Selection panel's surprise seedings add spice to field UConn denied No. 1 spot in favor of Old Dominion

La. Tech dropped to No. 3

March 09, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

There are those who believe that there really isn't much in the way of drama or surprise in the NCAA women's tournament each year, as the same heavy-hitters get the same high seeds and trample their way through the brackets toward the Final Four.

And, with top-ranked and unbeaten Tennessee entering this year's tournament as a heavy favorite to capture its third straight title, the suspense may already be gone from this year's march to Kansas City, Mo., the site of the national semifinals.

But the nine-member tournament selection committee has taken care of the surprise element, with some rather intriguing seeding decisions.

The most surprising was to deny third-ranked Connecticut (31-2) a No. 1 seed, instead making Old Dominion (27-2), the region's top seed. The Huskies' only regular-season losses were to Tennessee and to Rutgers, and they beat Old Dominion earlier in January.

But Jean Lenti-Ponsetto, chairman of the committee, said the panel was bound by NCAA rules to consider the effect of a season-ending injury to a leading player, in this case, senior guard Nykesha Sales, who ruptured her Achilles' tendon two weeks ago.

Lenti-Ponsetto said the committee had to evaluate how Connecticut would have played the entire season without Sales, the team's leading scorer, not how it's expected to play in the tournament. In the committee's view, the Huskies, who won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, might not have notched some big early-season victories had Sales not been present.

The other big surprise in the seeding was Louisiana Tech, a top-five team all season, which was expected to receive either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

Instead, the Lady Techsters (26-3) fell to a No. 3 in the Midwest Region, in large part, Lenti-Ponsetto said, because they played relatively few games against top 50 opponents.

As usual, the Southeastern Conference led all leagues with six tournament teams, while the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten and Western Athletic conferences each got five teams into the field. New Mexico and North Carolina-Greensboro are making their first appearances, while Tennessee and Louisiana Tech are the only schools to have played in all 17 tournaments.

UNC-Greensboro's Lynne Agee becomes the first coach to take a team to the NCAA tournament in Divisions I, II and III, while Rutgers' Vivian Stringer is the first coach to take three different schools (Rutgers, Iowa and Cheyney State) to the Division I tournament.

Here's a look at the regions:

East

Player to watch: Svetlana Abrosimova, Connecticut. With Sales out for the tournament, Abrosimova, a 6-foot-1 freshman swing player, is going to have to shoulder an enormous load if the Huskies are to get past Old Dominion to the Final Four.

Surprise team: Six years ago, in head coach Joan Bonvicini's first season, Arizona lost 19 games. The Wildcats narrowly missed a bid two years ago, and cracked the field for the first time last season. This year, behind Bonvicini, who led Long Beach State to the Final Four, and the play of senior forward Adia Barnes, one of only six Pacific-10 players to score more than 2,000 points, Arizona could maneuver through the region.

Outlook: Three weeks ago, the Huskies looked like overwhelming favorites to take on Tennessee for the title. Now, without Sales, Connecticut could be gone before the regional finals. Old Dominion, with two solid seniors, point guard Ticha Penicheiro and center Nyree Roberts and Final Four experience, looks to be the class of the region.

West

Player to watch: Kristin Folkl, Stanford. The Cardinal have won 15 straight, largely after Folkl, a 6-4 junior, reported to the basketball team from volleyball. Folkl gives Stanford's front line athleticism as well as a badly needed inside presence that was absent in early-season losses to Connecticut and Tennessee.

Surprise team: Florida was two points away from the Final Four last year, losing to Old Dominion in the Mideast Regional final and the Gators are a veteran bunch with a power player, senior Murriel Page, who led the nation in rebounding. In a region top-loaded with finesse teams, the Gators could have the strength to muscle through.

Outlook: Stanford will have a near home-court advantage at the regionals in Oakland, but a knee injury to forward Vanessa Nygaard could sap the Cardinal of some of their interior power.

Duke is superbly coached, by Gail Goestenkors, and has good balance, but its front-liners, juniors Michele Van Gorp and Peyton Black, must play with some intensity.

Look for the Cardinal to emerge, but just narrowly.

Midwest

Player to watch: Alabama's Dominique Canty is one of the best guards in the country, who at 5-10 is just as comfortable on the inside as she is on the perimeter, leading the nation in rebounding among backcourt players. She was at the forefront of two near upsets of Tennessee and is eminently capable of taking over a game.

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