TAMPA — How dominating a basketball player is LSU senior center Sylvia Fowles? At Miami's Edison High, even the linebackers looked up to her.
"She looked like a giant to me," said USF senior linebacker Brouce Mompremier, a classmate of Fowles at Edison. "We'd go to games, and she'd swat so many shots, she was like a man out there playing with the girls. Their team had as much pub as the football team."
This week, the 6-foot-6 Fowles comes to Tampa trying to lead LSU to a national title, just like its football team. It's her fourth Final Four in as many seasons, but the Tigers have lost in the national semifinals in each of her previous trips.
And though No. 2-seeded LSU's opponent is No. 1-seeded Tennessee, Fowles is the kind of experienced, dominant frontcourt player who makes such an upset dangerously possible. She can enter Sunday's semifinal with a rare confidence: no player in college basketball can boast as many wins against Tennessee as LSU's seniors, who have four in eight meetings.
"I don't think you can have anything better than a group of seniors who have been denied," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said after losing to LSU 56-50 on Monday night. "It's been delayed for them, but it hasn't been denied. Their time's running out, so this is their time. It's a great group of seniors, and they need to go get it."
Fowles has been instrumental in the wins against Tennessee, with double doubles in her past six games against the Vols. When LSU beat the Vols, then ranked No. 1, in the regular season, she had 17 points and 14 rebounds; when the Tigers beat Tennessee in last year's SEC tournament, she had 19 and 20.
She has a recent history of upstaging the Vols, as it was Fowles — and not Tennessee junior superstar Candace Parker — who was honored as the SEC player of the year. Parker is likely to be the No. 1 pick in next week's WNBA draft, but the consensus is that Fowles would be a No. 1 pick in most drafts, were it not for Parker's potential.
LSU has the nation's No. 1 scoring defense, having just held UNC — which had the No. 1 offense —to 21 points lower than in any other game this season.
"I think that's the best we've played all year," said Fowles, who had 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks against the Tar Heels. "We came out, we locked in and we were focused. We were ready for everything they threw at us. We locked in mentally and physically and did what we had to do."
Fowles held another likely WNBA first-round pick, UNC center Erlana Larkins, to five points on 2-for-11 shooting.
"I thought Sylvia was outstanding, was tremendous on Larkins, holding her to five points," said LSU coach Van Chancellor, calling Fowles a "double double machine."
Fowles, whose middle name is Shaqueria, calls to mind another dominant LSU center, if only for her presence inside. She won three state championships in high school — two at Edison and one at Gulliver Prep — and now returns to her home state, hoping for the championship that's eluded her in college.
"The last three years, the team we lost to won it all — Baylor, Maryland, Tennessee," Hatchell said. "Maybe we'll be good luck for LSU."