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Katie Cronin: "It's hard to look past the fact that it's always been Colorado--even until this year. We entered the scene last season, but it's always been CU basketball that got all the attention. It's a shame we didn't have them on the schedule this year. I can't say much about this, but it would have been awfully nice to play them."
That will happen next season, when Hammon and Cronin have both graduated. For now, the Rams are thinking about even greater things--like the Big Dance. Because of their lofty ranking--highest for any Colorado team since the CSU men reached number four in 1969--they'll likely host two top-25 teams at the beginning of the NCAAs in Moby Gym, where they haven't lost since Colorado was a territory.
They're also thinking--Cronin says they dare to dream: What if?--about number-three Louisiana Tech. And about last year's tournament nemesis, number-two Purdue. The players would love to get that rematch, and so would the coach: Collen was an assistant at Purdue for seven years. The Rams also dare to dream about the biggest dog of all in women's college basketball--Pat Summitt's 23-2, first-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, anchored by the great Chamique Holdsclaw. Should the Rams get to the NCAA Final Four this season--the first local team to do it since the CU men way back in 1955--they could very well face Tennessee. In any case, they will see plenty of traditionally powerful clubs.
"This year," Collen says, "at least we'll get some of the big dogs on our home floor. Who knows? Auburn, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, Clemson, North Carolina? None of them are in the top ten, and all of them may have to play on the road, but I consider every one of them a big dog."
Cronin, for one, is ready to fight. "I'm not going to put any expectations on us," she says, "whether it's Sweet 16 or Elite 8. But you never know. In my freshman year, we kind of popped up in the tournament not even knowing what we were doing there, and last year we got to the second round. Experience means everything at the NCAA, and now we know what it's like. The competitiveness. The toughness of it. The consistency of the best teams. This year, no one can tell us when to stop or who to lose to."
Tennessee? Connecticut? Louisiana Tech?
"Those are just other teams," Cronin says with a wave of the hand. "Obviously, they've been the top names in basketball for years. But we just go out and play hard and have lots of confidence. We're not going to back down to anybody."
"I never thought we'd lose a game this year," Manning says. "Not when we were down to Arizona. Not even when we lost at Cal. We won't be afraid of anyone in the tournaments, and we'll go in with our eyes open."
Still a little short in the paint and ragged down the floor, the Rams depend on selfless team chemistry, relentless aggression and brilliant outside shooting. Averaging 23 points per game, Hammon is particularly deadly with her fallaway jumper and her three-point bombs--she's sunk 329 of them in four seasons. The Rams may also have something else going for them at the Dance. The element of surprise.
"Obviously, we're not the biggest or the fastest," Cronin says. "You look at our team and we look like normal people. But we come out and we play like animals. That comes from within...I like being the underdog. In the WAC we're the hunted right now, but in the NCAAs we've snuck up on people before. I'm sure other teams scout us, but we're from the WAC. I'm not sure teams from the Southeast Conference or the ACC realize how quick Roxy is on defense or how good Becky really is. I don't think they think we're really legit yet. We don't have the history, so that's natural."
Come March, though, it may become natural to make a little history.