Penn State, UConn set stage for 1 vs. 2 showdown in final

Top-seeded Lady Lions drop Notre Dame, 55-49

Huskies oust UCSB, 63-55

NCAA women's East Regional

College Basketball

March 28, 2004|By John Altavilla and Jeff Goldberg | John Altavilla and Jeff Goldberg,THE HARTFORD COURANT

HARTFORD, Conn. - Somehow Penn State's season prompted the selection committee to plop the East's No. 1 seed in Blacksburg, Va., for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. And its reward for surviving that was a trip to one the most partisan environments for women's basketball in the country.

"We just wanted to get out of Blacksburg [by beating host Virginia Tech in the second round]," Penn State coach Rene Portland said. "Not that it wasn't a nice place to be, but we just wanted to make sure we made it to the next site."

Now Penn State (28-5) is one victory away from its second Final Four after surviving a scare from fifth-seeded Notre Dame yesterday. The Lady Lions scored the last six points in the final 1:47 to win, 55-49, at the Civic Center. Next for Penn State is defending champion Connecticut in tomorrow's regional final.

It will be Penn State's first regional final since its run to the 2000 Final Four in Philadelphia, where the Lady Lions lost to UConn in the national semifinals.

"I'm proud of our effort," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "We competed and battled for 40 minutes. It was as good as we could play defensively. Aside from the ball not going into the basket [32.2 percent shooting], I felt we played as well as we possibly could have played. We came a long way this season from 7-6."

For long stretches, Notre Dame's 2-3 zone turned Penn State into a two-player team. With 12:54 to play and the Irish leading 35-33, Jess Brungo (20 points total) and Kelly Mazzante (17), the all-time leading scorer in Big Ten history, had 29 points combined. But junior Jess Strom, held scoreless in the first half, scored 10 second-half points to help diversify the attack.

Five points within seven seconds by Brungo and Mazzante - off steals of inbounds passes - pushed Penn State to a 45-43 lead that set the stage for the tight finish.

"We prepared for the zone," Mazzante said. "We just didn't attack it enough as we should have and they kept pushing us further back from the basket."

The Lady Lions built an early 13-7 advantage with a tough perimeter defense and offensive rebounding, but Notre Dame soon found its balance. Penn State led 23-22 at halftime.

Much of Notre Dame's success hinged on keeping the ball away from Mazzante, who scored five of Penn State's first seven. She took nine shots and made only three in 18 minutes.

Mazzante's early struggles were matched by Notre Dame forward Jacqueline Batteast, who was 2-for-8 in the half (six points). Batteast ended with 22 points and 12 rebounds.

Connecticut 63, UC Santa Barbara 55: The Huskies (28-4), the No. 2 seed in the East Regional, answered every challenge from the No. 11 Gauchos (27-7), holding on before 14,253 at the Civic Center to reach tomorrow's regional final.

But it was not until the final 46 seconds, when the Huskies made eight of 10 free throws to push a five-point lead to 11, that UConn could finally celebrate its 10th appearance in the final eight in the past 11 years.

"In a game like this where you're not going to get a call and nothing is really going your way for the whole game, our composure and poise came out at the end," Diana Taurasi said.

Taurasi, who became UConn's all-time assists leader, led the Huskies with 21 points. Against perhaps the most physical opponent UConn has faced this season, Taurasi struggled for the first 33 minutes, taking a hard shot to the ribs and cutting her left knee in the first half, then falling into a 1-for-10 shooting slump in the second.

But with the Huskies clinging to a 45-39 lead with 7:07 left, Taurasi caught fire, hitting back-to-back jumpers for a 10-point lead. Then, with UConn up by seven and less than two minutes left, Taurasi stole the ball from April McDivitt and hit a tough step-back jumper from the top of the key with 1:18 left to put the Huskies up 53-44.

"I would say it's Diana's tournament so far," said Maria Conlon, whose steal and timeout with 43.6 seconds left was the back-breaker. "They were really physical with her the whole game. She wasn't making as many shots as she wanted, but she did a good job of keeping her composure and it just shows the leadership she carries."

On the same day the UConn men advanced to the Final Four for the second time, the Huskies gave themselves the chance to become the first women's team to reach five straight Final Fours.

Jessica Moore, who helped hold Santa Barbara's 6-foot-8 center, Lindsay Taylor, to a season-low five points, had 10 points and 10 rebounds.

UConn struggled against a physical and aggressive Santa Barbara defense that forced the Huskies to play faster than they wanted. Several times in the first half, UConn coach Geno Auriemma implored his team to slow down, to no avail.

"Artistically, it was not a masterpiece," he said. "It was a pretty great win. The shots were really hard to come by. ... I think our players showed what they're made of in the last five minutes."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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