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Sports: Intensity Therapy 

UNC-Charlotte coach aims for Top 25 status

If you could harness the energy of UNC-Charlotte's new women's basketball coach, you could power the McAdenville holiday lights. Katie Meier patrols the sideline during games, waving her arms and shouting defensive schemes or simply yelling, "C'mon, C'mon." At timeouts, she claps and sometimes barks, "Get over here!" then intently maps plays in the huddle. If players aren't hopping to in practice, the result could be anything from a pointed comment to being thrown out.

High-voltage leadership is needed to turn around the Charlotte program, and Meier wants to be the juice. She may be, given that the team is off to its best start since the 1995-96 season. Charlotte is 5-3 after a 61-59 loss to cross-county rival, Davidson, on December 6.

While the men's team has 15 championship banners hanging in the school's Halton Arena, the women have two. And those date back more than a decade ago, to 1990, when the 49ers won a conference title and made it to the Women's National Invitational Tournament. NCAA Tournament? The women's team has never set a sneaker on that rarefied hardwood.

The last time Charlotte had a winning team was 1993-94, when the 49ers were 14-13. Today, Meier (pronounced "Myer") is trying to re-wire Charlotte's fortunes. Her electrifying approach, coupled with her knowledge of the game, are geared toward making Charlotte a Top 25 program.

"I don't scream because I'm in a bad mood," Meier says. "I took this job because I know these players are good. There are just a few holes to fill. I have a lot of confidence in them. Every player has shown me something that blows me away. I tell them, 'OK, you told on yourself. I'm going to expect this. I've seen it now.'"

A longtime assistant at Tulane and a star shooting guard at Duke in the late 1980s, Meier likes taking under-performers and making them winners. She helped do as much at Tulane where she assisted new head coach Lisa Stockton in transforming the Green Wave into a perennial NCAA tournament team.

"When I first went to Tulane, it was the most fun," Meier says. "We started getting things done and surprising people."

She wants to replicate that with the 49ers. "By the end of this season, I want people to be saying, 'What has happened in Charlotte?'"

She believes Top 25 status is within reach in a couple of years or she wouldn't have taken the job. "I had been approached about two other (head coaching) jobs," she says. "But. . .Charlotte had all the ingredients. It has the facilities and an athletic director (Judy Rose) with a clear vision. When I met with Chancellor (Jim) Woodward, I was impressed with where the university is going. Charlotte can sell itself academically, and academics are the first thing a female athlete is interested in. I've never coached a player who hasn't graduated."

She says the 49ers' talent made the job even more attractive.

"The players are the reason that I felt Charlotte was such a great job," she says, having closely watched the 49ers as part of the Tulane coaching staff. Both teams play in Conference USA.

The players she needs to fill a handful of gaps are expected to come from six recruits Charlotte has already signed, players who -- amazingly -- were the 49ers' top six choices. "That had never happened to me before," says Meier, who was known for recruiting at Tulane.

Peaches Harris, who led Charlotte in scoring through the first four games this season (11.8 points), says Meier's enthusiasm has been well received. "It's her love of the game," says the junior shooting guard from St. Louis. "She really knows the game -- it's awesome. From my first meeting, I liked her. She was late, and she cracked a joke. Then her eyes got real intense, and I could see her enthusiasm."

Harris says the 49ers' practices are tougher and there's a greater emphasis on conditioning and defense. "I thought we practiced hard before, but now I know we practice hard," she says.

The 49ers also have a new, up-tempo offense. Gone is the half-court game of set plays and "in" is a fast-paced, full-court game that requires the 49ers to read defenses and react.

Also gone is last year's top scorer and all-conference performer, Tonya Phifer, who dropped in 17.2 points a game. It's no surprise that Meier has pushed returning players to raise their point production. "She's told us, 'Everybody has to be a scorer,'" Harris says.

Eventually, anyway. The team was still adapting to its new offense when it fell 64-39 to Duke in Charlotte's home opener November 30. "We read the defense, but we didn't execute," Meier says. Shots didn't fall (26 percent shooting), and turnovers proliferated (25).

The team also was missing starter Harris and Quidara Russell, the first player off the bench. A five-foot, 11-inch forward from Rahway, NJ, Russell is out for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. Harris, who has a stress fracture in her right foot, is expected back by mid-to-late December.

Heartening to Meier was Alicia Abernathy's shooting and the team's overall shot total. Abernathy, a five-foot, nine-inch junior forward from Hickory, scored 16 points (10 over her average), and Charlotte took only seven fewer shots than Duke, 69-62.

"I'm not panicked at all," Meier says of her offense. "If we had gotten only 40 shots, that would be a problem. We got a lot of good looks, and we had a lot of players playing different positions because of injuries. Alicia was courageous; she took the big shots."

Defensively, Charlotte had 20 minutes of glory. The 49ers held the nationally ranked Blue Devils to only 18 points and 24 percent shooting in the first half. Center Adrienne Jordan added three blocked shots. Meier recalls the look on her players' faces in the lockerroom at halftime: "'Oh my gosh, we can do this.'"

But after the break, the 49ers' defense -- which has been their mainstay this season -- soon succumbed to an inspired Duke team.

"We had 25 minutes of mental intensity against one of the top teams in the country," says Meier. "That's an improvement. We are not a team used to 40 minutes of mental intensity, but we're getting there."

Meier played that way, and she expects it of the 49ers. The 1986 Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year, Meier still holds the Duke career record for steals (232), is third in scoring (1,761), second in scoring average (16.2), fourth in assists (409) and eighth in rebounding (670). Considering that she put up her career numbers before Duke's rise to national prominence makes the totals even more impressive. They represent one of the many impulses that constitute the electroshock therapy she's bringing to Charlotte.

* The Charlotte women's basketball team is on the road the rest of December and returns home January 8 to face non-conference opponent, UNC Asheville -- where Charlotte Head Coach Katie Meier spent her first year as an assistant coach in 1994-1995. The game is at 7pm at Halton Arena. *

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