Sheryl Swoopes has a last name that can sound like a lot of other words when bellowed by thousands of people. All of those fans dressed in red and forming pistols with their hands last weekend at the women's Final Four in Atlanta's Omni arena could have been yelling "Shoot." Or maybe they were screaming "Cool" or "Groove" or "Smooth," all of which describe the play of Swoopes, Texas Tech's 6-foot senior forward. Or maybe they were just yelling "Two." That's how many days it took for Swoopes and her band of Lady Raiders to go from rumor to ruler of the NCAA women's basketball world. Before a national TV audience and two sellout crowds of more than 16,000, Swoopes showed why her name has become synonymous with hoops.
Her 31-point, 11-rebound performance against Vanderbilt in a 60-46 semifinal win on Saturday was a mere teaser for her 47-point spectacle in a thrilling 84-82 victory over Ohio State for the national championship on Sunday. On a weekend that introduced each semifinalist to its first Final Four and featured the nation's best coach (Vivian Stringer of Iowa) and best freshman (Katie Smith of Ohio State), it was the nation's best player, in her final collegiate game, who would make the most lasting impression.
Swoopes's method of domination was subtle. She moved regally and was barely noticeable until she had the ball in her hands. And then, in a flash, the ball was doing something productive, like finding a Lady Raider for an open shot or, more often, swishing through the net. "When I'm shooting well, it's like the basket is as big as this table," Swoopes said, referring to a table for six. "I can't seem to miss."
Swoopes's 47 points on Sunday came from everywhere: three-point range (four of six), the foul line (11 for 11), the baseline, the paint and even behind the backboard. Her 47 points were the most ever scored in an NCAA basketball championship game, women's or men's; the old mark of 44 was set by UCLA's Bill Walton in 1973. "You don't appreciate Sheryl Swoopes until you have to stop her," said Buckeye coach Nancy Darsch after the final. "We had made some plans to contain her. We wanted to rotate people on her, which we did. We tried trapping in a 2-3 zone, which we've never done before for an individual. We even called it '22' since that's her number. But she answered everything we tried."
The Buckeyes might find solace in the fact that Swoopes lit up Texas for 53 points in the Southwest Conference tournament championship game last month, breaking the Dallas Reunion Arena record of 50 shared by Larry Bird and Bernard King. In Atlanta, when she wasn't busy demoralizing defenses, she was busy collecting accolades. There were so many festivities in her honor that her mother, Louise, who had left the state of Texas for the first time and driven 19 hours with two of Sheryl's three brothers to be at the Final Four, didn't get to see much more of Atlanta than the interiors of banquet rooms. There were two player-of-the-year functions, a photo session for All-Americas, plus numerous press conferences. "It is such an honor and a thrill to be here," said Louise, "but I was kind of hoping to get some shopping done."
After all, Swoopes's hoops exploits are hardly news in west Texas. A Texas player of the year at Brownfield High and a national player of the year at South Plains College, in Levelland, Swoopes has been collecting honors for years. Coming out of high school she accepted a scholarship to the University of Texas, but she became homesick after three days in Austin and left. She has since stuck close to home, and two years ago she began to lead coach Marsha Sharp's already solid program out of the shadow of the Lady Longhorns. The Lady Raiders, all but one of whom hail from small towns in west Texas, have now won back-to-back Southwest Conference titles. "I can't tell you what Sheryl has meant to this program," says Sharp. "She'll be a legend in women's basketball, but not just because of her play. She has a charisma that the crowd loves. You never doubt that she is a team player."
Ask Swoopes about herself and you're going to hear about her teammates. "I'm surrounded by such great players that I just try my best to be better than they are," she says. "All this Sheryl Swoopes uproar draws attention away from my teammates, especially Krista Kirkland, who deserves more attention."
Kirkland, a senior forward from Spearman, Texas, got the attention of the Commodores on Saturday with 14 points, seven rebounds and tenacious defense. Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster had no illusions about shutting down Swoopes, who had averaged 32.5 points a game in the tournament. He also knew it would be a mistake to underestimate the rest of the Lady Raiders, because the team led the nation in field goal percentage (.521) this season. What he didn't expect was an abysmal day of shooting from his perimeter aces, Shelley Jarrard and Julie Powell, who were just two for 15 on three-point attempts. With their outside game failing, the Commodores, who had been ranked No. 1 most of the season, were forced to rely almost exclusively on 6'10" junior center Heidi Gillingham for its offense.
"I can't remember a time when we've struggled so much with our perimeter shooting," said Gillingham, who had 24 of her team's 46 points and 12 of its 27 rebounds while fending off hordes of Lady Raiders in the paint.
"There was no rhyme or rhythm to our offense today," said Foster. "We were hesitant, and they were quick." While everyone searched for explanations for the hapless performance—Final Four jitters?—Gillingham pointed out what everyone seemed to be overlooking. "How about Tech's defense?" she said. The Commodores weren't the only ones who couldn't figure out Tech. A bookie in Las Vegas issued the first-ever betting line on a women's Final Four and made Vanderbilt a four-point favorite in the semis.
A better bet now is that Swoopes's performance could bring women's basketball the larger audience it has been seeking. But even though some people at The Omni were jokingly touting Swoopes as an NBA lottery pick, the sad fact remains that because there is no professional basketball league for women in the U.S., Sheryl Swoopes and others who played in Atlanta will now disappear from view. Swoopes, though, hopes to reappear in three years as a member of the U.S. Olympic team. For now, she realizes that her professional basketball opportunities are in Europe. "I don't like the idea of leaving the States," she says, "but it'll give me more international experience."
And what of Louise Swoopes, Sheryl's most faithful fan for the last 22 years? "Sheryl doesn't know this yet," says Louise, "but I'm coming with her."