It was halftime of Thursday night’s NCAA West Regional women’s basketball game between USC and North Carolina. The Trojans were nursing a three-point lead.
The news filtered into the USC locker room that No. 15 Tennessee had upset No. 2 Georgia in the first game of the Mideast Regional. Some USC players began to whoop it up. Let Tennessee knock off Georgia. One less tough team to face at the Final Four.
Cheryl Miller frowned in that way she has--squinching her eyebrows so that they meet beneath the wrinkles on her forehead. “Hey,” Miller said to the USC team. “We’ve got business to do, yet. We’ve got to take care of North Carolina. Let’s go!”
The No. 3-ranked Trojans dispatched the Tar Heels in the second half, 84-70, and advanced to tonight’s final against Louisiana Tech at 7 p.m. in the Long Beach Arena.
Miller’s halftime exhortation illustrates the potential hazard for USC--looking ahead to the Final Four and looking behind to seek revenge for its loss earlier this season to Tech in Ruston, La.
Call it fatal vision. The Trojans (28-4) well remember the game Jan. 6 in which Miller, pulling down a defensive rebound in the first half, suffered a cut on her eyeball. She was taken out of the game then and came back to score only five points in the second half. The cut required four stitches.
The damage to the emotional spirit of the USC team was as serious. “It was a total nightmare,” USC Coach Linda Sharp said. “I’d just as soon forget it ever happened. We could not do anything right, and they could not do anything wrong.”
A review of the game calls for an adjustment to Sharp’s assessment: USC could not do anything . While the Techsters shot 70% from the field in the first half, the Trojans shot 20%. USC was outrebounded, 41-30. Miller, who was averaging 26 points, was held to 16.
“I don’t think Louisiana Tech knows our offense because they haven’t seen it,” Sharp said. “We didn’t run an offense. It’s terrible. I can’t stand watching the films.”
Just the same, Sharp watched the game film after Thursday night’s game and again Friday morning. What she saw were two teams that have changed, lots.
Fourth-ranked Tech is without Nora Lewis, its freshman forward who scored 22 points against USC. Lewis went out with a knee injury 15 games into the season, and her absence has contributed to what Tech Coach Leon Barmore calls “the strangest season we’ve ever had at Tech.”
Without Lewis, the Techsters (27-4) have relied upon Tori Harrison, a 6-foot 4-inch center. Harrison is the key to Tech’s deliberate style. She is averaging 16.4 points but was held to 10 in Tech’s win over Long Beach Thursday night.
Long Beach learned what had not been apparent to others--Louisiana Tech is not a one-woman team. Erica Westbrooks, a reserve forward, came off the bench and scored 18 points for Tech.
The other surprise for the 49ers was Kay Konerza. Konerza, the only senior on the Tech team, came into the game shooting only 28% from the field and averaging 4.5 points. Something clicked for her, and she made 9 of 13 shots.
“Believe me, that was the biggest single factor in the game,” Barmore said. “The blossoming of Kay and Tori Harrison has helped us. They have emerged as our leaders.”
Konerza and Harrison give Tech size at the posts, but the team can also shoot from the perimeter.
“Last time they didn’t hurt us as much inside,” Sharp said. “They don’t penetrate that much. But now they’ve got four good post players. We have three--really two.”
But USC now has freshman Cherie Nelson finding her form at center. Nelson didn’t win the starting job from JaMaiia Bond until halfway through the season; Sharp didn’t think she was ready.
The Nelson that Tech last saw played 24 minutes and scored only four points.
“Cherie Nelson has emerged as a fine player,” Barmore said. “Against us, she was ineffective. They tell me Rhonda Windham is coming back from her injury (knee surgery). They are just a different team.
“I can’t tell you what our game plan is. You can’t control Cheryl Miller--she’s just too good.”
Miller played Thursday night with a broken finger on her left hand but said it didn’t hinder her. Apparently it didn’t, since she scored 28 points and had 15 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 3 steals.
Windham and shooting guard Cynthia Cooper will be keys for USC. Tech will almost certainly try to slow USC into a half-court game. The Trojans need a fast tempo to start their break.
“Patience will be the key,” Sharp said. “If they put us in a half-court, quarter-court game, we need to be able to take our time.”