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IOWA CITY — It was, and it remains, the zenith of the University of Iowa women's basketball program.
'In a way, it was a fairy-tale season,' recalled Christine Grant, former women's athletics director.
The 1992-93 season is remembered with joy, with somberness, and with some regret by those who lived it.
'Obviously, what I remember most is coming up short,' said Tia Jackson, the team's defensive whiz. 'There have been a lot of moments of woulda, coulda, shoulda.'
Said point guard Laurie Aaron: 'The first thing that comes to mind is all the tragedy prior to and during the season. I think about Mr. Stringer.'
A quarter-century has passed since a grief-stricken C. Vivian Stringer led her determined team to the Final Four. It was a winter of heartbreak, resilience, unprecedented achievement, and then at the end, oh-so-close disappointment.
'It's all like a blur now,' Stringer, now the coach at Rutgers, said in a 45-minute conversation with The Gazette in December. 'It's been 25 years? Really?'
Necole Tunsil was in the Slater Hall dormitory room she shared with teammate Antonia Macklin. It was Thanksgiving morning, and a team dinner was scheduled for later in the day at Stringer's house.
These were days before cellphones, emails and texting. The phone rang.
The news 'was devastating,' Tunsil said.
Stringer's husband, Bill, had suffered a heart attack.
For the Hawkeyes, Bill Stringer wasn't just Vivian's husband. He was basically their strength and conditioning coach. 'Our sports physiologist,' Jackson called him.
For Aaron, he was more.
'He helped me get through my first year at Iowa,' she said. 'I've never really said this to anybody before, but when I got to Iowa, I had some trust issues. I didn't trust people.
'He was the first to get me to open up to people.'
Stringer was hired by Grant to lead the moribund women's basketball program in 1983. She had led tiny Cheyney State (Pa.) to the NCAA final in 1982 (it lost to Louisiana Tech).
Success came quickly. In Stringer's first season, the Hawkeyes went from 7-20 to 17-10. In her second season, 22,157 fans packed into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a game against Ohio State.
In her third season, the Hawkeyes were in the NCAA tournament. In her fifth, they started 22-0 and were ranked No. 1. Iowa reached the Elite Eight in 1987 and 1988, but couldn't make the next step.
The Hawkeyes were upset in the 1992 tournament by Southwest Missouri State at home, but during the next offseason, Bill Stringer made a prediction to his wife:
'Bill thought (the 1992-93 team was) something special,' she said. 'He thought they could go to the Final Four.'
Not long after the Hawkeyes were told of Bill's heart attack, another round of calls began.
'Later in the day, we heard that he had passed,' Jackson said.
After burying her husband, Stringer took a leave of absence from the team.
'I really questioned whether I could come back and speak in a coaching voice,' she said.
Unlike now, when the college basketball season begins in early November, the Hawkeyes didn't begin their 1992-93 season until Dec. 4. Assistant Marianna Freeman was elevated to interim head coach, and the Hawkeyes opened with a 70-59 victory at Pittsburgh, then followed with a 53-50 win at No. 4 Maryland.
Iowa started 5-0 under Freeman.
'I was able to listen to the games on the radio, and the kids would say (on the postgame) that they were looking forward to me coming back, even though I didn't know if I had the strength to do it,' Stringer said.
The Hawkeyes were gaining strength, too, even if they didn't know it at the time.
'When Bill died, the team grew up very, very quickly,' Grant said. 'For most of them, it was the first time they lost somebody close to them.'
It wasn't the last.
Virgie Dillingham's father died that season. So did Cathy Marx's father. And on Jan. 19, 1993, men's basketball player Chris Street was killed in a car accident.
Stringer returned to the team in January, and after the Hawkeyes suffered a loss to Colorado in a tournament in Miami, they went on a winning streak.
'I couldn't hear myself above a whisper, but the players tried so hard to do what I wanted them to do,' Stringer said.
St. Petersburg, Fla.
Oklahoma City, Okla.
Mardela Springs, Md.
Tunsil said, 'I remember how mentally tough we became. We were determined to make Coach Stringer proud, and to make the fans in Iowa proud.'
The Hawkeyes won 17 games in a row and took a 23-1 mark into a road trip to Penn State and Ohio State.
'When you get on a winning streak, you can get cocky pretty quick,' Tunsil said. 'The little things don't matter so much.'
Iowa lost in Happy Valley, 70-64, then suffered a 72-60 defeat at Columbus.
'Those losses allowed us to regain the commitment,' Stringer said. 'When we lost, it was like, a sigh of relief.'
The Hawkeyes defeated Minnesota in their regular-season finale and earned a share of the Big Ten championship, along with Ohio State.
At 24-3, the Hawkeyes earned a No. 2 seed in the Mideast Regional. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was pre-assigned as a regional host, so the path to the Final Four ran through Iowa City.
Or so it seemed.
Iowa earned a first-round bye. But there was a rock concert scheduled for Carver on the night the Hawkeyes were supposed to host their second-round game against Old Dominion. The feature band was Guns N' Roses.
