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Frustrated head coach can't inspire Texas after worst start in 17 years

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AUSTIN, Texas -- Jody Conradt smiles frequently when talking about her University of Texas women's basketball team. It's not a happy smile. It's a smile she hopes can hide her disappointment and frustration at the team's worst start in 17 years.

Conradt has tried everything else. She has berated her players. She has threatened. She has praised. Nothing has provided a lasting solution.

How bad has it been? The Longhorns are 10-5 overall and 4-1 in the Southwest Conference. They have won eight of their past 10 games and rank 19th in the nation.

That might not sound too bad if Conradt coached at Texas A&M; or Southern Methodist University or Baylor. But at the University of Texas, those numbers just aren't good enough.

Here's why:

* Texas finished the regular season No. 1 in The Associated Press poll every season from 1983-84 through 1986-87. It won one national title in two Final Four appearances.

* Texas has a 487-86 overall record, including 251-29 since National Collegiate Athletic Association competition began in 1983 and 123-2 in Southwest Conference games.

* Texas has not lost more than five games in a season since 1981, when it went 28-8.

Conradt will not -- she cannot -- accept coaching just another good team.

"The most surprising thing about this season is that this team is unpredictable," she said, as that pseudo-smile came over her face. "I don't have any answers for why they've been so up and down.

"Every day, I come to practice, I think this is going to be the day that we turn it around. I can't believe they're going to flitter away this season on lost potential. One day they're going to wake up and the light bulb is going to come on, but I can't do it for them.

"This is their season. Their success. Their team."

And their tough luck to play on the women's basketball team everyone else lives to beat. A difficult schedule and a lack of depth and experience have contributed to the trying times. Nine of Conradt's 15 players are freshmen or sophomores. So far, the Longhorns have played six top 25 teams.

No excuses are accepted in Austin. The successes of the past won't allow it. And it's only more difficult as the season wears on and other teams sense the Longhorns' vulnerability.

"I think it really bothers them that they aren't kings of the mountain any more," Rice coach Mike Dunavant said. "Teams are starting to realize that when they play Texas, they're playing human beings, not ghosts or legends."

If Conradt needed any insight into human frailty, she received it during her team's first three games, all against top 25 teams:

* Long Beach State 80, Texas 74.

* Southern Cal 88, Texas 77.

* Virginia 80, Texas 74.

"Any time you have a start like we did, you begin to have a few doubts," said sophomore Cinietra Henderson, a former all-state standout at Duncanville High School, near Dallas. "But we never doubted our abilities. We were just waiting for the light to come on."

Problem was, every time the Longhorns saw the light, some ranked team came along to throw a blanket over it.

After Virginia, they won four consecutive games. Then, defending national champ Stanford, then ranked eighth, routed Texas, 82-66, in the Super Shootout Tournament in Knoxville, Tenn.

A 76-61 loss to Arkansas halted another winning streak at four games. That defeat was the Longhorns' fifth in succession to ranked teams, three of them by more than 10 points.

"We're supposed to win nine out of every 10 games we play, and something is wrong if we don't," Conradt said. "But you can't judge this team on the same criteria that you've judged other Texas teams."

Finally, they regained a measure of respect by handing fifth-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas its first defeat, 89-67, in Austin. But even that was slightly tainted. That game ended a two-week stretch in which UNLV played six games, five on the road.

That Wednesday, five hours before the UNLV game, the Longhorns went through a light practice at the Frank Erwin Center. If they didn't know how badly they needed to beat a quality opponent to solidify their position for an NCAA tournament berth, Conradt was there to tell them.

She certainly wasn't happy with her players work habits. Twice, she angrily halted the workout and huddled with seniors and starters. She chastised them for their lack of effort and leadership.

She threatened to bench two players who weren't following instructions. She sent a third to the sideline because she wasn't being vocal enough. A half-hour later, Conradt trudged slowly to the sideline herself, her head hanging slightly.

