WHEN JOANNE P. MCCALLIE left the University of Maine five years ago to take over the middling women's basketball program at Michigan State, her new colleague, men's coach Tom Izzo, warned her that one of the biggest challenges in front of her would be to change the culture in East Lansing. "People here don't see women's basketball in any light," he said. "It's just vanilla to them. You have to be patient."
McCallie went through the paces of rebuilding, signing overlooked instate talent and suffering the inevitable first-season misery (10--18). Three straight winning seasons followed, with progressively better attendance (the team averaged just 1,500 fans the year before her arrival) and postseason results. This year, however, the Spartans elbowed patience aside. They blew through their remaining evolutionary milestones, notching their first Top 10 ranking, their first Big Ten tournament title, their first Sweet 16 appearance, their first trip to the Final Four and, after overcoming a 16-point second-half deficit to beat Tennessee in the national semifinals on Sunday, their first shot at the national title. Along the way, they set new attendance standards--they drew a record 14,066 for their penultimate home game, a 66--64 victory over No. 2 Ohio State--and beat a raft of highly ranked foes (No. 1 Stanford, the Buckeyes, No. 3 Notre Dame) as well as defending national champion Connecticut, in Hartford. "It's not like we played a patsy schedule and are just lucky to be in the Final Four," says McCallie, the AP national coach of the year. "These guys deserve to be here. This is a great team."
But will it be a great team next year? Can the Spartan women contend for the national title on a regular basis? Michigan State loses major contributors in Kelli Roehrig, a 6'4" center who was averaging 13.5 points and 7.3 rebounds entering Tuesday's title game, and 5'8" All--Big Ten point guard Kristin Haynie. But four of the team's top six scorers, including junior sharpshooter Lindsay Bowen and junior rebound hound Liz Shimek, will be coming back. They will be joined by four strong recruits, including three instate players led by 5'10" point guard Tiffanie Shives, Michigan's Miss Basketball. "We're making progress in recruiting," says McCallie. "But I don't think we'll get away from a certain recruit, the hardworking Michigan kid--the kind of player who got us to this point."
Not one of those players made an All-America team, but they will go down in East Lansing history nonetheless. "What these kids have done this year is incredible," says McCallie. "They have turned that culture upside down." --Kelli Anderson