SAN JOSE, Calif. -- After four years of turmoil, three different coaches and more than a few setbacks, Purdue guards Stephanie White-McCarty and Ukari Figgs thought they had the market cornered on heartbreak and disappointment.
And with their top-ranked Boilermakers trailing by five at halftime of last night's national championship game, scoring fewer points in a half than any other team in the 18-year history of the women's Final Four, it may have occurred to them that all of their suffering would be for nothing.
But the two seniors persevered through the hard times and sparked a furious run out of the locker room following intermission to give the Boilermakers a 62-45 win over Duke and the school's first national title.
"It means a lot. This is what we stayed for. We stayed for the opportunity," said White-McCarty. "The special group we have on this team makes it really nice and really special."
The "special" group of Boilermakers overcame one more piece of adversity, when White-McCarty, an All-American and one of the most popular athletes in Purdue history, severely sprained her left ankle with 4: 01 left when she landed on Duke forward Lauren Rice's foot after a jump shot.
Instead of folding, Purdue went on an immediate 11-0 run to settle the issue and give the school its first national championship in any sport since 1961, when the men's golf team won the NCAA title.
"Steph got hurt and everybody just rallied around," said Figgs. "And that's just the way our team flows. Somebody goes down, we rally around them. And I think we did a great job at the end of the game."
Figgs, who had 24 points in Purdue's semifinal win over Louisiana Tech on Friday night, had a game-high 18 points -- all in the second half, including the Boilermakers' first two baskets of the half, and the go-ahead basket with 12: 58 left, earning Most Outstanding Player honors for the Final Four.
"I felt like I had let my team down. I just knew I had 20 minutes to be a winner or a loser and I didn't want to be a loser, so I just wanted to spark my team," said Figgs.
"I said a few things to her [White-McCarty] as she was going off the court. I told her, 'We've been through this before and I'm going to go out there and lay it on the line for you.' "
White-McCarty, a 5-foot-11 All-America guard from West Lebanon, Ind., and a licensed pilot, had just 12 points, only four in the second half before she was hurt and limped back to the bench.
"When that buzzer went off, I thought about our two senior captains," said Purdue head coach Carolyn Peck, "and I thought about their fortitude and the toughness, and I thought about the first time I was named the head coach. And I sat with them in the office and they said, 'Carolyn, we can do this.' "
The Boilermakers (34-1) finished the season with a 32-game winning streak and sent Peck off to the WNBA's expansion Orlando Miracle with a title, the first ever for an African-American women's basketball coach, male or female.
Peck, who leaves with a 57-11 mark, deflected talk of the social significance of the accomplishment, instead crediting her team.
"It's an accomplishment, but there are several other African-American women that have allowed the opportunity for me," said Peck. "I didn't win a national championship because of the color of my skin. We won because we have 15 young ladies who are heroes. People say that athletes aren't heroes. Well, these ladies are because they do other things besides play basketball that are heroic."
Purdue, whose 17 first-half points were the lowest ever scored in a half of a national championship game, came out of the locker room on fire, outscoring Duke 15-8 over the first 6: 30 of the second half, led by Figgs, who drove past Duke's Hilary Howard and scooped in the go-ahead basket.
"Her outside shots weren't falling [last night] the way they were the other night," said Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. "You know, great players find a way to score. And she is one of the few players who is a complete player."
The loss ended a dramatic run by Duke (29-7), which had beaten three-time champion Tennessee last Monday in the East Regional final to turn the season on its ear and clear a path for Purdue.
Purdue's win also spoiled Duke's effort to become the first school in NCAA history to have both its men's and women's team capture national titles in the same season. If a championship is to come to Durham this year, the men's team will have to earn it tonight in St. Petersburg, Fla., over Connecticut.
"I think it's huge for Duke women's basketball throughout the country. When people hear about Duke now, they're not just going to think about the men," said sophomore guard Georgia Schweitzer, who was held scoreless.
The Blue Devils team that had showed so much composure and confidence six days before in toppling the Lady Vols juggernaut, seemed to collapse in the second half with a lead.
Said Goestenkors: "I honestly thought before the game that we were relaxed and we had one of the best warm-ups that we had all year. But I think our kids looked up and saw the flags and they realized, 'Hey this is a big deal.'
"That [White-McCarty's injury] was a rallying point. I remember when it happened and I talked to one of my assistants and I said, 'OK, it's going to go one way or the other.' And they tend to rally for one another. And that's exactly what happened."
The Purdue rally will allow Peck to place in a frame a team picture in Mackey Arena, back in West Lafayette, Ind.
The frame, Peck said, had been purchased some time ago and was waiting for a Purdue team to win a national championship.
Said Peck to her team, as they sat at a post-game news conference: "You made history, ladies. And that's awesome."
And so are the Boilermakers.
Pub Date: 3/29/99