Friday, March 18, 2005

WCU beat the odds for first berth, has longer odds ahead

As far as the players are concerned, the coach is to blame.There will be no cross-country trip for Western Carolina's women. No Fresno. No Seattle.

Instead, the Catamounts will head 90 miles northwest to Knoxville for the first NCAA Tournament game in the program's 40-year history. They'll face national power Tennessee in the first round.

"Our players wanted to travel," Coach Kellie Jolly Harper said. "They wanted to get on a plane and fly somewhere. They told me it was my fault we were going to Knoxville."

As a No. 16 seed, and with a coach who was an All-SEC point guard for Pat Summitt at Tennessee, the Catamounts were a perfect fit for an excursion across the Smoky Mountains.

They'll play the top-seeded Lady Vols at 9:30 Sunday night.

"Going to Knoxville has its pros and cons," Harper said.

The cons are obvious.

"Tennessee is not who you want to draw," Harper said. "It's a great program. Pat's an excellent coach. She's a legend. She's got an unbelievable record she's chasing right now and is close to it."

In fact, a Tennessee win over Western would be the 879th of Summitt's career, tying her with Dean Smith for the most wins in Division I history.

"But they're not looking at that right now as much as they're looking to win six games and a national championship," said Harper, speaking from experience. She helped the Lady Vols to three straight NCAA titles in the late 1990s.

The Catamounts won't be given a snowball's chance to win, but Harper said that won't deter her team.

"I know we're a long shot to win, but I don't have it in me to go out and just try to keep it close," she said. "Pat taught me better than that."

There are some pluses to the short jaunt to Knoxville, Harper said.

"Our fans will not have that far to travel to see us play," she said. "I'm excited for (WCU guard) Lori Tanner, she's from Knoxville. And I'm excited that I'm going to get to go back to my alma mater and see a lot of people that I know."

Harper, however, doesn't intend for the homecoming to be a distraction.

"I hope that me personally going back to Knoxville doesn't take away from our players playing in the NCAA Tournament," she said. "To me, the biggest story is our team being in the NCAA Tournament - not me going to play against Pat."

It will be Harper's ninth trip to the NCAA Tournament as a player or coach but the first for the Catamounts.

"I'm elated. I'm proud for the players," Harper said. "I just hung on for the ride. They played their hearts out in the conference tournament, and they were remarkable down the stretch."

Harper, 27. is one of just a few coaches to take a team to the NCAA Tournament in her first season. She was an assistant at Chattanooga before she was hired to replace Beth Dunkenberger, who was hired away to Virginia Tech after steering the Catamounts' program in the right direction.

Harper's team has gone against the odds for much of the season - it started with Western being picked to finish ninth in the Southern Conference's preseason coaches poll.

But Jennifer Gardner, the team's senior leader, said: "We knew we had a good team. We believed in ourselves then, and we believe now."

The Catamounts were 9-12 at one point but won nine of their last 10 games. The loss was to Appalachian State in the regular-season finale, one that ruined the Catamounts' chances of a first-round bye in the SoCon Tournament and left the team with the daunting task of having to win four games in four days.

Western became the first SoCon team to do that, capping the feat with a 95-92 double-overtime victory over Georgia Southern in the final.

"You never say a loss is good, but I honestly think that one loss was a gut-check for us," Gardner said. "It motivated us for the tournament."

Gardner, a 5-11 post player from Norcross, Ga., scored a tournament-record 45 points in the title game. Western also went to the SoCon final last season but lost to nine-time champion Chattanooga.

"Jennifer was very motivated all year to win a championship and go to the NCAA Tournament," Harper said. "She went out and carried this team through the conference tournament, and now we're going."

No matter where the first-round game is.

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