Being in women's Final Four means acting like an underdog

Coaches refuse to label their team as favorite

College Basketball

Ncaa Tournament

April 06, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Try, if you dare, to pick a favorite in tonight's NCAA women's Final Four. Go right ahead and try to figure out which of the four teams, defending champion Connecticut, fellow top seeds Duke and Tennessee and No. 2 seed Texas, has an edge in the national semifinals.

Just don't ask the coaches to do it for you.

"Does everybody think they are the underdog?" Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said yesterday.

In a word, yes, and for decent reasons.

For instance, the Huskies (35-1) lost four starters from a team that ran the table last year, going 39-0. This year's Connecticut team, which meets Texas in the second semifinal, won its first 31 games to set the NCAA women's record of 70 straight victories, but has been nowhere near as dominant as last year's crew.

"It's like horse racing. We run as hard as we can for as long as we can and when the Lasix runs out, then we just stagger across the finish line," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "That's what we've been doing pretty much all year long against the really good teams."

The flaw in that argument is that the Huskies, the East's top seed, have wins over Duke and Tennessee, not to mention junior forward Diana Taurasi, the consensus National Player of the Year.

Taurasi, who has scored in double figures in all but four of Connecticut's 36 games, with a career-high 35 in the Huskies' second-round tournament win over Texas Christian, is the one player among the four teams that will singularly have to be accounted for on virtually every possession.

"We will guard her with any number of people with a purpose of trying to keep her from running away with the game," said Texas coach Jody Conradt. "That won't be holding her scoreless. It will be trying to keep her from controlling everything that her team does."

The Longhorns (29-5), the second seed in the West, meanwhile, arrive at the Final Four for the first time in 15 years with a decided lack of experience in this setting, but riding a tailwind of a 17-game winning streak.

In contrast to Connecticut's reliance on Taurasi, Texas has balance, with eight players who have started this season, and no player who scores more than 14 points a game.

"This is not a team where you could pick out individual superstars," said Conradt, one of two women's coaches with 800 career victories. "This is a really special group of cohesiveness and chemistry. I don't have any other way to describe it except that they have learned how to rely on each other, how to trust each other, and it's a beautiful thing."

In the first game tonight, Duke (35-1), which makes its third Final Four appearance in five years, is running from its 15-game winning streak and 76-55 November win over Tennessee to claim that the Lady Vols ought to be the favorites.

"I guess it [being the underdog] relieves some pressure," said Goestenkors. "We have not been the underdog much over the last two seasons, so I think we have been comfortable with that favorite role. It's been a long while since we have really been an underdog. I think we are enjoying it."

The Blue Devils feature two Kodak All-Americans, guard Alana Beard and forward Iciss Tillis, who combine to average 37 points and 14 rebounds. However, in the NCAA tournament, Duke is scoring nearly 18 fewer points a game than in the regular season. Some of that is due to better defense, but the Blue Devils haven't clicked offensively as they did when they swept the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament.

"We know we are playing a great basketball team," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "We think we are a lot better team than when we played them back in November, but we know that they are a team that has also had a lot of basketball games, and with an exception of one loss, figured out a way to win."

The Lady Vols (32-4), despite losses to the other three teams here during the regular season, appear to be peaking, winning their four tournament games handily, albeit all at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.

If anything, the Tennessee players appear to be focused, to the point of grimness, on the eve of the program's second straight Final Four appearance and 14th overall in 22 years of NCAA play.

"We have been playing pretty well lately, and that's because of our focus in practice and because of our preparation in scouting and game day shoot-around," said senior All-America guard Kara Lawson. "We have taken that approach and have seen the success and so we just want to continue that here at this Final Four."

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