MUSIC CITY MADNESS
It was certainly noteworthy that the meeting between No. 1 Vanderbilt and No. 2 Tennessee last Saturday night in Nashville was the first game in women's basketball history to be sold out weeks in advance. It was also noteworthy that the game was the first matchup between a women's No. 1 and No. 2 from the same state. But what really made this a milestone was the weeks of magnificently absurd hype that is usually reserved for important men's games. As far as we know. Saturday's 73-68 Tennessee win marked the first time that:
•NBA and NFL stars weighed in with predictions on a women's basketball game. The Phoenix Suns' Charles Barkley, a pal of Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster's, picked the Commodores, while Philadelphia Eagle All-Pro Reggie White, a former Tennessee defensive lineman, stuck by the Lady Vols.
•A vice-president of the U.S. turned his attention to a women's basketball game. Al Gore, an alumnus of Vanderbilt Law School, told The Tennessean, "It's not surprising that the top two ranked women's basketball teams are from Tennessee."
•More than 1,000 people were turned away from a women's basketball game. That number included numerous . fans with general admission tickets, one of whom was chancellor Joe B. Wyatt of homestanding Vanderbilt, who were denied entry into Memorial Gym because it was already full to its capacity of 15,317.
The game was a statewide phenomenon. Tennessee was No. 1 until it lost to Maryland on Dec. 30 and Vanderbilt took over the top spot. Busloads of fans from across Tennessee rolled into Nashville, including a caravan ferrying about 1,000 people from Shelbyville (pop. 14,000), the hometown of Vanderbilt forward Misty Lamb and Tennessee forward Michelle Johnson and guard Tiffany Woosley. Before Saturday the Commodores' average home attendance had been 3,542, and that figure included children under five who entered free. While that policy might someday pay dividends for women's basketball, on Saturday it meant that there were more people admitted to Memorial Gym than there were seats. In fact, before the game an announcement was made asking spectators to scoot closer together in the bleachers so more people could squeeze into the arena. Even with this togetherness, some fans were left with their noses pressed against the glass.
"It was just another game," said Lamb afterward. Then she paused and added. "That the fans went crazy over."
"We're talking about two things here. We're talking about a basketball game and an event," said Foster before the game. The glorious result for women's basketball was that the game and the event were worthy of each other. The Lady Vols' thrilling victory returned them to the top spot in the rankings and gave their sport a major boost. "That was a terrific environment for both teams, for women's basketball," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "What made it exciting was the crowd. I'd love to play in that environment every night."
The Commodores and the Lady Vols treated the crowd to as good a show as any it could have found across town at the Grand Ole Opry. Neither team led by more than five points during the last 18 minutes of the game, and Tennessee held a lead of only 69-68 with 10 seconds left, when Vanderbilt point guard Rhonda Blades missed the first free throw of a one-and-one. The Lady Vols' Woosley then sank four free throws, set up by a questionable intentional foul call, to hold off the Commodores.
Nearly everyone involved in women's basketball acknowledges that much of the public still needs to be sold on the sport, and every game that gets noticed is a chance to win converts. "It's almost more important to play well [than to win]," said Heidi Gillingham, Vanderbilt's center, before Saturday's game. "With so many fans, many of whom are testing out women's basketball to see if they like it, we need to show them the high level at which women can play. We need to convince them they should come back."
But before people can be convinced, they have to sec a game, and it was a shame that potential fans around the country didn't get a chance to watch these teams play. Only WSMV in Nashville televised the game. (Memo to ESPN, SportsChannel and Raycom: It was a terrific game. You should've been there.)
The victory was the 11th straight for the 18-1 Lady Vols, who arc on such a roll that they can leap seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Take junior guard Nikki Caldwell, for instance. Five days before the game Caldwell had a cardiac catheterization—a procedure in which a wire is inserted into the heart—to correct a rapid heartbeat. On Saturday she came off the bench to give Tennessee 16 solid minutes.
Even though the Commodores lost, it has still been a great year to be a Vanderbilt basketball fan. Through Sunday the women were 17-1, and the 12th-ranked men were 16-3, including a victory on Jan. 13 over then No. 1 Kentucky. Foster, a Philadelphia native, and men's coach Eddie Fogler, who was born in Brooklyn, have raised the Commodores' basketball profile higher than it has been in years.
Foster and Fogler, who often watch game tapes together and exchange ideas, set the tone for a close relationship between their teams. The Vanderbilt men hurried back to Nashville from their 73-70 win at Auburn Saturday afternoon to be on hand for the women's game. "At a lot of schools men's and women's teams go their own ways," says Commodore guard Billy McCaffrey, a transfer from Duke. "Here that's not the case, because of a lot of mutual respect."
Shooting is the strength of the women's team. At week's end they led the SEC in three-point shooting, and Gillingham, a junior, was shooting 66%. The 6'10" Gillingham, whose younger sister, Gwendolyn, is a 6'7" center for North Carolina and whose older sister, Heather, is six-feet tall and a former high-fashion model, moves with uncommon grace for someone so tall. She had seven blocked shots, 14 points and nine rebounds against Tennessee, not bad for someone who wasn't always crazy about basketball. "In my freshman year I just wanted—who was the guy who invented basketball, Naismith?—to wring Naismith's neck for even making a sport where people would expect me to excel," Gillingham says.
