1998-99 Women's Hoops Year In Review
Oct. 7, 1999
MEMPHIS, Tenn. --Coach Joye Lee-McNelis convinced 11 players and four assistants to embark on the Lady Tiger Lightning--- one of the most exciting rides of the mid-South. As the players and staff strapped themselves into their seats and the safety bar came over the top to keep everyone from falling off the ride, no one really knew what to expect. Would there be a lot of high speed drops? Would there be massive turns and loops that would make your stomach drop? And, would they be relieved to get off the ride at the end, or would they like to all come together and do it all over again? In the end, the ride was all that it was promised to be.
The Lady Tiger Lightning began as most roller coasters do?with a slow climb up a steep hill. It wouldn't take long before the uphill climb would turn into the Lady Tigers' first drop of the ride.
The Lady Tigers opened the season with a disappointing, 70-68, loss to Ole Miss. It was a game that saw all-America candidate Tamika Whitmore sit the bench for most of the first half in early foul trouble. In the end, Whitmore would score just nine points in 22 minutes of play, marking the first time in 54 games that Whitmore did not score in double figures. Fortunately, it would also prove to be the last time that would happen in her storied career. The hopes of the Lady Tigers were hardly dashed with the first loss, as in the previous four seasons, the Lady Tigers dropped the season opener and eventually won 20 or more games and received a bid to a post-season tournament.
As the Lady Tiger Lightning started up the hill again, it would be one of the steepest and most rewarding inclines of all time.
With the loss to Ole Miss behind them, the Lady Tigers rolled off nine straight victories, including a 70-58 win over then 13th ranked Arkansas. Whitmore didn't let the Ole Miss performance get her down either, as she averaged 27.3 points in the next nine meetings. Also included in the nine consecutive wins were tournament titles in The U of M-hosted Lady Tiger Classic and the Georgia State Invitational, as well as a C-USA season-opener victory over UAB.
Just as the ride continued uphill, and it didn't seem like it was possible to climb any higher, the Lady Tigers entered the Associated Press Top 25 Coaches poll for the first time in 14 years. Memphis entered the poll at No. 24 on Dec. 14 after receiving votes in the previous five polls. The Lady Tigers peaked at No. 23 on Dec. 28 and then two weeks later dropped out of the poll.
The news of the ranking kept the Lady Tiger Lightning climbing, but it wouldn't be long before the treacherous first loop that turned everyone's stomachs.
The Lady Tigers headed into their second C-USA meeting of the season, ranked 23rd nationally and confident to meet a red-hot Saint Louis squad that was eager for their first league victory. A slow start and lack of intensity would prove to be fatal as the Lady Tigers snapped a nine-game winning streak with a 73-72 loss to Saint Louis.
"We didn't play between the ears tonight," said McNelis after the loss. "This team seemed as confused as I have ever seen them. There was about a four-minute span that I don't think anyone knew where they were or where they were supposed to be. Saint Louis did a great job of taking advantage of that."
The Lady Tiger Lightning continued to roll on with the usual combination of steep inclines and stomach-churning drops.
Following the loss to Saint Louis, the Lady Tigers defeated UNC Charlotte, 78-53, but then the bottom fell out with a gut-wrenching loss to Tulane, 98-51, in New Orleans. The loss was the worst that the Lady Tigers had ever faced in Conference USA action and the worst overall loss since a 118-59 pelting by the Tennessee Lady Vols in the 1991-92 season. Tamika Whitmore and Yolanda Reed were the only two Lady Tigers to score in double figures in that meeting, as turnovers would prove to be their demise. Memphis handed the ball over 26 times and Tulane managed to convert those giveaways into 36 points. Tulane was not infallible, though, as the Green Wave recorded 16 turnovers, of which the Lady Tigers managed just three points.
As gut wrenching as the loss to Tulane was, so was the victory over McNelis' alma mater Southern Miss just two days later.
The Lady Tigers headed into the USM meeting with a 10-3 record and ready to take advantage of a struggling Golden Eagle squad that had lost eight of their first 13 meetings. But nothing would come easy for the Lady Tigers as they also knew that Southern Miss always managed to play their hearts out against Memphis. The Lady Tigers took a five-point deficit into the locker room at the half after shooting an impressive 47.8 percent from the field. The lead would change hands several times in the second half and with just three-tenths of a second left on the clock, Whitmore and senior Heather Phillips orchestrated what had to be one of the most memorable plays in Lady Tiger history. With the score tied, the Lady Tigers would be under their own basket and trying to make something happen in such a short amount of time on the in-bounds play. As everyone prepared for an overtime game, the game seemed to switch into slow motion. Phillips passed the ball in to a wide-open Whitmore who was already three feet off the ground. Whitmore barely caught the ball, pumped up to the basket and scored just as the buzzer sounded. Whitmore was quickly tackled on the floor as a stunned Golden Eagle squad stared in disbelief, trying to replay the situation in their heads.
The Lady Tiger Lightning twisted and turned through the rest of January, as Memphis won four of their last six games following the close victory over Southern Miss. In that span, The U of M defeated South Florida (96-74), Houston (75-65), Cincinnati (71-68) and DePaul (82-64), and dropped decisions to Louisville (84-74) and Marquette (69-51).
