ST. LOUIS -- It finally happened. In the build-up to tonight's NCAA women's semifinals, the mania that has quickly built around Jackie Stiles got too much for even Stiles to bear with a straight face.
The question that triggered the moment wasn't even directed at the 5-foot-8 senior guard from Southwest Missouri State, whose Lady Bears will meet Purdue in tonight's first game, but rather at a teammate and her coach, who were asked what it was like to live with Michael Jordan and Julia Roberts over the past two weeks.
"It [the exposure] has been very wild," Stiles said with an embarrassed smile. "I still have to keep pinching myself and keep saying, 'Is this really happening? Is this really me?' "
Indeed, it has been Stiles, the NCAA's all-time leading women's scorer with 3,133 points, with a streak of 91 straight games scoring in double figures, who has carried the Lady Bears, the fifth seed in the West Regional, to the threshold of a national championship.
With a 30.6-point average this season, Stiles is the only player in the 20 years the NCAA has governed women's basketball to score 1,000 points in a single season.
And it is somehow fitting that all of this has happened at SMS, a school with an enrollment of 20,000, whose previous most famous attendee is actress Kathleen Turner, located 3 1/2 hours from St. Louis in Springfield, Mo., a city of 150,000.
Over the past nine years, the Lady Bears (29-5) have been third only to Tennessee and Connecticut, in attendance, perhaps only because the Hammons Student Center holds 8,800. SMS fans have thought nothing of making a 20-hour car ride to Rutgers to watch the Lady Bears in the first and second rounds, coming home to repack, then making a 30-hour drive to Spokane, Wash., the site of last weekend's West Regional.
Ticket availability in the 20,000-seat Savvis Center, the site of tonight's semifinal, will never meet the demand of SMS fans, not to mention those of Purdue (30-6), Notre Dame or Connecticut.
Stiles, who was hardly known outside the most exclusive of women's basketball circles until the NCAA tournament started, has run roughshod through the field to this point, scoring 32 points at Rutgers in a second-round win, and with a marvelous 41-point game against Duke, the West's top seed, in SMS' regional semifinal victory over the Blue Devils.
In Monday's regional final, Stiles, a native of Claflin, Kan., a town with a population of 600, dropped 32 points on Washington to lead the Lady Bears to a 104-87 win and their second Final Four berth in the past nine years.
"Is Jackie Stiles stoppable? We didn't stop her. I don't know that anybody has," said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer. "She's a great athlete. I think we all have to just appreciate a young lady who has made herself into a basketball player and has worked hard."
Her meteoric rise to prominence, seemingly out of nowhere, has drawn comparisons to Texas Tech star Sheryl Swoopes, who led the Lady Raiders to the 1993 championship, with a final-record 47 points.
"Yes, Jackie herself is a great player and she is a very big reason that we are here," said SMS coach Cheryl Burnett. "But I think that her supporting staff has also played some incredible basketball. If we get to the level that Sheryl Swoopes took that Texas Tech team, we'll certainly be happy."
The stories about Stiles and her love of the game have become the stuff of legend. Yes, it's true that she makes -- not just shoots --- 1,000 shots a day, becoming such a gym rat that the custodians at the Hammonds Student Center broke down and gave her a key to the arena so she could shoot whenever she wants. It's also true that Stiles, a four-sport athlete in high school, is a creature of superstition, down to the point where she must talk to her fiance 2 1/2 hours before a game. She forced Nike to come up with a pair of Cynthia Cooper shoes that had been retired from sales over the past four years because she has been wearing out the left shoe of all her pairs.
And she has approached all of the fascination and attention with a sense of humility and grace.
"She's a much better person than she is a basketball player, and I think that says a lot about her," said teammate Tara Mitchem, also a senior guard. "She is the most humble person I have ever met, and she credits her team for so much, when really, it's all her."
In the process, the Stiles' myth is growing so large that her presence is virtually engulfing the other semifinal, which, oh, by the way, just happens to match the nation's top two teams, No. 1 Connecticut (32-2), the defending champions, against No. 2 Notre Dame (32-2).
The Huskies and Irish have each beaten the other on their home floor, with Connecticut winning the Big East tournament, 78-76, on a last-second jumper from Sue Bird, while Notre Dame won the regular-season game, 92-76, behind 29 points and 12 rebounds from All-America center Ruth Riley. The rubber game pledges to be an excellent showcase with probably the two best teams battling for a chance to win a national title.
And yet, all anyone here can talk about is Jackie.
"She is a great girl, and I don't think I have ever seen anyone who works as hard as she does on her game," Riley said. "She gets so excited about basketball and it means so much to her. I'm happy for her to be able to lead her team here. I know it's something she really wanted, and I'm looking forward to seeing her play."
Women's Final 4
Today's games At St. Louis
SW Missouri State (29-5) vs. Purdue (30-6), 7 p.m., ESPN
Connecticut (32-2) vs. Notre Dame (32-2), 9:30 p.m. approx., ESPN