So we're finally to the top 25, and the first entry on that list is a National Champion women's basketball player that played with a lot of heart and grit in the 1999 national title game. She later had a decent career in the WNBA, but her true calling is as a boilermaker. Ukari Figgs received 122 votes to edge Ryan Kerrigan by four votes for the last spot in the top 25, but you can definitely say that her career was more than top 25 worthy since she finished her Purdue career with the only NCAA Tournament basketball championship in school history.
Figgs was the counterpart to teammate Stephanie White when she came to Purdue. The Indiana-Kentucky All-Star series is one of the most sacred traditions in both Indiana and Kentucky. Each summer the best of the best seniors from both states plays a boys-girls doubleheader in Louisville then Indianapolis. In 1995 White was Indiana's Miss Basketball (given to the top senior player in the state) while Figgs was Kentucky's Miss basketball. Figgs played for Scott County High school in Georgetown, KY, leading them to the state championship her senior season. Kentucky still does their basketball tournament the correct way in that there is no class basketball. Scott County is a regular basketball power in Kentucky, as they were the girls runner-up in 2010.
She almost didn't become a basketball player, either:
"The first year I went to sign up for basketball, the ladies at the registration booth tried to talk me into cheerleading because they never had any girls play in the basketball league," said Figgs.
Her father, Gregory, stepped in and supported his daughter's choice to play basketball. The decision changed the path of Figgs' life. She continued to play the game and turned heads by the time she reached high school. As a successful athlete with the ability to play basketball, Figgs' gift would lead to a college education and the reward to continue to play the game she treasured.
With a father who worked in the field of education for over 25 years, Ukari was grounded with the realization that one day life would need to exist beyond basketball which influenced her decision when considering college choices. The Big Ten, known for its priority of academics and opportunity for elite competition, provided the launching pad for Figgs' future success. Her decision to attend Purdue came down to the strength of the engineering program, depth of the basketball team, close proximity to her home, and comfort with the team and coaches.
"Purdue is special because of the people," said Figgs. "During my time I had the opportunity to meet some amazing people."
Time At Purdue:
When Figgs came to Purdue for the 1995-96 season the women's basketball program was two years separated from its first Final Four. Figgs decided to major in Mechanical Engineering because she wanted to be an astronaut, something we're a little known for. Her time at Purdue wasn't easy. Coach Lin Dunn was fired after Figgs' freshman season in an ugly investigation over violations that ended with Dunn taking the University to court. Two promising players, Nicole Erickson and Michele VanGorp, both transferred to Duke, while Figgs and White decided to stay.
Purdue went 20-11 overall that year, and 11-5 for a 4th place finish in the Big Ten. They then lost to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Without Dunn things improved the next year. Purdue was only 17-11 overall, but a 12-4 Big Ten finish was good enough for a 3-way tie for first place. Figgs averaged 9.6 points and 3.1 assists per game for Nell Fortner. That season ended with a 69-65 overtime loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Old Dominion.
Fortner would leave after the season to become the coach of the U.S. national team, leaving Carolyn Peck to take over for the 1997-98 season. As a junior, Figgs was named a captain and led Purdue to a 23-10 overall record and third place league finish at 10-6. Purdue also earned a hosting site in the NCAA Tournament for the first two rounds at Mackey Arena. The Boilers beat Washington and Colorado State to get back to the Sweet 16, then knocked off Notre Dame 70-65 to reach the Elite 8. There would be no Final Four, however, as Louisiana Tech knocked off the Boiler 72-65 in the Regional Final. In the game against Washington Figgs was a perfect 15 for 15 from the field, a record that still stands. She averaged 15.5 points per game and nearly four assists.
The Championship season
Purdue's title very nearly did not happen. Coach Peck was offered the head coaching position for the WNBA expansion Orlando Miracle before the season, but White and Figgs convinced her to stay so they would not have to have a fourth coach in four years. Peck agreed to stay, stating that she wanted to win a championship. From there, the pieces came together.
