Out on the floor of the Los Angeles Sports Arena last Thursday night you could find a Lisa, a Teresa, a Paula, a Pamela, a Wanda, a Rhonda, an Amanda and a Yolanda. But before the game between the top-ranked Southern California women and No. 3 Georgia could come down with a terminal case of terminal a's—just when it cried out for a Janet or a Cheryl—up jumped:
•Janet Harris, the Lady Bulldogs' 6'3", 175-pound power forward and unchallenged queen of the thunderclap rebound. She ruled the paint, hauling down 15 rebounds and scoring 31 points.
•Cheryl Miller, USC's marvelous 6'3" sophomore forward, who ruled all else. Miller also scored 31 points, including USC's first eight after halftime. All told, she shot 13 for 17, grabbed six rebounds, blocked or altered half a dozen shots, stole several passes and dished off deftly to her mates along the front line, Paula and Pam McGee, as the Women of Troy beat Georgia 82-74 to serve notice that they're of a mind to hang on to their NCAA title. As for Miller, if there had been any lingering doubt that she is the finest female player in the land, forget it.
Less than a week before her brilliant performance against the Lady Dogs, a security guard had found Miller collapsed in a heap in the rain on a ramp outside the Sports Arena, unconscious. "I was running to practice because I didn't want to be late," Miller says, "and I just bent over to catch my breath. The next thing I knew—Twilight Zone. It was scary." Even scarier was the fact that this was the second time in two weeks that Miller had fainted. Over the ensuing days she visited St. Mary's Medical Center in Long Beach for a brain scan, Torrance Memorial Hospital for cardiological tests and L.A. Community Hospital for a neurological exam. All tests proved negative, and so the doctors concluded that Miller's problem was simply nutritional. Says Linda Sharp, the USC coach, "She's on a very tight schedule, and sometimes she just doesn't eat properly."
What's a mother to do? Not ground her, certainly. "She does what we need," Sharp says. "Grab a rebound, get a steal, penetrate when someone on the other team is in foul trouble, take a charge when we need the ball back." And the Women of Troy can hardly afford to lose another player from their ranks. They figured to have their entire championship starting lineup back this season and to be an overwhelming favorite to repeat. But when Point Guard Rhonda Windham tore up her right knee at the National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs last summer and Windham's running mate, Cynthia Cooper, became academically ineligible, Georgia assumed the No. 1 spot in several preseason Top 20 polls, including SI's.
Indeed, in its first few games Southern Cal was vulnerable. Only with Miller rejecting a shot at the buzzer was USC able to preserve an 81-79 defeat of Missouri, and a 16-footer by Pam McGee with five seconds left sent a game at Northwestern into overtime, USC finally prevailing, 67-65. Miller suffered her first fainting spell at a shootaround before that game, then shot 3 for 12 before fouling out.
For their part, the Lady Dogs, also unbeaten, came to L.A. having just snapped Texas' 34-game home-court win streak with a 67-61 victory. Georgia has four starters back from the team that lost to USC 81-57 in the NCAA semifinals last season, including Sports Festival MVP Guard Teresa Edwards, plus two impressive recruits, 6'2" Katrina (Tree) McClain and 6'1" Barbara Bootz. And then there was Harris, a home ec major who learned the game in a Chicago school yard playing against future DePaul stars Mark Aguirre and Skip Dillard. "If there's any player in the women's game who can intimidate with rebounding, it's Janet," says Georgia Coach Andy Landers.
But for all the support Harris got from frontcourt teammates Lisa O'Connor and Wanda Holloway, the Lady Dogs' big women were no match for Miller and the 6'3" McGee twins. USC's front line is not only big, but also unusually agile. In the Women of Troy's 81-66 defeat of No. 7 Tennessee on Dec. 8, the threesome by itself outscored the Lady Vols 69-66. "USC's front line is like Kentucky's," says UCLA women's Assistant Athletic Director Mike Sondheimer. He meant the Kentucky men. "Pam is like Melvin Turpin around the hoop," he says, "and Paula is the outside shooter and passer, like Sam Bowie. Miller is like Kenny Walker—explosive." Within a minute's span late in the first half against Georgia, Miller, Pam and sister Paula—who recently broke off her engagement to the National League Rookie of the Year, the Mets' Darryl Strawberry—each scored to stretch a six-point USC lead to 12. Georgia never recovered.
Nonetheless, the Lady Dogs have come a long way. When Landers arrived at Georgia in 1979 from Roane State, a junior college in Harriman, Tenn., Georgia had just completed a 6-19 season. The players had boycotted several games because they hadn't gotten along with their coach, Carolyn Lehr, and once the trainer was forced to step in and run the team. In six seasons the Georgia women had gone 37-85, including an inglorious 1-13 against colleges named Berry, Erskine. Shorter and Winthrop. "We always wanted to play Georgia just before the state tournament," says Lady Dog Assistant Coach Carol Higginbottom, who played at Valdosta (Ga.) State. "We knew we'd have an easy win."
Landers once turned down an interview for the Georgia job because the administration wanted him to teach 15 hours of phys ed classes per week in addition to coaching the team. But when Georgia made the commitment to hire him full time. Landers signed on. He has hawked the program from border to border, and far enough afield to nab Harris, who was the top post prospect in the nation two seasons ago at John Marshall High in Chicago. Landers does it with catchy promotional T shirts and high-minded motivational slogans, WE DO THE IMPOSSIBLE ANYTIME, ANYPLACE, ANYWHERE is painted on the team's locker-room wall in Athens. Some people consider the team's nickname a problem—the common word for a female canine has a less decorous connotation—but not Landers. "Go anywhere in this state and say 'Dawg,' and you get identity, tradition and respect," he says.
Georgia planned to slap a snarling woman-to-woman press and a 1-3-1 half-court trap on USC. Both tactics had worked at Texas, where the Longhorns had led by 12 in the second half before the Lady Dogs began throwing bodies at them. "They're so awesome physically and have so much depth," says Texas Coach Jody Conradt. "It was the first time I've gone into a game hoping another team's starters wouldn't get in foul trouble. I really feared the people on their bench were better."
But the Women of Troy had seen nothing but presses in their first six games, and Windham's and Cooper's understudies—freshman Amy Alkek and senior Juliette Robinson, respectively—have developed poise in the face of extended-court defenses. What's more, Miller has learned to circle back to help bring the ball up, and no one is quick enough to stay with her. "My role as a ball handler has created more offense for me," she says. "I can do pretty much what I want in the open court." Whenever Georgia tried a press, USC would sputter for a possession or two, but never stall. Said Landers, "Our pressure was good—until Miller got the basketball."
Some wonder how Miller, who weighs but 150 pounds, can get any better. "First her outside shot needed improvement, but she did that this summer," says Sharp. "What concerns me now is, she's got all that jumping ability and quickness, but when she goes into a crowd, she doesn't maintain her balance coming down. I'd like to see her concentrate on that—for her own safety."
And she might pay more attention to her diet. "Sometimes I just don't have the desire to eat," Miller says. "I suppose that would be a blessing for other people." She beat Georgia on Japanese noodles and root beer.
Good news for USC is that Cooper is due back this week, but Windham, Miller's roommate, won't be suiting up at all this season. Still, there's no reason why she can't make a valuable contribution. "Rhonda," Miller reports, "can really cook."