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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL MIKE TERRY

Thomas Belongs in Great Debate

March 20, 2003|MIKE TERRY

The debate over who's the national player of the year -- Connecticut's Diana Taurasi or Duke's Alana Beard -- is a great one because a solid argument can be made for either player.

Both junior guards led their teams to respective 31-1 seasons entering the NCAA tournament. Duke's only loss was to Connecticut, and the Huskies had their Division I-record winning streak ended at 70 games by Villanova.

Both players had defining moments during the season. Beard almost single-handedly beat Virginia on Jan. 8 with a school-record 41 points in her team's 60-59 victory. At Tennessee on Jan. 4, Taurasi first dropped in a half-court three-point basket before halftime, nailed another three-pointer with 6.9 seconds in regulation to force overtime, then made the game-winning basket with 51 seconds left in the overtime.

Either player is a worthy choice.

There's another candidate, however, who deserves to be in any MVP conversation.

LaToya Thomas toils in relative obscurity at Mississippi State. But the 6-2 senior forward, who will be the first or second pick in the WNBA draft, has had a fabulous season.

Like Beard and Taurasi, Thomas was the conference player of the year. She led the Southeastern Conference in scoring a fourth straight year, and her 26.5 average ranks third nationally.

She topped the 23-7 Bulldogs in scoring 22 times. She didn't just pile up stats on weaker opponents; Thomas racked up 35 points against Cincinnati, 34 against Tennessee, 32 against Louisiana State, 29 against Georgia and 25 against Utah -- all teams that are part of the NCAA's field of 64.

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Thomas will finish her career as the school's all-time leading scorer -- male or female. She is the first Mississippi State female player to record 2,000 career points and 1,000 rebounds. She holds eight individual school records.

"LaToya Thomas is the best player I have faced all year," Tennessee senior guard Kara Lawson, herself an All-America candidate, told ESPN.com.

"You look at our schedule and it includes games against half the Top 25, so we get a good feel for the players out there. And there is no player that means more to her team than Thomas. She might not get the publicity that some of the other players and schools receive, including Tennessee, but man, she can play."

Whether Thomas or Vanderbilt's 6-6 center Chantelle Anderson is the WNBA's top pick depends on which team wins the lottery. But there isn't a team that couldn't use Thomas' size and power.

"I think she's going to be a great pro," said Houston Comet Coach Van Chancellor. "She does everything so well. She reminds me of [Phoenix's] Jennifer Gillom. They both have had a knack for scoring in traffic, and both can score from anywhere on the floor."

Time will tell if Thomas will be a great pro.

But in the 2002-03 season she proved she was a great collegian.

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Coach of the year also seems like a Connecticut-Duke duel.

Connecticut's Geno Auriemma would have an edge over Duke's Gail Goestenkors because a) Connecticut beat Duke head to head; b) all of the Blue Devil starters from last year's Final Four team came back while the Huskies had one starter back from its defending national championship team.

And there's the matter of that 70-game winning streak accomplished by a roster dominated by freshmen and sophomores.

But they are safe choices.

Voters should cast an eye at the job Jody Conradt did this season at No. 5 Texas.

Conradt, who joined the 800-win club this year, guided the 25-5 Longhorns to their best record since the 1990-91 season. That Texas team reached the Elite Eight in that NCAA tournament. This team, riding a 13-game winning streak, could go farther.

If the Longhorns reach the Final Four, though, they will have earned it. Texas is seeded No. 2 in the West, which may be the tournament's toughest bracket. Others with legitimate dreams of going to Atlanta include LSU, Louisiana Tech, Stanford, Minnesota and Ohio State. There are a couple of bracket busters as well in Wisconsin Green Bay and Arkansas.

No matter, the Longhorns are prepared and positioned to chase a second national title. Conradt deserves the credit for that.

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