REBELS WITH A CAUSE
Before Mississippi upset third-ranked Kentucky 73-69 in Oxford
last Saturday, Rebels coach Rob Evans told his players this:
"After you've won the game, I want you to tell the press this is
not a fluke. You're for real." And so, as a Tad Smith Coliseum
sellout crowd of 8,195 stormed the floor in the aftermath of the
program's most important victory since Ole Miss won the SEC
Tournament in 1981, the players announced their arrival to the
world. "This proves Ole Miss is not a fluke," said junior guard
Joezon Darby. "Our program is for real. We are going to make a
stand in the NCAAs."
Such talk has been hard-earned for the 11-3 Rebels, whose win
over Kentucky, following victories over Arkansas and Georgia,
launched them to No. 20 in the AP poll, the first time the
school has ever been in the Top 25. When Evans, 50, took over in
1992 after 24 years as an assistant coach at New Mexico State,
Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, Ole Miss was an established SEC
doormat. The Rebels had made only one NCAA appearance (a
first-round loss in '81), and they had only two winning seasons
in the previous 13. When facing Mississippi, says Arkansas coach
Nolan Richardson, "one way or another you had a chance to win,
and those chances were about 90 percent. Those chances have
diminished greatly since Rob took over."
Dragging Ole Miss out of its entrenched losing attitude has been
"incredibly tough," says Evans, the first black basketball coach
at Oxford. "When I got here, we didn't have SEC-caliber players,
and the fan support was unbelievably down. And as far as
recruiting, we couldn't get into the home of anybody around here
who was any good." Indeed, such Mississippi high school
standouts as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Erick Dampier, Othella
Harrington, Ronnie Henderson and Antonio McDyess went elsewhere
to become college stars in recent years, and Ole Miss has only
two homegrown players on its current roster.
Evans, however, has pulled together a team of solid,
defense-minded athletes, most notably junior forward Ansu Sesay
of Houston, a 6'9" leaper with some pro potential, and 6'7"
junior forward Anthony Boone of West Helena, Ark., a tough
defender in the low post who in the last two years has undergone
surgery for a torn ACL in each knee. Evans should have a good
eye for athletes; he was once courted by teams in three
professional sports. Coming out of Hobbs (N.Mex.) High in 1964,
he was drafted by the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros), but he
opted to attend New Mexico State on a basketball scholarship.
After college he was drafted by the ABA's Dallas Chaparrals but
ended up signing with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent
despite never having played football in college.
Evans didn't catch on with the Raiders, though, and went
straight into coaching. After 29 years it seems that he, like
the Ole Miss program, has finally arrived.
LADY MONARCHS RULE
Huge black-and-white action photos of such former Old Dominion
greats as Nancy Lieberman, Inge Nissen and Anne Donovan grace
the walls of the school's home court in Norfolk, Va. They're
reminders of the golden years between 1979 and '85, when the
Lady Monarchs won three national titles. But they're also
emblematic of why ODU fell from the top over the ensuing decade,
ceding the championship trophy to big state schools with more
generous budgets and gaudier facilities. After all, pictures
would just get lost in the dim recesses of 25,000-seat
Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee's home court, or the
16,000-seat Hartford Civic Center, where Connecticut sometimes
Only in a glorified high school gym like the ODU Fieldhouse
could Old Dominion's pantheon peer down at the action along with
4,855 fans, and if those icons could alter their miens, they
would surely crack a smile, for the Lady Monarchs are
threatening again to be rulers of all of distaff hoops. On Dec.
17 they thumped then No. 1 Stanford 83-66, and on Jan. 7 they
scored an 83-72 win over defending national champion Tennessee.
With Sunday's 79-36 defeat of William and Mary, Old Dominion ran
its record to 13-1 and stands No. 2 in the AP poll.
Coach Wendy Larry served as an assistant on former coach
Marianne Stanley's staff for two of those three national titles,
so she had a hand in Old Dominion's hallowed past. But to bring
about the Lady Monarchs' return to prominence, she has relied on
help that comes far from Norfolk. While playing pro ball in
Europe in 1990, Larry's assistant coach, Allison Greene, took
note of a 16-year-old starter for Portugal's national team, a
dervish of a point guard named Ticha Penicheiro. Two seasons ago
Larry signed both the 5'11" Penicheiro and 6'5" forward Clarisse
Machanguana, a native of Mozambique and a teammate on
Penicheiro's Portuguese club team. Last season another
Portuguese signed on: 6'1" Mery Andrade, who is a fiery
Penicheiro is the team's soul. Against Stanford she had 16
points and 10 assists. Against the Lady Vols, with Old Dominion
down 47-37 early in the second half, she capped an 18-2 run by
stitching together a bank shot, a steal and a layup on her way
to a career-high 25 points.
The magnitude of that victory was not lost on Larry. "These
seniors had never beaten Tennessee," she said, then paused to
think about that before adding, "Lord have mercy, we hadn't
beaten Tennessee in something like 14 years, so it's a lot of
seniors who haven't beaten Tennessee."
HAPPY NEW YEAR
The Maryland players weren't bothered when ACC beat writers, in
their annual preseason poll, picked the Terrapins to finish
eighth in the league this season. Those writers, after all, had
been wrong before--like last year, for instance, when they
picked the Terps to finish first, and Maryland struggled to a
fourth-place tie. Nor were the players particularly disturbed on
Jan. 8 when they trailed 13th-ranked North Carolina by 22 with
14:24 to play. During a timeout Terps coach Gary Williams urged
his team to focus on whittling the Tar Heels' lead to 15 points.
"Forget that," said Maryland sophomore point guard Terrell
Stokes. "We're going to win." And they did, proceeding to
outscore North Carolina 41-9 en route to an 85-75 upset in the
Dean Dome. It was at once the greatest comeback and the worst
collapse in the respective schools' histories. "It was like the
Twilight Zone," Williams says. "You saw it happening, but you
were thinking, This isn't really happening."
Few teams are making more good things happen than Maryland.
After beating North Carolina State 68-59 on Sunday, the Terps
are ranked 11th in this week's AP poll; share the ACC lead, at
4-0, with Wake Forest; and, with a 14-1 record, are off to their
best start in 24 years.
The player most responsible for this impressive start is 6'6"
senior forward Keith Booth, who at week's end was averaging 20.0
points and 7.5 rebounds, in addition to leading a host of
overachieving underclassmen. But perhaps just as important is
the addition by subtraction brought on by the loss of last
year's seniors, Exree Hipp, Johnny Rhodes, Duane Simpkins and
Mario Lucas. "This year's team gets an A in chemistry," says
sophomore swingman Laron Profit, the Terps' second-leading
scorer with a 12.8 average. And what grade did last year's team
get? "Incomplete. We didn't even attend that class." Things got
so bad last season that Lucas, ticked off by a lack of playing
time, quit the team after a frustrating performance, scrawling
GOOD LUCK, FELLAS on a blackboard before bolting out of the
locker room. (A teammate later talked him out of quitting.)
"That's the difference between last year's team and this
year's," says Booth. "Guys on this team know their roles, and
everybody's main objective is to win. That's why we've been
successful this year."