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Pot Boiler After Purdue's top scorer was felled by injury, her best friend took charge and carried the Boilermakers to victory over Duke in a melodrama-rich NCAA final

April 05, 1999
April 05, 1999

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April 5, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Pot Boiler After Purdue's top scorer was felled by injury, her best friend took charge and carried the Boilermakers to victory over Duke in a melodrama-rich NCAA final

This was not the finale Stephanie White-McCarty had imagined for
herself and her best friend, Ukari Figgs. Oh, she had pictured
the two of them in Purdue uniforms in the NCAA championship
game; that was a vision that had sustained the backcourtmates
through their first two tumultuous seasons in West Lafayette,
Ind. She just hadn't seen herself landing on a Duke player's
foot with four minutes left in that game and, for the first time
in her career, as her father, Kevin, would note afterward,
"falling down and staying down."

This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue

Who could have foreseen that? An Indiana high school legend from
West Lebanon (pop. 760), who in her home state is often
mentioned in the same breath as Larry Bird and Bob Knight,
White-McCarty was closing in on the perfect climax of her career
as a Boilermaker. After surviving a team meltdown following her
freshman season and playing for four years in the shadow of
Tennessee's All-Everything forward Chamique Holdsclaw,
White-McCarty had finally earned All-America honors and a shot
at the national title. Her last game was not supposed to end
with her on a San Jose Arena bench, biting her lip against the
pain of a severely sprained left ankle while Figgs and the other
Purdue players did all the work. Clutching the hands of guard
Tiffany Young and assistant coach Kerry Cremeans, White-McCarty
implored them to give her a Willis Reed moment. "Let me back in.
I gotta go back in," she said, fighting back tears. If nothing
else, she assured them, "I can make my free throws!"

So could her teammates. Led by Figgs, who hit each of her six
freebies, the Boilermakers went 15 for 17 from the line in the
last 3:49 to turn what had been a 47-42 lead when White-McCarty
was helped off the court into a 62-45 victory. "From the moment
Steph went down, it was like six against five out there," said
Cremeans. "Ukari was not going to let us lose."

While keeping an eye on her friend on the bench, Figgs finished
with 18 points--all in the second half. Unable to hit from the
outside, she made up her mind to take the attack to the Blue
Devils, fiercely penetrating the lane to help Purdue go on a
23-9 run after intermission. Figgs's forays earned her the Final
Four's Most Outstanding Player Award. "She stepped up huge, and
everyone rallied behind her," said White-McCarty afterward.
"This isn't the way I had pictured it, but it's a great feeling."

No one had pictured this game unfolding the way it did,
particularly in the first half, an ugly 20 minutes of misfires
and miscues that ended with Duke leading 22-17, the lowest
scoring half in championship-game history. But then, the final
had been anticipated as much for its subplots as for the promise
of a tight, well-played game between two senior-led teams.

Subplot No. 1 was the mere presence of the upstart Blue Devils,
whose 69-63 toppling of heavily favored Tennessee in the East
Regional final in Greensboro, N.C., on March 22 had made Duke
just the second Division I school to have its men's and women's
teams reach the Final Four in the same year. (Georgia was the
first, in 1983, but both teams lost in the semis.) Though the
Blue Devils' conquest of the Lady Volunteers--which ruined
Tennessee's quest for a fourth consecutive title--ranked among
the biggest shockers ever in the women's game, Duke refused to
see it that way. "We feel like we belong here," said
seventh-year coach Gail Goestenkors (whose last name, almost as
difficult to spell and pronounce as Krzyzewski, has turned her
into Coach G). "We've been visualizing this from Day One."

Indeed, before every practice this season, the Blue Devils had
sat quietly in their darkened locker room as Goestenkors or a
senior led them through visualization exercises suggested by
Jerry Lynch, a Santa Cruz, Calif., sports psychologist. "Picture
yourself playing in the championship game in San Jose," the
chosen speaker would intone in the dimness. "Picture yourself
cutting down the nets." The Dookies had done so much picturing,
it seemed, that unlike the Boilermakers, they didn't feel the
need to break out video cameras and Instamatics to capture every
press conference or locker room media invasion during the Final
Four.

Subplot No. 2 involved Duke's well-traveled senior stars, guard
Nicole Erickson and 6'6" center Michele VanGorp, two of the four
players who, angered by athletic director Morgan Burke's firing
of coach Lin Dunn after Purdue went 20-11 in 1995-96, had
transferred from West Lafayette following the season. (Purdue
has never detailed the reasons for Dunn's ouster, and in March
1997 Dunn received a $100,000 settlement from the university
after filing a grievance.) A matchup of Erickson's current team
and her former team was "destiny," she said after Duke
dismantled Tennessee. "I've been thinking about that ever since
I left Purdue three years ago."

