Women's final looks like UConn, Tennessee

But Rutgers, Penn State might keep surprising


March 29, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

For this weekend's NCAA women's Final Four in Philadelphia, the accent will be on the familiar, the near misses that finally came in and on homecomings.

No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Tennessee provide the familiar for Friday's national semifinals. Even if the Huskies have won only one national title, talk of them and of the Lady Vols, who have won three of the past four championships, has dominated women's basketball for most of the 1990s -- and they have the two best teams in the sport this season.

The stage appears set for the Lady Vols, who beat No. 11 Texas Tech in Monday's Mideast Regional final, and Connecticut, which knocked off Louisiana State in the East title game, to meet in Sunday's championship game. That could raise the profile of the sport to new heights, given the visibility of the two programs.

But Rutgers and Penn State, traditional powers that got ever so close to the Final Four but couldn't break through, could upset things significantly now that they've arrived. To get there, Rutgers held Georgia to 51 points Monday and Penn State shut down Louisiana Tech's transition game in the Midwest final.

The Scarlet Knights, who won the last AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) championship in 1982, have reached the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in the past three seasons, but reached their first NCAA Final Four with Monday's win over Georgia in the West Regional final. With the win, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer becomes the first coach -- male or female -- to take three different teams (Iowa in 1993, Cheyney State in 1982) to the national semifinals.

Then, there's Penn State. The Lady Lions have tasted some of the most bitter defeats in tournament history. In 1991, Penn State earned a top seed in the East and a home game against James Madison, only to lose, 73-71. In another game, the Lady Lions led Mississippi by eight points with 20 seconds to go and lost.

But Penn State coach Rene Portland plugged along, and finally got her trip to the Final Four when the Lady Lions polished off Louisiana Tech.

The Lady Lions (30-4), who won the Big Ten regular-season title but lost in the conference tournament final, are perhaps the most intriguing of the four teams in that they are relatively unknown. They were bounced last year in the second round by Louisiana Tech.

Penn State, which turned back essentially the same Lady Techster team Monday, has proven that it can play with more athletic units.

Senior center Andrea Garner and its perimeter game, led by forward Lisa Shepherd, who had 25 points Monday, and point guard Helen Darling, could cause more problems for Connecticut in the semifinals than they did in an 87-74 loss to the Huskies in Florida in December.

The Huskies (34-1) meanwhile, come to Philadelphia looking as dominant as any team since the unbeaten 1998 Tennessee team.

Their balance on offense is impressive, and on those occasions when the points don't come easily, they force the action with a smothering press. Forward Svetlana Abrosimova, the Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional, is playing as well as she has at any point in her collegiate career and will give the Lady Lions match-up fits.

In the other semifinal, Rutgers (26-7) has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout the season, but is playing some of the tournament's best defense.

The Scarlet Knights, who lost in the Mideast Regional semifinal two years ago to Tennessee, will have to control the tempo to stay in the game with the Lady Vols, because the offense, outside of guard Shawnetta Stewart, the only starter to average in double figures (14.7), isn't in Tennessee's class.

But the vaunted Tennessee offense may not be up to its usual snuff, either. Forward Tamika Catchings, the consensus national Player of the Year, severely sprained her right ankle Monday night, and her ability to run the floor and come off screens will be key to the Lady Vols' chances to get a seventh title. But Tennessee (32-3) is capable of playing Rutgers-style defense and is the best rebounding team of the semifinal quartet.

This Final Four, more than most, will be sprinkled with heroes returning home to Philadelphia, one of the early homes of the modern women's game.

Portland, who starred collegiately at Immaculata, a school in the Philadelphia suburbs that dominated women's basketball in the early 1970s, Stringer, who grew up and coached in the area at Cheyney, and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma have area ties.

One of Stringer's players, Stewart, grew up in the Philadelphia area, and two Lady Lions, Garner and reserve Rashana Barnes, played at Philadelphia high schools. Tennessee's Kristen Clement broke Wilt Chamberlain's high school scoring records, and Catchings' father, Harvey, played for the Philadelphia 76ers in the '70s.

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