Purdue started out by shocking the women's basketball community by beating Chamique Holdsclaw and 3-time defending NCAA champion Tennessee 78-68 at Mackey Arena in the season opener. Purdue was ranked #5 at the time, while Tennessee was #1 and on an 46-game winning streak. Figgs had just 10 points and four assists in the victory, but at the time it was the biggest win in school history.
Purdue then embarked on a two-game West Coast road trip armed with the first #1 ranking in school history. They won at Arizona 65-58, but lost 73-72 at Stanford.
They wouldn't lose again that season.
Simply put, Purdue rolled after that loss to the Cardinal. Against Louisiana Tech at the Boilermaker Blockbuster they gained revenge for the previous season's Elite 8 loss with a 71-65 win. They won a game at Florida, and in the Big Ten season the closest they came to a loss were two-point victories at Penn State, Iowa, and Minnesota. The Boilermakers finished a spotless 16-0 in Big Ten play, then swept through three games in the Big Ten Tournament to be 28-1 and the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Once there, Purdue got two more home games to open, smashing Oral Roberts 68-48 and Kansas 55-41. The Regional Finals were held nearby in Normal, Illinois, and a pro-Purdue crowd helped Purdue to its second Final Four with an 82-59 win over North Carolina and a 75-62 win over Rutgers. Figgs had 18 points and four assists in the win over Rutgers, while White had 22. Camille Cooper, Katie Douglas, and Kelly Komara also played large roles on this team.
At the Final Four in San Jose, CA Louisiana Tech waited again. Purdue dispatched the Techsters for the second time that season 77-63, setting up a final against Duke. White and Figgs would face off against former teammates Erickson and VanGorp.
I watched this game with a few friends living at Shreve since it was a big discussion to have Purdue in the women's final. I was a freshman that year, and, if you'll believe it, I was waivering on my decision to come back for another year. My freshman year was not a lot of fun, and I nearly left after one year. What can I say, I was young and stupid. What happened in this game helped me change my mind to return to Purdue. So, you can say with confidence that Hammer & Rails exists because of Ukari Figgs.
The National Championship game was a tight one. Figgs started the game slowly, missing her first seven shots from the field, but her driving layup put Purdue ahead for good at 32-30 in the second half. Figgs scored six points in a key 12-1 run as Purdue pulled ahead for good, but really showed her leadership in the final minutes.
With 4:01 left White went down with a severely sprained ankle. As action went the other way, Duke hit a three to cut the lead to 47-42. White would be unable to return, but Figgs spurred a 15-3 finish to the game as Purdue scored all 15 points from the line. Figgs finished with a team high 18 points and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. She averaged 16.3 points and 4.1 assists per game as senior. Her 409 career assists is good for 9th on the all-time list at Purdue, while her 1,455 points is good for 13th best all-time.
Back at Purdue, the students went nuts. I was living in Cary Quad at the time and yes, I was part of the mob that was singing Hail Purdue around the engineering fountain before joining in the bonfire in the middle of Stadium Avenue. It was a great night as many student partied well into the wee hours to celebrate Purdue's first National championship in anything in well over 30 years.
Figgs was drafted 28th overall in the 1999 WNBA Draft by the Los Angeles Sparks. She would win a WNBA title with the Sparks two years later, before playing one season with Portland and Houston before retiring with a 6.1 ppg average in 151 career games. the WNBA title gave her a championship at all three levels of basketball: high school, college, and pro. She then returned to her hometown where she worked as an engineer for Toyota and was an assistant coach at her high school before becoming an assistant coach at Purdue in 2009.
Figgs is more than worthy of kicking off the top 25 because of her dedication to Purdue. She came to Purdue and fought through a lot of off-the-court drama before emerging as a champion. I'll always remember the way she calmly took control in the final four minutes of that title game after White went out. She was the reason Purdue stayed in control and closed the game out when momentum easily could have turned in favor of Duke. Welcome to the ICONS, Ms. Figgs.