Spotlight of UConn illuminates Stanford

Power matchup comes early today in Sweet 16

March 27, 2005|By Mike Terry | Mike Terry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Today's Kansas City Regional game between Stanford and Connecticut, which have won seven NCAA women's basketball championships between them, is the kind of matchup most basketball fans would want to see in a Final Four, or at least a regional final. Instead, it will be the second semifinal game following Michigan State-Vanderbilt.

Stanford (31-2), seeded second, has done its best to downplay any disappointment about not getting a No. 1 seed in this year's tournament after ending the regular season as the nation's top-ranked team. But the Cardinal players suggest the decision was another example of the lack of respect the Pacific-10 Conference feels it gets from the selection committee.

Unless Stanford reaches the Final Four, which the Cardinal last visited in 1996, it won't have a better chance to prove to demonstrate its worthiness. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer isn't thinking that way - "a wasted effort," she said - but her senior-laden Cardinal squad considers it a focal point.

"For some reason the [selection] committee doesn't seem to think the Pac-10 or the West has the power to go all the way," said Stanford forward Azella Perryman. "So, if anything, we're glad we get to play the UConns and the Tennessees on the way to a Final Four. Because we can show people we just didn't get here on a golden road paved for a No. 1 seed. We've had to work every step of the way."

The third-seeded Huskies (29-7) have won the past three NCAA titles and haven't lost in the Sweet 16 since 1999, against Iowa State. They haven't lost in the tournament at all since 2001, against eventual national champion Notre Dame. They are 30-1 overall during this stretch and have a 20-game winning streak, which is one shy of the record set by Tennessee from 1996 to '99.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, while saying his team is playing "its best basketball on the season," contends Stanford provides a critical test.

"A lot of what happens on Sunday depends on if we get [behind]," Auriemma said. "Stanford is probably the best offensive team we've played this year. So how we'll handle it if they score quickly and often ... I don't know.

"We've had adversity this season, and I'm a firm believer that adversity builds character. The [seven losses] in some ways made us question ourselves more. And it took us a long time to turn that corner. We hadn't experienced that in the past and didn't know how to react to losing."

Of course neither Michigan State (30-3) nor fifth-seeded Vanderbilt (24-7) came west to be considered afterthoughts. Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb, in her third season, is happy her team is flying below the Connecticut-Stanford radar.

"I know some people like to have all the attention and like to be on top," Balcomb said. "I like being able to be the underdog and play free of the pressure on a No. 1 seed, or have the pressure on big name schools. I like being a spoiler, and I think our team likes that."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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