Which leads us to Subplot No. 3: the fortitude and endurance of
White-McCarty and Figgs, both of whom considered leaving Purdue
in the wake of the mass exodus in '96 but decided to stick it
out when Louisiana Tech assistant coach Nell Fortner replaced
Dunn. At the time, the team had lost not only the four transfers
but also two recruits who asked for releases from their letters
of intent, leaving the Boilermakers with three returning
players, one All-America heptathlete, four freshmen and a
handful of walk-ons.

Fortner went 17-11 with that motley crew, then left to coach the
national team. She was replaced by 31-year-old assistant Carolyn
Peck, who led Purdue to a 23-10 record and an Elite Eight finish
last year before being hired away by the Orlando Miracle, a WNBA
expansion team. (Subplot 3A: If Burke hadn't worked out a deal
with the Miracle enabling the Boilermakers to keep Peck through
this season, Figgs and White-McCarty would have been playing for
their fourth coach in four years.) "Kari and I have been through
a lot together, no question," says White-McCarty. "I don't think
I could have done it alone. But we've accomplished a lot, too."

Especially this year. Bookended by wins over Tennessee and Duke,
Purdue's 34-1 season was almost perfect, a 73-72 loss at
Stanford in November its only blemish. But until last weekend
there hadn't been much of a Boilermakers bandwagon. Though
Peck's team had been ranked No. 1 since Feb. 21, when the Lady
Vols lost to LSU, few believed Purdue could win it all, at least
not while Holdsclaw was still wearing a Tennessee uniform.
"There were naysayers all along the way," said Boilermakers
assistant Pam Stackhouse after Sunday's game. "I think it was
because we didn't win with a lot of dominance. But pretty or
ugly, we always found a way to win."

Purdue relied largely on the leadership of its two senior stars,
who are so close they can sense each other's moves on and off
the court. Figgs roomed with White-McCarty last year but had to
find her own lodgings this year after her roomie married high
school sweetheart Brent McCarty last May. Without consulting
each other, the two ended up in the same apartment building
anyway. "They always find each other," says junior forward
Michelle Duhart. "In fact, I don't think they can get away from
each other."

They do, occasionally. Before almost every game this year,
Figgs, a perpetually composed mechanical engineering major from
Georgetown, Ky., took a nap while White-McCarty, a
communications major, and her other teammates busied themselves
with a laundry list of superstitious rituals. Manager Heather
Scott had to put a Mountain Dew and a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup
on a bus seat for White-McCarty to consume on the way to the
arena, and White-McCarty had to give half the candy to freshman
guard Kelly Komara. Sophomore guard Katie Douglas had to have a
Dr Pepper and hear something funny--and usually
unprintable--from Cremeans before the opening tip. The final
pregame meal in San Jose consisted of chicken, spaghetti, mashed
potatoes, corn and fruit, the 35th such repast the Boilermakers
had eaten together this year. Said Cremeans late on Sunday, "You
know, I think I might be ready for a steak now."

After the victory, a few moments had to be recorded for
posterity. As the Purdue players took turns climbing the ladder
to cut the net, McCarty taped the scene with the video camera he
had bought for Stephanie earlier in the week. "We read the
instructions on the plane out here, or at least she read the
instructions," said McCarty, who appeared to be momentarily
filming the floor after taping the scene of Figgs's helping his
wife hop up the ladder. "All I know is that this red light means
it is on."

Actually, after arriving in San Jose last Friday, McCarty became
a skilled enough documentarian to capture commentary and
good-luck messages for White-McCarty from such luminaries as
Fortner, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and Mimi Griffin, the ESPN
analyst who had predicted that North Carolina would make toast
of the Boilermakers in the regional semifinals and had been
receiving offerings of charred bread from Purdue fans ever
since. "Steph had no idea I was making that tape," said McCarty
on Sunday evening. "When I showed it to her last night, she
couldn't believe it."

One hopes he captured a few other opinions on tape before he
went back to Indiana, like the one expressed by the label on the
forehead of the Duke mascot, which read PURDON'T. That would be
worth archiving for the grandchildren. Because, thanks largely
to his wife and her best friend, Purdid.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Second effort After going scoreless in the first half, the feisty Figgs (5) showed her drive, penetrating for 18 points.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Twist and shout A turned ankle finished White-McCarty's stellar career four minutes earlier than she had hoped.
"When Steph went down, it was like six against five," said
Cremeans. "Ukari was not going to let us lose."