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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL // A tall order for U.S. to fill

For the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team, the center position stands out.

Lisa Leslie, she of the soft touch, imposing size at 6 feet 5 and 170 pounds, and vast international experience, is unquestionably one of the best in the world.

But the current U.S. team lacks anyone else with the size and strength to stand up to players such as Russia's 6-8 3/4, 194-pound Marina Bourmistrova and China's 6-7, 204-pound Zheng Hai-Xin. Either could stand in the way of the United States winning the gold medal.

"That's probably why I don't sleep at night," U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer said.

In May 1995, the USA Basketball Women's Committee named 11 players to a national team, which would then train and compete in exhibitions to prepare for next month's Olympic Games. In the past, the team was assembled a couple of months beforehand, but recent results, including bronzes in both the 1992 Olympics and the 1994 World Championships, prompted a new approach.

Assuming all 11 team members make the trip to Atlanta, that leaves one roster spot up for grabs. VanDerveer isn't on the selection committee, but if it listens to her, that 12th player will be a true center.

"There's only so much I can do with someone who's maybe 6-2 or 6-3," she said. "As great a player as Katrina McClain is, she is 6-2. And as much notoriety or as many awards as Rebecca Lobo has won, she's 6-4 and is basically a rookie and maybe not as athletic as some of the players she's playing against. We definitely have some holes that hopefully can be filled when the Olympic team is in fact selected."

In early April, six centers _ Venus Lacy, Sylvia Crawley, Kara Wolters, Shanda Berry, Valeria Whiting and Heidi Gillingham _ were invited to practice with the 11 national team players for the shot to play in a round-robin tournament in Australia in May. The 6-5 Crawley, USA Basketball's 1995 Female Athlete of the Year and a member of the 1995 silver-medal winning World University Games team, earned that spot.

"I'm using this as an opportunity to get a step closer," Crawley said before leaving for Australia, explicitly told that the trip was not tantamount to making the Olympic roster. "I'm keeping everything in perspective...and giving it everything I have. I think this is my last shot."

VanDerveer said she also was high on both the 6-4 Lacy, a strong, aggressive player with significant international experience, and Wolters, who at 6-7 is an intimidating low-post presence.

"It's an honor just to be considered," said Wolters, a senior-to-be at Connecticut. "In general in the women's game, it's rare you find a true center. You usually find centers shooting threes and facing up, not someone who likes to bang in there and play with her back to the basket...But I love it."

Wolters, however, has little international experience and that could be exposed in the Olympics. But VanDerveer said size isn't something that can be taught and Wolters has the size and strength to battle 6-9 players.

Ultimately, VanDerveer probably would like to see two from among the trio of Crawley, Lacy and Wolters on the team, but that could occur only if the selection committee opts to drop a player from the original 11 before finalizing the roster on June 19.

Committee chairwoman Karen Stromme said that possibility exists, but the intent was that the 11 players would be Olympians unless they "played their way off the team" and the last year was not akin to an extended trials. She added the evaluation process is ongoing and extensive. VanDerveer said tough questions need to be asked.

"This has been a great national team, but is it in fact the best Olympic team?" she said. "Does it give us the best chance of being successful in the Olympics? This is about business. This is about getting a job done."

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