Baylor, Michigan State testing rarefied air

First-ever appearances in women's Final Four bringing special thrills

NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament

April 03, 2005|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - The realization that this weekend would be different than the rest of the season hit Baylor forward Steffanie Blackmon on Thursday night when a local girls youth league basketball team greeted the Lady Bears with screams and yells and green and gold balloons as they arrived at their hotel.

The blur hasn't cleared since, but that doesn't mean that, having reached the pinnacle of their sport, the Baylor players plan to be content with merely reaching their first-ever NCAA women's Final Four.

"Teams can definitely fall into that trap," said Blackmon. "That was one of our goals, to get to the Final Four, but we're so hungry, and we're not going to accept just being here.

"I think a lot of people say, `We're happy to be here.' But we're not satisfied just being here. We're here, like everybody else, to win a national championship."

For Baylor (31-3) and Michigan State (32-3), the other school making its first Final Four appearance, green isn't just a color the two teams share. It also describes the relative lack of postseason experience the Lady Bears and Spartans bring to the RCA Dome for tonight's national semifinals.

Baylor, which won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles this year, advanced here in only its fourth NCAA tournament appearance, going from last year's trip to the Sweet 16 straight to a matchup with Louisiana State (33-2) in tonight's first game.

Michigan State, which shared the Big Ten regular-season crown with Ohio State before winning the conference tournament, arrived here in only its sixth tournament trip.

The Spartans will meet Tennessee (30-4), the school with the most tournament experience of all, with six national titles and 16 Final Four appearances, as well as playing in all 24 NCAA tournaments.

"It's just another game," said Michigan State point guard Kristin Haynie. "We've played great teams this season and we've played a great schedule. Everyone's great. We're great, Tennessee's great and it's just going to be a great game [tonight]."

Spartans coach Joanne McCallie, who was the head coach at Maine before coming to East Lansing four years ago, thinks her team isn't getting enough credit for succeeding under pressure this year, having beaten Connecticut, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Minnesota, all highly seeded tournament teams.

"I would picture the [Tennessee] game like you're playing at Knoxville, like you completely have all things going against you. And then, what are you going to do after that?" said McCallie.

"I just think this team needs, deserves credit for the schedule they played and how they did with the schedule they played."

For Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who passed North Carolina men's coach Dean Smith for all-time Division I career wins with the Lady Vols' second-round victory over Purdue, getting to this platform has become second nature.

"I'm amazed at being back here a number of times, how much more comfortable I am," said Summitt, making her fourth straight trip to the Final Four.

"I can remember I didn't understand what I was going into [at her first Final Four] and, at that point, I was nervous. And obviously you try and keep that from your players and just try to prepare them."

Meanwhile, the Lady Bears, who narrowly missed out on a No. 1 seed to North Carolina, whom they beat in the Tempe Regional final, have moved quickly through the ranks of women's college basketball, from 7-20 in coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson's first year four seasons ago to the best record in school history.

"We couldn't go out and sell this program. We got players who wanted to play immediately and who wanted a quality education from Baylor," said Mulkey-Robertson, the first woman to play (Louisiana Tech) and coach in a Final Four. "It's happened rapidly, and I don't think any of us expected it to happen this quickly."

LSU's Lady Tigers, who finished first in the Southeastern Conference regular season before losing to Tennessee in the tournament final, have the benefit of appearing in last year's Final Four, their first-ever trip, where they lost to the Lady Vols. They've seen this movie before first-hand.

"Obviously, it helps because so many of the kids have been here before and they're able to disseminate some of that information to the young kids and give them a prelude to what's to come," said LSU coach Dana "Pokey" Chatman.

"Fortunately for me, I'm blessed with some kids that are really good about perspective. They're not really high, they don't get too low. They're very methodical and business-like in their approach."

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