This Means War

They're not very tall. They're not whippet-fast. In the eighth game of the season, their starting center crashed to the floor, shattering both wrists and putting their dreams in jeopardy. In places like Knoxville, Tennessee, Storrs, Connecticut, and the slam-dunk-crazed Carolinas, not even hardwood junkies know who they are. Just 2,251 fans came to their home opener, and when they visited Oregon State, only 456 showed up. Only three of their games have been televised.

They might be the greatest thing to wear sneakers in the history of Colorado intercollegiate basketball, but they're still something of a secret. A secret with a 27-1 record that will be this hoops-poor state's only rooting interest come the frenzies of March Madness.

While most sports fans in these parts were painting their faces orange and getting lathered up about the Broncos' return to the Super Bowl, the women's basketball team at Colorado State University was quietly rising in the national rankings from seventeenth to sixth to fifth to fourth. Their relentless scoring machine, All-American senior guard Becky Hammon, just 5-6, was draining jumpers at such a clip that she surpassed Brigham Young's Danny Ainge, the ex-NBA star who is now coach of the Phoenix Suns, on the all-time Western Athletic Conference scoring list. She now needs only 21 points to break the record--2,542--set by Utah's Keith Van Horn in 1997. With two games left in the regular season, that one's a done deal.

On Saturday afternoon the Rams won their last regular home game with a 101-68 demolition of the Wyoming Cowgirls. For most of the first half, the kids wearing green and gold ran the floor with tear-streaked faces. Because it was Seniors Day and their parents were there, and everybody got emotional, and Moby Arena was crammed with 8,875 delirious fans--a new record in Fort Collins. In northern Colorado, at least, the phenomenon has been discovered.

Now the crying game is over, and the war is about to begin. A war to get respect from the powers that be in women's basketball. A war of destiny.

"We had high expectations, but I don't think anybody on this team thought we'd be top five in the country," says Katie Cronin, the Rams' star senior forward. "But I'm not complaining. I can't really comprehend it right now, but I know this: We are capable of playing with the top teams. We can go farther."

Farther means farther than last season, when the 24-6 Rams, bedazzled by just their second appearance ever in the NCAA Tournament, upset 22nd-ranked Drake, then blew a 13-point lead in losing to Purdue in the second round in West Lafayette, Indiana.

This year the veteran Rams know what to expect. "We'll face teams that are bigger than us, teams that are more athletic than us, teams that think they have played tougher schedules than we did," says junior guard Roxanne Manning. "But there are other things that go into winning besides size. We've got something special."

Just ask Oregon, Florida and Rutgers. In the pre-season Women's National Invitational Tournament, Hammon, Cronin and company swept through those ranked teams to win the tournament title and give their season of hope a jump-start. "The NIT was very important," Manning says. "It showed us that we really belonged, that we could really go against anybody in the country."

Just ask Utah. When the Rams traveled to Salt Lake City December 3, they were still in the throes of an emotional crisis. A week earlier, in the first half of an easy home win over Furman, 6-2 center Shannon Randles took a charge from an opponent, stumbled backward and tried to break her fall with her hands just as the Furman player sprawled on top of her. Randles broke both wrists. Weak in the post, the smallish Rams were rattled, but they blew away LaSalle 95-47 November 28, then eked out a 70-69 win at Utah that may have been the turning point of their season.

"When Shannon went down," second-year coach Tom Collen recalls, "the immediate reaction from Becky and Katie was: How are we going to do it without her? I guess I've discovered in life that when tragedy strikes, life has to go on. Maybe some of our players hadn't learned that yet. In any case, Shannon's injury made us a much smaller team, but we became a harder team. One even more dependent on skill and athleticism, a team that shoots well from the perimeter and is hard to guard."

Into the breach stepped sophomore forwards Heather Haanen and Farah McDill and a fiery freshman from Eufaula, Oklahoma, named Angie Gorton. None of them stood taller than six feet, and all three were inexperienced. But in the 21 games following Randles's injury, the Rams have lost only once--four days before Christmas, when California beat them in Berkeley, 80-75.

Since then, the Rams' narrowest margin of victory in their current fifteen-game win streak has been seven points--January 16 at Southern Methodist. The newcomers who spelled Randles have developed on a fast track, and Hammon and Cronin, the bulwarks of the team, have rolled up points, honors and recognition. For the post-season, which begins next week with the WAC Tournament, even the fast-healing Randles is available. Collen's team looks poised to break the state record for most wins by a college team in a season. The record-holder? The 1995 University of Colorado women coached by Ceal Barry, who won thirty. It would be especially sweet for CSU, long cast into the shadows of CU's athletic programs, to surpass the Buffs.

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.

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