'I'd never heard of them,' Stringer said. 'I wanted to get the concert moved to another date.
'Are you kidding me? We have to go to Old Dominion because of something named Guns N' Roses?'
The concert stayed, and the Hawkeyes flew to Norfolk, Va.
'We weren't happy at all,' Aaron said. 'We were one of the top teams, and we had to go play on the road. If we won, we had to come home and play Auburn and Tennessee, just to get to the Final Four. It was one roadblock after another.'
Stringer said, 'We felt it was us against the world.'
The Hawkeyes throttled Old Dominion, 82-56, then came home and beat Auburn, 63-50.
Iowa was back in the Elite Eight.
Before there were Geno Auriemma and UConn, there were Pat Summitt and Tennessee. And it was the Lady Vols who stood between the Hawkeyes and a trip to Atlanta.
Summitt had led Tennessee to NCAA championships in 1987, 1989 and 1991, and eventually would win five more titles.
When she came to Carver on March 27, 1993, she had 499 career victories.
'I remember that Tennessee was staying at the Hyatt (in Iowa City). Word was they thought they were going to come in and win and walk out of here,' Stringer said.
'The night before, the coaches and I were sitting up, trying to figure out what we were going to do. What we would learn was how strong and determined (our players) were.'
Jackson recalled that the Lady Vols had wristbands commemorating Summitt's 500th win. 'We took it personally.'
No. 500 would have to wait.
'We played out of our minds,' Tunsil said. 'We had them on our turf, and they weren't coming in and doing anything to us. Their day was done.'
Iowa rolled, 72-56.
'No matter what they did, we were there to stop it,' Stringer said. 'That day, we were able to do things that we ordinarily couldn't do.'
As the final seconds ticked down, Stringer sat on the bench and was overcome by emotion.
'Time was running out and it was the biggest moment in Iowa women's basketball history, and Bill wasn't across the floor like he usually was,' she said. 'I didn't see him, but I felt him.'
The Hawkeyes soaked in the applause of the near-sellout at Carver, then retreated to the locker room.
'It was so emotional,' Jackson said. 'We danced and sang and yelled until it hurt.'
If only it could have ended there.
Instead, it was on to Atlanta for a national semifinal against Ohio State the following weekend. Sheryl Swoopes and Texas Tech faced Vanderbilt in the other game.
The Hawkeyes and the Buckeyes split their regular-season games, both winning by double digits on their home floor.
'There's a danger with familiarity,' Stringer said. 'It wasn't that Ohio State was bad. but I knew we could beat them any time we wanted.'
But not this time.
It was back and forth the whole way, and 40 minutes weren't enough to decide a winner.
'What a competitive game it was,' Jackson said. 'I remember (freshman) Katie Smith got by me for a key basket. I've gone over that play in my mind so many times.'
The Buckeyes took a one-point lead late in overtime, and the Hawkeyes had the last possession in the final seconds.
Aaron drove to the basket and got tangled up with a defender, tripped and lost possession of the ball.
No call. Ohio State won, 73-72.
'She tripped me. There's nothing else to discuss,' Aaron said. 'It was a foul, but they didn't call it.'
Grant said, 'The end of the Ohio State game ... I tried not to show emotion, but it was hard to witness that.'
The next day, Swoopes scored 47 points as Texas Tech edged the Buckeyes, 84-82, for the title.
'The championship ... it felt like our destiny, but some things happened. The ball didn't bounce our way,' Tunsil said. 'We would have smashed Texas Tech. We had all the pieces.'
The 1992-93 team contained just three seniors — Aaron, Big Ten player of the year Toni Foster and Molly Tideback.
Foster led the team in scoring (15.7 points per game) and rebounds (8.2 per contest) and earned consensus all-American honors, one of four Hawkeyes in program history to do so. When the WNBA was formed in 1997, she was the seventh overall pick.
After college, Aaron went home to Detroit and was recruited to become a running back on a women's professional football team. She served overseas for the U.S. Army, and is currently in law school at Western Michigan University.
With a veteran team, the Hawkeyes started the 1993-94 season with 11 straight victories. But they were upset by Alabama in the second round of the NCAA at Carver. Iowa went 11-17 in 1994-95, and Stringer left for Rutgers, vowing to make that Scarlet Knights' program 'the jewel of the East.' The Scarlet Knights were NCAA runners-up in 2007.
After a 6-24 season last year, Rutgers has bounced back with a 17-5 mark and Stringer is a Big Ten coach-of-the-year candidate. She could reach her 1,000th career win this season.
Iowa remains close to her heart.
'It's a special place,' she said. 'I felt loved and taken care of. People are warm, caring and extremely bright.'
Jackson and Tunsil got into coaching. Jackson is an assistant at the University of Miami (Fla.), and Tunsil is the head coach at her high school alma mater in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Both speak of their Iowa careers with pride, intermingled with regret.
'We were devastated when we lost to Ohio State,' Tunsil said. 'We wanted to go all the way for Coach Stringer. But we walked away with our heads high.'
Jackson said, 'As an athlete, it hurts because we came so close. In hindsight, though, what an awesome experience.'