliment in the game of basketball."

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