When University of Tennessee All-America Trish Roberts graduated, taking her 30.9-point and 13.7 rebound averages with her, a sigh of relief could be heard throughout the South. A few folks even laughed and looked forward to facing the Roberts-less Lady Vols, who finished 28-5 and in the AIAW Tournament last year.
But the addition of a smooth transfer from Mercer College (Georgia) and two 6-foot freshmen to go with two returning starters stopped the laughter.
The only folks grinning now are from Knoxville. Presently riding a 16-game win streak, Tennessee (27-2) has vaulted to the No. 1 spot in the women's rankings and is aiming to be in the final four in the battle for the national title March 23-25 at UCLA.
"I told my girls no one would send us a trophy for being ranked first. It has no significance right now," said Tennessee Coach Pat Head. "We're in postseason play now and no one pays much attention to rankings. One loss and the season ends right then and there."
Tennessee hopes its season at least one more day Friday when it faces sixth-ranked Maryland (24-3) at Delta State (Mississippi).
Valdosta State (26-3) plays Southern Connecticut (18-10) in the other regional game. The winners will meet Saturday night, with the victor advancing to UCLA.
"That was one of our goals, to be among the final four," said Head, in her fourth season. "We've been in a lot of close games this year (won two in overtime and five other six points or less). That has to help the girls' confidence. Execution is the key now."
The Lady Vols don't have a Roberts anymore but 5-10 guard Cindy Brogdon, a transfer from Mercer, has scored and rebounded enough (21.8 points and 7.7 rebounds) to give stability to the offense.
Backcourt mates Suzanne Barbe (15.8) and Hollie Warlick (6,4 points and six assists) are very quick and are the keys to the Tennessee full-court pressure.
"I played with Betsy Bailey and Kris Kirchner (both Maryland players) on the USA National Junior women's team during the summer and know what they can do. We have to stop them," said Warlick. "This is the biggest game of the year for us."
Zandra Montgomery, a 25-year-old mother of a 6-year-old, is the forward. She has averaged 13.9 points and six rebounds per game. Cindy Ely, a 6-2 freshman, is an excellent defensive player, while her replacement, 6-0 Debbie Groover, is more offensive-minded (10.4).
"We don't depend on one player now, said Head. "the girls are very unselfish and everybody gets into the offense."
While the Lady Vols' offense has produced 83.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and 70 percent accuracy from the free-throw line, it is defense that has turned around many of the games.
Basically a man-to-man team, Tennessee presses often but rarely fouls. It has committed 200 fewer fouls than its opponents and lost only 11 players via the foul-out route this season. Tennessee opponents have managed only 66.8 points per game.
Brogdon, a junior, had been in a slump but broke through for 21 points in Tennessee's 64-62 victory over N.C. State in their regional championship game last weekend.