But she has excelled. Gillingham set the SEC record with 87 blocked shots as a freshman, added 131 as a sophomore and had 62 so far this season. "Heidi has tremendously high standards," Foster says. "She asks a great deal of herself."
Foster, too, has high standards. Before coming to Vanderbilt last season, he coached the women's team at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia for 13 years. It was there that he became friends with the coaches and players from the area, including former 76er players Barkley, Maurice Cheeks and Julius Erving and ex-Sixer coach Chuck Daly. Foster has stayed in touch with them, sometimes calling on them to be guests on his weekly radio show. He also instructs his players to use NBA players as models, having Gillingham study Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's post-up moves or Blades practice John Stockton's change of direction.
Foster looks everywhere for new ideas. He carried Vanderbilt football coach Gerry DiNardo's headset cords on the sideline last fall in hopes, he says, of "learning how those people communicate under stress. I wanted to see if there was anything I could apply to my coaching."
In part, Foster says, because he has a retarded brother and sister, he is impatient with people who don't make the most of their talents. He's also impatient with the pace of the growth of women's basketball. "This does not have to be a one-time phenomenon," he said of the fervor surrounding last week's game. "This can be a common occurrence."
In other news from Nashville: Five days before Vanderbilt and Tennessee met there, Memorial Gym was the site of another game between high-ranked teams from Tennessee. David Lipscomb, No. 5 in Division I of the NAIA, beat sixth-ranked Belmont 100-72.
The two schools arc less than two miles apart on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, and each has a claim to fame. Lipscomb's is 6'6" junior center John Pierce, who at week's end led the NAIA in scoring (33.0 points a game) and field goal percentage (69.6). He had 36 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists against Belmont. There is something of a history of high-scoring centers at Lipscomb. Before Pierce arrived, the center was Philip Hutcheson, college basketball's alltime leading scorer, who had 4,106 points in his career, from 1986 to 1990.
The usual centers of attention at Belmont games are country singers Trisha Yearwood, a Belmont alumna, or Vince Gill, a close friend of Rebel coach Rick Byrd's. Watch any Gill music video and you'll probably see some reference to the school—a letter jacket or sweater or a baseball cap. In fact, Byrd appears in Gill's recent video, Don't Let Our Love Start Slipping Away.
Last week was a tough one for Gill. Not only did his Rebels lose to Lipscomb, but also he was one of the 1,000-plus fans told there was no room in Memorial Gym before the Vanderbilt-Tennessee women's game. Gill did get in eventually, and he sari" the national anthem.
NO. 1 WITH A BULLET
North Carolina's chance to become the fifth team this season to be ranked No. 1 was buried in the rubble of an 88-62 loss to Wake Forest on Saturday. But maybe the Tar Heels should thank the Demon Deacons: With the exception of last season, when Duke was ranked No. 1 all season and won the national championship, no team in the last decade with the top ranking during the regular season has gone on to win the NCAA tournament.
There have been years in which a team has been ranked No. 1 during all or most of the regular season only to stumble in the tournament, the way UNLV did in 1990-91, when it lost to Duke in the national semifinals, or the way North Carolina did in '83-84, when it lost to Indiana in the East Regional semifinals. This season shapes up to be more like '87-88 or '88-89, when several teams rotated through the top spot only to have a dark horse emerge as champion.
In 1987-88 Syracuse, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arizona and Temple all spent time at the top, but Danny Manning led Kansas to the championship. The following year Duke, Illinois, Oklahoma and Arizona were each No. 1 for a time, but Steve Fisher replaced Bill Frieder as Michigan coach just before the tournament and led the Wolverines to the title.
So what does all this mean? Maybe it indicates that when no team can hold on to the top spot for long, the tournament field is vulnerable to a team led by a great player with a hot hand, or a talented team that doesn't jell until the end of the season.
It also means that if recent form holds, Michigan, Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, each on top sometime this season, and the current No. 1, Indiana, could be in trouble come March.
At week's end the best record in Division I belonged to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Panthers were 18-1; their loss was to Utah and their most impressive win was over Wisconsin.... Senior guard Bill Elliott of Mid America Nazarene College, an NAIA school in Olathe, Kans., set the record for career three-pointers when he made five in a 76-74 loss to Baker. That gave him a total of 433.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Wake Forest's Randolph Childress, a sophomore guard, scored 19 points in the Deacons' 75-73 upset of No. 15 Virginia and 27 in their 88-62 upset of No. 3 North Carolina.
Teresa Jackson, a senior forward at UNLV, contributed 49 points, 15 rebounds and six steals as the Lady Rebels beat Long Beach State 94-67 and UC Santa Barbara 89-51.
Senior center Mark Wragge of Doane College in Crete, Neb., averaged 39.0 points and 10 rebounds, and shot 75.6% in NAIA wins over Concordia and Hastings.