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A Savage Hurricane storms Big East

Never has an injured knee hurt so many for so long. The day Frances Savage blew out her knee in 1990, it meant nine other teams in the Big East Conference were doomed for 1991-92.

Savage, you see, was supposed to finish her senior season at the University of Miami in 1990-91, a year before the 'Canes entered the Big East. But a knee injury in the season's first week meant a medical redshirt and that meant she'd stick around to greet _ and defeat _ Miami's new conference rivals.

Tonight, the No.

8 Hurricanes, with their 22-1 record and 22-game win streak, can wrap up the Big East championship in their debut season by winning at Connecticut.

All Savage has done is lead Miami with 22.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, set a conference record with 32 straight free throw conversions, and win Big East Player of the Week honors four times in the past two months.

So who was hurt more in this saga of a wounded knee?

"Now why would you ask me that?" asked Georgetown coach Patrick Knapp. "Just because she's beaten in our brains twice this season? I'm just glad she's not going to be around next season."

The bum knee is one parcel of added luggage Savage has toted during her career. And the burden only seems to make her stronger. She's had three surgeries _ two on the knee, one on an ankle _ and that doesn't include a missed season as a Prop 48 casualty.

Yet she has averaged 23 points a game during her career at UM and the team has gone 88-25.

"She's the heart and soul of the program," said Miami coach Ferne Labati. "She's obviously a gifted, talented, natural athlete, but what makes her special is the way she pushes herself to get better.

"It's phenomenal to think of the things she's accomplished coming off all her injuries."

It is the depth of Savage's game that makes her so hard to define, let alone to defend. At 5 feet 9, she isn't overly tall but her upper-body strength is evident in shoulders that seem to span from one end of the lane to the other.

She played center as a high school junior.

Then there is the smooth way she glides around the perimeter as smaller guards try to keep pace.

She played point guard as a high school senior.

Add in a personality that carried her from whirlpool and rehabilitation room to the court on a near daily basis and you have a working knowledge of the gifts of Savage.

To simply say she was born to play the game would be a disservice to the innumerable hours she has spent honing her skills. But Savage talks of a coziness she has felt on the court since a middle-school coach begged her to join the team.

Sandra Irmscher, the basketball coach at Bair Middle School in Fort Lauderdale, had to convince Savage's parents that basketball would be good for the 12th of their 13 children. It would mean quitting the church choir, and Irmscher had to promise to drive Savage home from practice each day, but finally permission was granted.

"My mom wasn't too fond of me playing. She thought it would take away from my schoolwork and chores," Savage said. "Some of my brothers had played football, but it wasn't like we were all into sports.

"It just came naturally to me though. In my very first game I hit a hook shot on my first try. I thought, "Okay, I can do this.'

"

Savage went from basketball novice to nova virtually overnight.

By the time she reached Piper High School, she was already acclaimed as one of the best players in Broward Country. She would lead her high school team in scoring for three years _ twice scoring more than 50 in a game _ and then sit back and grin while sifting through scholarship choices.

Savage kept a promise she made to her mother when she took up basketball and has astutely balanced academics and athletics. She will graduate later this year with a degree in criminal justice and has started on her post-basketball life with an internship as a counselor in a halfway house for convicts.

In the meantime, she plans on finishing the job she started at Miami in 1988. She chose the Hurricanes over traditional basketball powers because she wanted to be part of a growing program. The 'Canes have forged ahead, but few people noticed before this season.

Despite three consecutive 20-win seasons in 1989-91, Miami got just one NCAA tournament invitation. They are a shoo-in this season. The Big East champion gets an automatic berth.

"A lot of teams have been taking us for granted. We never got the publicity we deserved," Savage said. "Everyone on the team wanted to prove something to the media and the NCAA this year.

"It was frustrating for me to sit out last year, but what really hurt was the team not getting a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. That is what I thought about the whole time I was rehabilitating. I looked at it as a blessing. It gave me a chance to play in the Big East and help this team get back into the NCAA."

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