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An Open Shot at Pac-10 Title

USC or UCLA could surprise Stanford in the women's conference tournament and earn an NCAA bid.

March 05, 2004|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — The 2003-04 women's college basketball season has been as wide open as any in the last 20 years. Five teams have held the No. 1 spot in the last nine weeks, and when the NCAA tournament begins later this month, eight to 10 teams will have a legitimate shot at becoming national champion.

The Pacific 10 Conference tournament, which begins here today, is expected to be just as wild. Top-seeded Stanford is favored to win the title and the automatic NCAA tournament bid that goes with it. But Stanford is not a lock for Monday's championship game.

"There are six or seven teams who could win this, and it would not surprise any of us," USC Coach Chris Gobrecht said. "The tournament has far more significance than ever before."

That's true for USC, seeded third, and UCLA, seeded fourth, and not only because both teams may need to reach the tournament championship game -- or win the title -- to get that precious NCAA bid. Both programs are trying to emerge from dry stretches.

It has been seven years since the Trojans (15-12) have won as many as 17 games in a season. The Bruins (16-11) won 18 games last year, but because of transfers and disappointing recruits, they were a combined 15-43 the two seasons before that.

"Because UCLA and USC have such name recognition, it would never be bad for them to be strong," said Nell Fortner, a former college, Olympic and WNBA coach who is now a television analyst. "They have a history in the women's game. For them to have strong programs can only be good."

UCLA's lone national championship in women's basketball came in 1978, when the Bruins won the Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women title. The roster included four-time All-American Ann Meyers, Anita Ortega and Denise Curry.

The NCAA took over the women's tournament in 1982. Since then, the Bruins have appeared seven times, the last time in 2000. Their best showing was in 1999, when they reached the West Regional final before losing to Louisiana Tech.

USC, which in 1976 became the first Division I school to offer basketball scholarships to women, won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1983 and 1984. Some of the players on those teams, including Pam and Paula McGee, Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper, went on to further success as players and coaches after college.

USC has appeared in 13 NCAA tournaments, the last one in 1997, when Florida defeated it in the Mideast Regional.

This weekend both teams are hoping to show their programs have recovered and are on the verge of returning to prominence.

"Those two years that were bad, I put out of my mind," said Coach Kathy Olivier, who is in her 11th season at UCLA. "Last year I thought we did a good job, even overachieved with the 18 wins. This year I think we have a lot of young talent. We weren't sure if they had a good mix of talent and leadership, but they are coming on strong."

Indeed, since the Jan. 23 overtime loss to Stanford, UCLA has won eight of its last 10, including Sunday's 68-64 thriller over USC. That victory put the Bruins into a three-way tie for third in the conference with USC and Arizona State.

Gobrecht has had a different road to travel. When she left Washington to take the Trojan job seven years ago, Gobrecht said she had to rebuild more than the team's talent base.

"USC had been living in superstar culture," Gobrecht said. "And that culture was such that the studs ran the ship. When you have the kind of superstardom like we did then, that covers your backside in a lot of ways; you can have loose ends in your program and survive.

"But I'm not sure USC reached a high level of consistent success they could have with the athletes we had. So I wanted to build a program with a mind-set and work ethic that sustains you year in and out."

Gobrecht said this season, while balancing four seniors and seven returning players with seven freshmen, the Trojans "have turned a corner. What we have not yet done is accelerate. It was a painful turn, but now we're right there."

The Trojans don't exactly come into the conference tournament on fire. USC has played .500 ball in its last 10 games, countering dazzling wins over Stanford and UC Santa Barbara with dumbfounding losses to Cal and Oregon State.

There are other reasons Olivier and Gobrecht need a good show.

Gobrecht has won more than 400 games in 25 years of coaching. But USC is scheduled to break ground on a new arena in August and plans to open the facility in 2006. Officials want to see more than the 1,000 fans USC averaged this season in that new facility. The pressure to have a winning women's team, as well as a winning men's team, will be strong.

For now Gobrecht, who will be in the final year of her contract next season, appears to have the support of the USC administration, although there have been no discussions about an extension.

"I definitely think we felt really encouraged by this season," said Lisa Love, a senior associate athletic director who oversees women's basketball at USC.

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