February would prove to be the most turbulent part of the ride as there was a drop after every short climb. Midway through the month, the Lady Tigers would experience a drop that would rival that of the Tower of Terror at Universal Studios.
The Lady Tigers opened the month with a victory over Southern Miss, 81-78, but that was followed with a second loss to Tulane, 72-63. The Lady Tigers answered the Tulane loss with a 74-52 win over UAB in which Whitmore became the school's second leading scorer, but no one was prepared for what followed that victory.
To say that the bottom fell out would be a huge understatement. The Lady Tigers traveled just up the road to Knoxville to face the top-ranked Tennessee Lady Vols, and though most people felt the Lady Tigers didn't have a chance, the Lady Tigers did not head into that meeting with the same idea. They took the court with confidence and felt they had nothing to lose. And just minutes into the game, in front of more than 14,000 fans in orange, a look of panic swept across the squad's faces.
The Lady Tigers couldn't catch a break all game and dropped a 113-39 decision to the Lady Vols. It was the worst loss in the history of the program as the 74-point margin edged the previous record of 54 points set by Tennessee in 1992. The loss also marked the second-highest scoring total for an opponent, and Memphis' 48 turnovers against the Lady Vols set a new school record.
Once again, as in the previous three games, Memphis answered the loss with a 94-69 victory over Houston. The winning streak would not move past one game, as Memphis turned around two days later to drop an 84-75 decision to South Florida to close out the regular season.
Heading into the Conference USA Tournament, everyone hoped the ride would pick up a little speed. It would take at least two wins in the tournament to give Memphis a 20-win season and a better-than-average shot at a berth in the NCAA Tournament. And what the Lady Tigers hoped for was a fourth straight C-USA title and the sure-thing automatic bid to the Big Dance.
For the third time during the season, and for just the second time in a week, the Lady Tigers would face the Houston Lady Cougars. Memphis came out strong and rolled past the Cougars, 75-60. Three Lady Tigers scored in double figures in that game, led by Whitmore who boasted 21 points. Also in double digits was Yolanda Reed with 16 points and Kelly Herron who added 10 points. The Lady Tigers had their own destiny in their hands, and as in all of the rest of the games in February, Memphis answered the first-round win with a loss to Marquette, 74-69, which sent the Lady Tigers back to Tennessee earlier than expected.
The Lady Tiger Lightning appeared to be losing speed and heading back to the platform. In the final anticipated loop of the ride, the Lady Tigers still held out hope that they would be invited to play in the NCAA Tournament. As the schools were announced, disappointment spread as Memphis was overlooked and the ride appeared to be over.
But just as everyone was gathering their belongings and wondering where they should head next, the Lady Tiger Lightning lurched forward. Memphis received word that they had received an invitation to the Women's National Invitational Tournament. It wasn't the prestigious NCAA Tournament, but it was in the WNIT that the Lady Tigers would attempt to get their point across.
The Lady Tigers opened the WNIT with a 71-61 victory over Middle Tennessee State in a packed Elma Roane Fieldhouse. The win marked the first post-season tournament victory for the Lady Tigers since a 74-72 win over Southern Cal in the first round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. The win also pushed the Lady Tigers to 20-9 on the year for a fifth consecutive 20-win season.
After the win over MTSU, it was on to game two, and for the first time in over a month, the Lady Tigers recorded back-to-back victories with a second-round win over UT-Martin. This win would also mark the first time since the 1993 NWIT that Memphis had advanced to the third round of a post-season tournament. The Lady Tigers used a total team effort to defeat UT-Martin as everyone who played in the game scored at least two points, and four Lady Tigers scored in double figures.
Once again, the Lady Tiger Lightning appeared to be picking up speed. The Lady Tigers hosted Arkansas State in the quarterfinals of the WNIT and it was a game that would become the climax of Whitmore's career.
Despite a double- and triple-team effort by the Lady Indians, Whitmore was unstoppable as she set a school record with 45 points in the 101-86 win over Arkansas State. Whitmore had come close to former Lady Tiger Betty Booker's record of 41 points on three different occasions, but it was only fitting that she would break the record in the final home game of her career at the Elma Roane Fieldhouse.
After hosting the first three rounds of the WNIT, the Lady Tigers would be sent to Madison, Wis., for a semi-final meeting with the University of Wisconsin Badgers. The Wisconsin State Journal predicted the outcome of the game before the two teams ever set foot on the floor. In all of the games that Memphis had played in front of more than 2,200 people, the Lady Tigers had recorded a loss. The WNIT Final Four game was no exception as Memphis exited the tournament with a 92-73 loss to Wisconsin in front of more than 6,000 fans. Despite averaging 33 points a game in the first three rounds of the tournament, Whitmore was held to just 22 points as the Wisconsin defense shut down the aggressive center.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock with the Badgers holding the 19-point advantage, the buzzer hummed and the Lady Tiger Lightning came to a screeching halt. As the safety bar was lifted and the Lady Tigers began to hop off the ride, they quickly looked back at the season and thought to themselves, "it wasn't such a bad ride after all."