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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Pac-10 Freshmen Step to the Front

January 29, 2003|MIKE TERRY

The first round of Pacific 10 Conference play is nearly complete -- only Stanford and California haven't faced each other -- so it's a good time gauge how the freshman class is doing.

Freshmen are no longer practice fodder for the juniors and seniors. They are expected to contribute immediately.

Overall, the Pac-10 freshman class is getting positive reviews.

"This could be one of best groups overall," Arizona Coach Joan Bonvicini said. "You've always had excellent individuals, but this group may be one of the best."

Said USC Coach Chris Gobrecht: "What stands out is not only are they really good players, they are great kids. You can tell by watching they love playing basketball, that it's not about them but about winning and team. It's their quality as people, as well as players, that has made them successful."

No team has had a bigger freshman impact than Arizona State. Guard Jill Noe (15.4 points a game), forward Amy Denson (11.1 points) and forward Kristen Kovesdy (11 points) are the Sun Devils' top three scorers, and each is averaging more than five rebounds. But as good as they are, the Sun Devil trio hasn't received quite the acclaim of Arizona center Shawntinice Polk and UCLA guard Nikki Blue. At this point, they are the top two candidates for freshman of the year.

The 6-foot-5 Polk, a redshirt freshman, is sixth in the conference in scoring (16.2), third in rebounding (9.6) and second in blocked shots (1.78). Along with sophomore Dee Dee Wheeler and senior Krista Warren, Polk makes the Wildcats a legitimate threat to Stanford for the regular-season conference championship.

"Polk could be exceptional nationally as well as the conference," Oregon Coach Bev Smith said. Adds Oregon State Coach Judy Spoelstra: "Polk is the best post player in conference, she does it day in and out. She might be the best freshman in the Pac-10 in some time, and that's saying a lot."

Blue also is averaging 16.2 points in conference games. She and senior Michelle Greco form one of the Pac-10's highest-scoring backcourts, and Blue is the Bruins' best rebounder (5.3) despite being only 5-8.

"She is doing a tremendous job for them," Arizona State Coach Charlie Turner Thorne said.

There are some other strong individuals as well.

Oregon center Carolyn Ganes is averaging 11.6 points overall but has increased that to 16.6 in conference games. She is the conference's leading freshman scorer.

"She has come in and stepped up through some adversity there," California Coach Caren Horstmeyer said of Ganes.

Noe gets kudos for her maturity and steadiness. "I think she and Polk are setting themselves apart from the others," Spoelstra said.

Also drawing praise were Arizona's Natalie Jones, Oregon State's Casey Bunn and USC's Meghan Gneknow.

*

Should Stanford survive its remaining regular-season conference schedule intact, the Cardinal has a golden path toward the Final Four.

The Pac-10 tournament is being held in San Jose, about 15 minutes south of Palo Alto. After that, Stanford is playing host to an NCAA subregional and the West Regional final.

Which, if all goes its way, means the Cardinal won't have to leave home until championship weekend in Atlanta.

Coach Tara VanDerveer knows her team is in an enviable position. She also knows it will not happen again.

"In the future, you can no longer [play host to] the first round and a regional. That is going in the right direction," VanDerveer said. "You try to make the tournament a fair situation where there's a balanced playing field. It's different than the NBA where you're trying to get a home court. The tournament is subjective. The move to neutral courts is a good move."

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