Stanford isn't afraid to claim role of favorite No. 3 Cardinal tough task for Tennessee, ODU, N.D.

March 28, 1997|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

CINCINNATI -- Women's basketball players may not have the speed or the leaping ability of men, but they and their coaches can duck the favorite's role just as easily as their male counterparts can.

Three of the four participants in this weekend's Final Four -- Old Dominion, Tennessee and Notre Dame -- spent a good part of yesterday's media briefings, which precede tonight's national semifinals, trying to adopt the underdog mantle.

Each of the four beat at least two ranked teams to make their way to the Final Four. Tennessee, the defending champion, for instance, gave top-ranked Connecticut its only loss of the season in Monday night's Midwest Regional final, while second-ranked Old Dominion beat two top 10 teams, Louisiana State and Florida, just in the Mideast Regional alone. Notre Dame, making its first Final Four appearance, took out Alabama and George Washington.

Yet, only third-ranked Stanford, was willing to take the responsibility of being the chased, rather than the chaser, and for good reason. The Cardinal (34-1) has won 25 straight, and come into tomorrow night's 7 p.m. matchup with Old Dominion (33-1) on the biggest roll of the four teams here, despite having lost in the semifinal game the last two years.

"We have a great sense of urgency this year," said Stanford senior point guard Jamila Wideman. "We [seniors] are not coming back, no matter what happens the next couple of days. Having been there before and [having] had a taste of the semifinal game twice now, you know, there is nothing that I have wanted more since the day we lost last year than to put ourselves back in a position to win the game [tonight]. And that's where our focus has been all year and continues to be."

Stanford, the top seed from the West, has been nothing short of brilliant in NCAA tournament play this year, winning its four games by an average of 32.8 points, the last three against top 15 opponents.

The Cardinal, averaging almost 88 points a game in the postseason, hasn't allowed an opponent within 22 points in the tournament, and its running game, itshallmark, is in full flower.

"A running game isn't something that you can just start October 15," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. "You have to have people that are committed to it all year long. I think we have brought it up a notch and more so with our post players."

Besides Naismith Player of the Year, senior guard Kate Starbird, sophomore Kristin Folkl, a 6-foot-2 member of the school's NCAA champion volleyball team, has given the Cardinal a spark since she joined the squad for the last nine games of the season, when Stanford was beset with injuries. Those ailments have healed and Folkl has provided three double doubles from the bench.

Meanwhile, Old Dominion, which has a 32-game winning streak, including Stanford's only loss -- an 83-66 December decision in Norfolk -- has had trouble in the postseason getting its half-court offense in gear.

The Lady Monarchs, who averaged an NCAA-high 87 points per game, have averaged only 61.3 points in their last three tournament games, thanks to the opposition taking away their transition attack and sub-par play from All-American point guard Ticha Penicheiro. Stacy Himes, a 5-10 senior guard from Old Mill High in Millersville, starts at the other guard.

Penicheiro, a 5-11 native of Portugal, has suffered from an ailing wrist and a bad cold, but has been allowed to take decongestants to battle the cold and proclaimed her wrist healthy yesterday.

In the second semifinal, at 9 p.m., Tennessee (27-10), making its 10th trip to the Final Four and shooting for its fifth title, will face the Cinderella story of the tournament, the Fighting Irish (31-6), who advanced to Riverfront Coliseum from the East's sixth seed, making them the third-lowest seeded team ever to reach the Final Four.

Notre Dame, which dresses only nine players, including a student manager, has progressed by sticking exclusively to a zone defense and behind the inside-outside tandem of center Katryna Gaither (20.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and guard Beth Morgan (18.3 ppg).

The two seniors are the only Irish players to average in double figures and will have to have big games in order for Notre Dame, which lost to the Lady Vols, 72-59, in the semifinals of the preseason NIT, to stay with the more talented Lady Vols.

The Lady Vols, who had doubts they would make the tournament after a 10-6 start, have responded well since sophomore point guard Kellie Jolly returned in mid-January from a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament that she suffered playing in a pickup game in early October.

But Notre Dame will have to slow Tennessee sophomore zTC Chamique Holdsclaw, a two-time All-American, who has carried the Lady Vols throughout the season.

Women's Final 4

At Cincinnati

Semifinals: Today

Old Dominion (33-1) vs. Stanford (34-1), 7 p.m.

Notre Dame (31-6) vs. Tennessee (27-10), 9 p.m.*

Final: Sunday

Semifinal winners, 8: 30 p.m.

TV: All games on ESPN

* Approximate time

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