Women see familiar faces, if not teams Longtime coaches Yow, Blair finally get a shot

Ncaa Tournament

March 25, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

In a certain sense, this year's Final Four is indicative of the wind of change that seems to be blowing through women's basketball, with two teams, North Carolina State and Arkansas, making their first appearances in the national semifinals in Kansas City, Mo.

And with only one No. 1 seed, Tennessee, making it through -- the first time in 17 years that fewer than two top seeds have gotten there -- and Arkansas, the No. 9 seed in the West, becoming the lowest-seeded team to reach a Final Four, there's a sense that a new day is coming.

But there's still a sense of familiarity attached to this Final Four since the coaches of the two teams making their first trips aren't strangers to the process.

Kay Yow, whose Wolfpack beat first East top seed Old Dominion, then No. 2-seeded Connecticut in the regional final, has won more than 500 games and coached the 1988 Olympic team to a gold medal. Arkansas' Gary Blair has won more than 300 games in his career and built Stephen F. Austin into a national power before taking over the Lady Razorbacks five years ago.

Of course, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, which won the Midwest Regional, know the national semifinals like the backs of their hands. The Lady Vols are seeking their third straight title and their sixth overall, in their 11th Final Four. The Lady Tech- sters, who won the title in 1982 and 1988 and lost in three other title games, are making their ninth trip.

"There's nothing like going to the Final Four. It never gets old," Tech coach Leon Barmore said after the Lady Techsters beat Purdue to win the Midwest Regional.

The theme of this Final Four, as it seems to be just about every year, will be stopping Tennessee. In their first three tournament games, the Lady Vols stormed through Liberty, Western Kentucky and Rutgers by an average of 32 points, then made up a 12-point deficit to seventh-ranked and second-seeded North Carolina in the final 7 1/2 minutes of Monday's Mideast Regional final.

"This is the hardest of the six [tournament] games to play," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "Everybody dreams of being in the Final Four, but you have to win the regional first."

Tennessee is looking to become only the third team in NCAA history to finish a season unbeaten, and will be a heavy favorite to knock off Arkansas, which it blitzed, 88-58, in Knoxville on New Year's Day.

"It doesn't matter who we play," said Blair after Arkansas beat Duke on Monday night to capture the West. "We're going to the dance. Everyone has picked us to lose every ballgame, and if someone picks us to win the next one, I'd like to see what the odds are because I don't want to be picked. We love the underdog role."

Women's Final 4

At Kansas City, Mo.

Friday's semifinals

North Carolina State (25-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (30-3), 7 p.m.

Tennessee (37-0) vs. Arkansas (22-10), 9: 30 p.m.

Both games on ESPN

Sunday's championship

Semifinal winners, 8: 30 p.m., ESPN

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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