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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENTS

A Chance for Standout to Step Up

Stanford's Nicole Powell is asked to add one more component to her impressive repertoire: leading her team to the NCAA Final Four.

March 17, 2004|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

A few players in the women's NCAA tournament are targets -- Connecticut's Diana Taurasi, Duke's Alana Beard, Houston's Chandi Jones, and Kansas State's Nicole Oholde. They are players whose performances are key to their teams' hopes and success.

No one, though, is wearing a bigger bull's-eye this year than Stanford's Nicole Powell.

A two-time Pacific 10 Conference player of the year, the 6-foot-2 guard-forward is also expected to become Stanford's first three-time All-American in women's basketball. She is also the first Cardinal woman who has at least 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists.

"That's a very unique combination," says Stanford assistant coach Amy Tucker. "You can have a great guard, but they usually don't have the rebounds. Great post players don't usually have the assists. We've had great guards and great post players, but that combination is truly amazing.

"She is as talented as any player we've had here, as talented as Val Whiting, Jennifer Azzi or Kate Starbird."

You wait for the qualifier.

"Her teams she's played on have not had the same success as those players, who took their team to a Final Four," Tucker continues. "That's something Nicole has not done."

Ka-pow!

For Powell, a senior, the mission is clear when the sixth-seeded Cardinal begin tournament play Saturday against 11th-seeded Missouri in Tempe, Ariz.

She will try to lift Stanford to heights not reached since 1997 -- the Final Four. If the Cardinal doesn't get there, Powell's legacy will have a gaping hole.

She understands that but is prepared for the possibility of falling short again.

"Yeah, I would have liked to have more wins and get further in the NCAA tournament and all that," Powell said. "But I feel you can only do what you can do, give it your best and hope things will fall in place. I feel satisfied with what I've tried to do."

Asked when she had come to terms with those feelings, Powell replied, "Probably not until last year. Probably more so now. I have been thinking about it more because people have been asking the question."

No one questions the quality of Powell's play. She averaged 20 points and 11.1 rebounds in helping the 24-6 Cardinal win the Pac-10 regular season and tournament championships. And she did it playing point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward.

"She can do things that other people flat-out can't do," Coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I just think that Nicole is really capable of doing anything she puts her mind to."

But the one "great player" characteristic that has eluded her is making the players around her better, like Taurasi (two NCAA titles) at Connecticut or Beard (three Final Fours) at Duke do.

"I think the challenge is out there that, if you have great physical talent, to also be a leader on the team -- especially if you're playing with the ball in your hands a lot," VanDerveer said.

"It's having a basketball maturity of knowing what your team needs all the time on the floor -- I call it 'staying with things' -- and not getting discouraged or frustrated. I call it putting your team on your back. To me that's what great players do."

That's the kind of pressure Powell will be under in this tournament. She accepts that. But she wants an ending different from the last three Cardinal seasons, when the furthest Stanford could go was the Elite Eight in 2002.

"I want us to achieve the level of success that we're destined for," Powell said.

*

VanDerveer, Tucker and Powell's teammates do not hold Powell solely accountable for the Cardinal's previous inability to go deeper into the tournament.

"I think the health of other players has dictated a lot of her career here," VanDerveer said. "And to Nicole's credit, she plays whatever position we need her to play. She's a very versatile player and a very smart player....

"And also, when you look at some of the other great players out there, they have a lot of talent around them. Nicole hasn't had as much athleticism around her as Alana Beard or Diana Taurasi. So the numbers she's posting and the things she's doing, she's doing on her own. That's not discrediting our players, but there is more athleticism around those other players. In some ways, we have to really work for our points."

Junior forward Sebnem Kimyacioglu said the team wanted to remove the underachiever label currently stuck on Stanford.

"We think about it as having been a better team than we've shown in past tournaments," Kimyacioglu said. "We're trying to come out in each game being strong, with the same desire, and trying to execute things well, one game at a time. Sometimes you do look past games; I don't think we did that necessarily, but maybe we did. Now we try not to think about that stuff, but what we can focus on this year."

Reaching the Final Four might also clear up any remaining questions the WNBA has about Powell's abilities or moxie. Some had projected her as the third pick in the April draft behind Taurasi and Beard.

But scouts aren't uniform in that belief.

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