COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENTS : USC Falls Short in Chase for Title : Women: Louisiana Tech uses zone press to overcome two seven-point deficits in 75-66 victory.


They walked off the court, beaten but unbowed. USC's women's basketball team had just had its season ended in a 75-66 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Mideast Regional final.

While exuberant Louisiana Tech players cried, hugged and cut down nets, USC's players filed off the court and entered a cold linoleum hallway leading to their locker room.

All eyes were straight ahead. There were no tears. USC Coach Cheryl Miller followed her team, eyes straight ahead. For the Pac-10 champions, there would be no trip to the women's Final Four for their rookie coach.

And for 6-5 senior Lisa Leslie, her last chance at a Final Four appearance had slipped away.

Instead, USC, before 4,704, finished 26-4 on the season, losing to a team that has now won 24 in a row and meets Alabama Saturday in Richmond, Va.

Moments later, Louisiana Tech Coach Leon Barmore came up the same hallway, gleefully dribbling the game ball.

Barmore wondered how much his Lady Techsters (30-3) will have left in Richmond. Barmore's players had already been extended here at Bud Walton Arena with a 71-68 upset of the nation's top-ranked team, Tennessee.

He praised his team's second-half zone press, which erased a 37-34 USC halftime lead and two seven-point USC leads early in the second half.

"The Tennessee game took a lot out of us, and in the first half we were standing around, not much movement," he said.

"But I'm drained. I'm amazed at what my team did the last couple days. I love these players. But I had to get after 'em a bit at halftime. They know I love 'em, but they know I can kick 'em in the butt if I have to, too."

"This was really something--what these kids did was like fighting Mike Tyson on Thursday and Rocky Marciano on Saturday."

Miller, who watched Louisiana Tech wreck Tennessee with superior team speed, managed to negate that advantage by taking away its transition game. But she also watched her team get outrebounded, particularly in the decisive final 10 minutes.

"We got them in a half-court game, which is what we wanted, but we needed much better rebounding," she said. "And we had enough good shots to win, but they didn't drop for us."

Miller's team had won seven in a row until Saturday, including three NCAA tournament games, but Tech exposed several USC weaknesses, indicating the direction Miller must head in the recruiting season.

In addition to replacing Leslie, Miller must find two sure-handed guards and a three-point shooter. Senior Nicky McCrimmon was one of the nation's best point guards this year, but it was obvious Saturday that she had little help in the backcourt.

The Trojans committed 20 turnovers to Louisiana Tech's seven, and were only one for nine from three-point range.

Late in the first half and early after halftime, USC seemed Richmond-bound.

The Trojans scored the last six points of the first half, then had 41-34 and 43-36 leads, thanks to Leslie and McCrimmon.

But later, a remarkable 18-foot fadeaway jump shot by Tech's Amy Brown with 11:30 to go and her subsequent free throw gave Tech a lead, 55-54, it never relinquished.

After Brown's score, the Lady Techsters had nursed a slim lead until tournament MVP Debra Williams (26 points) hit three jump shots within four minutes, including a three-pointer.

With 5:48 to go, USC was looking at a 68-61 deficit and the Trojans scored only one basket in the final three minutes.

Afterward, Barmore saluted Miller . . . . and took a slight rip at Leslie. Friday, Barmore had said at a news conference that Leslie was college basketball's best woman post player in the last dozen years.

"Leslie is a fine player, but she's not in the same league with Cheryl Miller at effort and gettin' after it," he said.

"I thought our post players did a great job tonight against her."

Leslie's final game produced 24 points, 10 rebounds, five blocked shots and two assists. Miller got four points from her starting guards, while Barmore got 42, 16 from Pam Thomas in addition to Williams' 26.

Williams and Thomas both made the all-tournament team, along with Leslie, USC's Tina Thompson and Tennessee's Nicki McCray.

Afterward, Miller said it had been an educational season.

"As a coach, this was a learning experience. I'm not upset with my players, they had a hell of a year. We have a lot to draw on for next season."

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