HARTFORD, CONN. — In terms of public adulation, there may be no athlete more applauded at the moment than Rebecca Lobo.
The star of last season's University of Connecticut women's basketball has been on an incredible roll ever since she led the Huskies to a 35-0 record and a national championship in her senior year. Since then, she's been squarely in the limelight on numerous occasions: ''guesting'' on Letterman, jogging with the president, endorsing products from sneakers to Chevies, and collecting numerous awards (National Player of the Year, co-winner of the Academic All-America Team Member of the Year, National Collegiate Athletic Association Woman of the Year, and the Women's Sports Foundation Team Athlete of the Year).
Even before a practice with the United States' 10-player women's national team last Saturday, she was figuratively out of breath. Upon arriving for a prepractice press conference at the University of Hartford, she attempted to recharge by slipping in a 10-second, head-on-table catnap.
Once ''awake,'' though, she managed to fire the first question: ''Does anybody know the UConn [football] score?''
Lobo has always been a sports fan, able to recite the names of players on her favorite pro football teams, the New York Giants and New England Patriots, even at an early age. Now, however, she is the star. Her ability, intelligence, and solid-citizen character make her a role model as well as a worthy ambassador for women's basketball, which is hot.
Attendance is rising, ESPN is on board, and several groups are jockeying to form women's professional leagues in the United States, including one that reportedly may offer Lobo $100,000.
She says it's too early to decide on professional options. A quest for Olympic gold is her major focus through next summer's Centennial Games in Atlanta.
Seven corporate sponsors, including Sears and Kraft Foods, have thrown their support behind the US national team, which has embarked upon a 20-game national tour. One of the first games was last Sunday's contest against Connecticut, a test that left Lobo with ambivalent feelings.
''At the beginning of the game I said, 'Is it bad when I feel happy when UConn does good things?' '' she said. ''A big piece of my heart is still with this team.''
Ex-teammate Kara Wolters blocked one of Lobo's shots, but Lobo went on to score eight points in 13 minutes as the national team cruised to an 83-47 victory.
Lobo says that the team's barnstorming schedule, which includes corporate-sponsored practices open to the public, is challenging. ''I've never been on a constant road trip like this before,'' she says. ''I'm just glad I'm not living out of a suitcase in France or Italy.''
Most of her teammates have led a gypsy basketball life since college. They've played in Europe and Asia, where American women gravitate in the absence of a US pro league.
Lobo especially admires the determination of such players as Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, University of Georgia graduates and Atlanta natives who, between them, have logged 16 years of international pro experience and played in several Olympics.
''They are great people, down-to-earth,'' Lobo says. ''That's more impressive to me even than what they've done in basketball.''
There are only two national team players fresh out of college, Lobo and University of Tennessee guard Nikki McCray, whose team lost to Connecticut in last spring's national championship game. It is Lobo, however, who has been nicknamed ''Rookie'' by the more seasoned US players.
The 6 ft., 4 in. forward/center views herself as a small-town kid. She grew up in Southwick, Mass. Colleges nationwide recruited her, but she elected to play close to home. That meant her parents could attend games at UConn's 8,200-seat Gampel Pavilion, where most games were sold out.
A dean's-list political science major, Lobo now is writing a book with her mother, RuthAnn, whose courage in fighting off an illness last season was an inspiration to Rebecca. Lobo spends much of her spare time with a laptop computer, crafting chapters of ''The Home Team,'' due out next year.
''Writing a book is a challenge,'' she says, adding that it's the longest thing she's written since repeatedly scrawling ''I won't talk in class'' in grammar school.
TEAM USA TOUR SCHEDULE
10 Stanford (ESPN2)
13 San Diego State
16 Southwest Missouri State
19 North Carolina State
22 U. of Tennessee
28 U. of Washington
30 U. of Kansas
3 Vanderbilt (ESPN2)
5 George Washington
9 Old Dominion
21 Ohio State
3 Auburn U.
30 Louisiana Tech
3 Texas Tech (ESPN)