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Tall Players Are Reshaping Game

Women's Front-Court Skills Evolving Fast

By Kathy Orton
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page D01

For a long time, women's basketball has been dominated by guards. Most of the post players were either undersized for the position or big and lumbering with few skills.

These days, front-court players are becoming more versatile and, as a result, are having more of an impact. Tonight, an unusual convergence of skilled tall women will occur at Comcast Center for two games in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Each of the four teams features a post player who is literally and figuratively at the center of what they do.

Ohio State's Jessica Davenport, center, is using her 6-4 frame to better advantage on the court. (Michael Conroy -- AP)

_____Women's Second Round_____

at Comcast Center

• DePaul vs. Liberty, 7

• Ohio State vs. Maryland, 9:30 [ESPN2]

Tickets: Available.

"In the past, it was very rare to see a 6-3, 6-4 center, even now 6-5, 6-7 coming out," Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. "Now you're really seeing more and more with size and height advantage. It has made a big difference in the women's game. I think you're starting to see coaches starting to have more of an inside post presence compared to always relying on their guard play."

No. 13 seed Liberty, which plays No. 5 DePaul in tonight's first game, features 6-foot-8 senior center Katie Feenstra. The Blue Demons have 6-foot-2 junior forward Khara Smith. Crystal Langhorne, a 6-3 freshman center, has been a force inside for No. 7 seed Maryland this season. She will face a tough matchup in the second game against No. 2 Ohio State 6-4 center Jessica Davenport. All of these players account for nearly a quarter of their team's scoring and rebounding.

"A dominant post player is always going to be important to the game of basketball," DePaul Coach Doug Bruno said. "Where the game of basketball is changing is that the other big players are all developing guard skills. . . . If you have five players on the floor with guard skills, the game is just more beautiful to watch."

Today's centers are no longer stuck taking up space underneath the basket. They are developing a range of low-post moves beyond playing with their back to the basket or making layups and putbacks.

"Post players get more involved in the game," Davenport said. "It's not just a guards' game anymore. They're able to go out there and shoot 15-footers or even threes and put the ball on the floor. I think the post game is evolving, and it's helping the game."

Although they won't be meeting tonight, Davenport and Feenstra played against one another Jan. 9 in a game the Buckeyes won, 66-51. It was the first time Davenport played against someone taller than her, and she gained a lot from the experience.

Even though Ohio State won, Feenstra finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds compared with Davenport's six points and four rebounds.

"It was a pretty good experience for me," Davenport said. "She's a great player, so I had to work on different moves. She's very fundamentally sound."

This also won't be the first time Langhorne has played against Davenport. The two met in high school AAU competitions.

"She's a great player," Langhorne said. "She can score, especially down low."

Langhorne's contributions have been particularly impressive this season given that she is the youngest post player in tonight's games. Feenstra didn't fully develop into a player until her senior year. Part of it has to do with a player becoming comfortable with her height.

"It does take [young post players] longer," Frese said. "They have the size advantage when they're in high school. When they get to the college level, it's a big difference."

Frese often cites Langhorne's mental and emotional development as one of the reasons she has been such a factor for Maryland this season. Ohio State Coach Jim Foster points to that quality in Davenport as well.

"They say the average post player in the NBA matures at the age of 29," Foster said. "In Jess's case, I think she's so mature that she's accelerated that process. Bigs have a tough time maturing. It's very difficult to be super-sized in our society and learning how to deal with that. For her to have that in such perspective, I'm not dealing with a normal 19-year-old."

Feenstra, whose 68.5 percent shooting leads Division I, worked intensely on her fundamentals with Coach Carey Green.

"She came in and was just a big girl who could move underneath the basket," Green said. "Now she's learned the game. Her footwork for her size and her strength is exceptional. . . . It's been a pleasure to see her grow the last four years. I was hoping she'd grow to be 7-foot."

Because of her height, Feenstra often hears comments from people who believe her stature is enough to make her successful in her sport.

"Some people come up to me and say, 'You're 6-8; no wonder you play basketball,' " Feenstra said. "But it doesn't have anything to do with it. I'm tall. It helps, but I still need to know how to play."

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