LSU, Minnesota crash cozy party

Tennessee, UConn mark 23rd combined Final Four, dominate past decade

NCAA Women's Tournament

April 04, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - No doubt, millions will tune into tonight's NCAA women's Final Four, see the familiar faces of Tennessee and Connecticut and get a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic glow, or at least get the feeling they've seen this movie before.

After all, the Huskies and Lady Vols are making their combined 23rd appearances in the Final Four, a place where one or the other or both has been in each of the past nine years, save for 1999.

But for those who decry the sameness of women's basketball, this year's national semifinals offer a pair of first-time teams, Louisiana State and Minnesota, all too willing to upset the nice, neat little order of things that Connecticut and Tennessee have established.

"We all made it here, both Minnesota and us," said LSU point guard Temeka Johnson. "We were capable of making it here. So, I don't think we should feel as an underdog. I think we should feel as one of the top four teams that's here playing ... in the semifinals and trying to advance to the national championship game."

The Golden Gophers (25-8) and Lady Tigers (27-7) bring impressive players and compelling stories to the national championship hunt.

Minnesota, three years removed from an eight-win season, arrived here for tonight's meeting with defending two-time champion Connecticut (29-4), flush from a remarkable run through the Mideast Regional, where, from the seventh seed, they joined the 1994 Alabama team as the only two in women's history to take out the top three seeds in a regional to advance to the Final Four.

The Gophers, however, are hardly a Cinderella team. They won their first 15 games of the season and being ranked in the top 10 most of the season. That is, until two-time All-America point guard Lindsay Whalen broke two bones in her right, or shooting, hand, during the first half of a game against Ohio State.

Whalen, the leading scorer in school history, male or female, missed seven games, and Minnesota lost that game against the Buckeyes and four more, nearly falling out of the top 10 and out of a high seed.

"Minnesota's the No. 7 seed and what a joke," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "They're the best seventh seed team in the history of college basketball because Lindsay Whalen got hurt and they lost a couple of games. And had she been healthy, they might have been a No. 1 or 2 seed. You don't know."

What the Gophers know is that their inside-outside combination of Whalen and junior center Janel McCarville, who leads the tournament in rebounding with 17 a game, gives them a fighting chance to stay with and possibly beat the Huskies.

"We really do play well as the underdog ... ," said McCarville. "Yet, we do have the confidence to come in and think we can win it all. We have been playing great as of late. Obviously, we're not going to try to change anything."

A Minnesota win would be fairly seismic, as no team seeded below four has ever played in the national championship game. The Huskies, the second seed in the East, are making an unprecedented fifth straight Final Four appearance and looking for their third straight title, which would pair them with the 1996-1998 Tennessee teams as the only women's squads to threepeat.

"I think just the experience we have had and knowing that we have been in these big games before, I think that helps us," said three-time All America guard Diana Taurasi. "I think throughout this year, we have learned a lot of things about ourselves, so in a game like that, I think we step on a court and we're confident with each other and what we can do."

Meanwhile, LSU, the runner-up in the Southeastern Conference regular season to Tennessee (30-3), has its own star, sophomore Seimone Augustus, the tournament's leading scorer at 26.2 points per game. Augustus, a 6-foot-1 guard from Baton Rouge, is shooting 66 percent from the field for the tournament, and has scored 20 or more points in her past six games.

"That's just a part of our offense," said Augustus of her scoring. "I've had nice looks and I knocked them down. It's all about my teammates. They have made great screens and I've just made great cuts. But none of the points have been plays called only for me. It's just within our offense that my points came."

Those points will need to come in bunches for LSU to have a shot at knocking off Tennessee, the tournament's overall top seed, making its record 15th national semifinal appearance. The Lady Vols, who have been playing without point guard Loree Moore, who suffered a knee injury in a January win over Duke, and are a largely, blue-collar nameless, faceless team.

Yet they stand two wins away from a record-extending seventh national championship and their fourth in the past eight years.

"I think when Loree went down, they really had to have a self-examination of who they were individually and how they could be stronger collectively because of it," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

Tonight's games

No. 1 Tennessee (30-3) vs. No. 4 LSU (27-7)

Time: 7

Where: New Orleans Arena

TV: ESPN

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