"I don't know what is with this group," she said. "Sometimes they act like they just don't want to play. They know they need to beat UNLV tonight, and then they come out here and don't prepare.

"They don't understand what it takes to win."

Conradt never had this problem before, as the Texas name became synonymous with women's basketball excellence. From Jan. 23, 1978, until Feb. 23, 1990, the Longhorns won 183 consecutive games against SWC opponents. Arkansas ended that streak with an 82-77 upset in Austin.

That type of domination, most coaches say, won't happen again. The women's game, they say, has too much talent these days, and that talent is spread among many more schools. Rutgers, ranked sixth, is the nation's only undefeated team. No team has gone undefeated through a national championship since Texas in 1984.

"Parity is a real word in the women's basketball nowadays," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I think what Texas has done in the Southwest Conference is incredible, but it's good for women's basketball that Arkansas beat them."

The Longhorns did more than win basketball games. They helped promote the sport and created interest that most schools can only find astounding.

Texas has led the nation in women's basketball attendance each of the past five seasons, including 1988-89, when it set an NCAA record by averaging 8,481 fans. Before Tom Penders arrived to renew interest in the men's program, the women were the No. 1 basketball draw in town in 1986-87 and '87-88. In those two seasons, they averaged 6,639 and 7,663 fans; the men, then coached by Bob Weltlich, drew 4,042 and 4,028 fans per home game.

"It's rewarding to see that people have developed an appreciation for something that you've helped create," Conradt said.

Yet that monstrous success is what threatens to consume her team in the midst of what is for Texas a shaky season.

Like so many All-America stars before them, Vicki Hall, Edna Campbell and Cinietra Henderson have become Texas' heart and soul.

Hall averages 17.3 points, Henderson 17 and Campbell a team-high 17.6. No other Texas players scores more than eight points per game. Each member of the trio gives the team something different.

Hall can make the three-point shot and run the break. She also leads the team with 9.1 rebounds per game.

Campbell provides much of the excitement. She can makes the outside shot but often chooses to penetrate and create the spectacular. She's at her best filling in the lane on the break.

Henderson brings the bulk. When she gets the ball in the low post, she usually scores. She has made 57.3 percent of her field-goal attempts (97 of 169).

Each is an All-America candidate.

The problem, Conradt says, is none of them is a leader.

The Longhorns are young. Amy Claborn, third in career assists at Texas with 461, and Campbell, who transferred from Maryland two years ago, are the only seniors. Of the nine freshmen and sophomores, only Henderson and Fey Meeks make significant contributions.

Meeks, the Longhorns' best player off the bench, moved to the starting lineup a week ago. Conradt calls her "The Energizer" because of the intensity and effort she brings into the floor.

"Leadership doesn't come naturally for anyone in this group because I don't think any of them are comfortable with it," Conradt said. "They don't understand what leadership is. They don't know that it is the responsibility of the older players to take care of the younger players and get them ready to play every day."

Henderson disagrees. This Texas team, she says, is full of leadership potential.

"But people have to step up and take the responsibility," she said, pounding her hands together. "It's hard to come out and be a leader when a person feels bad. We're human, and it's just hard to pick people up when you're down yourself."

Beyond the leadership question, Hall says, this Texas team simply has not played to its potential.

"But I don't think you could sit down and write down on a piece DTC of paper what our problems have been," she said. "That's our problem -- we don't exactly know what our problem is."

Start with depth.

The Longhorns get only 19.6 points per game from reserve players, fourth in the SWC. Hall, Henderson and Campbell account for 62.4 percent of the scoring.

Nagging injuries to Campbell (sprained ankle), Hall (broken finger) and Claborn (deep thigh bruise) have prevented the team from building continuity.

"Campbell and Claborn have not been 100 percent, and that's tough on any team, but Jody knows what she's doing," said Arkansas coach John Sutherland.

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