Thursday, March 11, 1999

Rough road to the Shoe for UC, XU women

UConn good bet to make it to Mideast Regional

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati connection is probably not a topic to broach with Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma. Auriemma's team is seeded No. 1 in the women's Mideast Regional, which comes through UC's Shoemaker Center for semifinal play March 20 and 22.

        The last time UConn was ticketed for the Queen City, the Huskies never made it.

        On March 24, 1997, top-ranked UConn was 33-0 and seemed guaranteed to reach the women's Final Four in Cincinnati. But the Huskies were ambushed 91-81 that night by underdog Tennesee in the regional finals at Iowa City, Iowa.

        Tennessee (27-10) went on to win the NCAA title at at Riverfront Coliseum, which since has been renamed twice (The Crown, Firstar Center).

        Auriemma didn't mention Cincinnati when discussing the 1999 tournament this week.

        “I never go into any depth (looking at brackets) because it's hard to figure what the committee is thinking,” he told Connecticut writers this week. “But I thought we'd be a first seed in the East, and if that wasn't the scenario, then I thought we'd go West. I never envisioned the Mideast.”

        It seems likely UConn will reach Cincinnati this time. All the Huskies must do is win twice on their home court, and in the competitively unbalanced world of Division I basketball, top powers such as UConn are virtually unbeatable at home.

        A look at some of the Mideast teams and matchups, which include several local angles:

        No. 1 seed Connecticut (27-4) could face No. 8 seed Xavier (23-8) in the second round at UConn.

        • No. 12 seed Cincinnati (22-8) faces a tough road home to Shoemaker. The Bearcats must beat No. 5 seed Oregon (24-5) and then probably have to face No. 4 Iowa State (22-7) on Iowa State's home court in Ames, Iowa.

        • No. 6 seed Toledo (25-5) is coached by former Xavier coach Mark Ehlen. But getting to Cincinnati would probably require beating No. 3 seed Georgia in the second round at Georgia.

        Ehlen wishes a proposed NCAA rule change would have come a year earlier. The early-round home sites may be nixed for all neutral sites by next year.

        “I wish they would have started it this year,” Ehlen said. “Playing on a neutral site evens it out. For us, Xavier and Cincinnati to get through, all of us would really have to have great tournament experiences.”

        Meaning, superhuman experiences. The early-round home games have been staged mainly as a way of drawing crowds, but Ehlen and other coaches believe women's basketball has grown beyond that stage.

        For now, the powers-that-be still have the power. And the giant of the Mideast is undoubtedly UConn, the NCAA champ in 1995 — and the last school besides Tennessee to win the NCAA women's title.

        “You'd have to say UConn is the team in this region,” Ehlen said. “They've just been awesome. They had some injuries, but they just kept rolling along.”

        A look at the top four Mideast seeds:

        • No. 1 CONNECTICUT (27-4) is led by 6-2 sophomore forward Svetlana Abrosimova (17.5 ppg), 6-0 sophomore guard Shea Ralph (16.8) and 6-2 freshman forward Tamika Williams (13.9). Williams, from Dayton Chaminade-Julienne High School, was the Gatorade Circle of Champions national prep player of the year for the 1997-98 season.

        Outlook: With three sophomores and two freshmen starting, UConn might be a year away. But they could easily make the Final Four, despite uneven play at point guard.

        • No. 2 CLEMSON (24-5) is led by 5-11 senior guard Amy Green (14.3 ppg), 6-0 senior forward Natasha Anderson (12.5), 5-6 senior guard Itoro Umoh (12.5) and 6-3 senior forward Nikki Blassingame (10.2).

        Outlook: The Tigers have four seniors, good inside-outside balance and momentum from winning the ACC tournament. Some believe they will make a deep tournament run.

        • No. 3 GEORGIA (23-6) has one of the game's coaching titans in Andy Landers, who has 482 wins and four Final Four appearances in 20 seasons. The Lady Bulldogs feature the Miller twins, Coco (19.2 ppg) and Kelly (18.3) on the perimeter. Both are 5-10 sophomore guards.

        Outlook: After a first-round '98 NCAA loss to George Washington and a '97 Elite Eight blowout loss to Stanford, Georgia wants to make some noise. It has the talent to reach the Final Four but lacks depth inside, and has just one senior.

        • No. 4 IOWA STATE (22-7) is a rising program in just its third NCAA tournament. The Cyclones reached the second round last year. They are led by 5-8 junior guard Stacy Frese (16.9 ppg) and 5-11 sophomore forward Megan Taylor (16.3).

        Outlook: With no senior starters, the Cyclones may be stronger next year. But they do have balanced scoring, good rebounding and solid defense and easily could reach the Sweet 16.

        Mel Greenberg, a Philadelphia Inquirer journalist and a top authority on women's basketball, said Connecticut is the “prohibitive” choice to emerge from the Mideast. Greenberg compiled and released the first national women's top 20 poll in 1976.

        Greenberg said the UCs and Xaviers of the women's world are making inroads. He said the talent gap between the great powers (Tennessee, UConn, Louisiana Tech, et al.) and the mid-major teams is narrowing, if slightly, each year.

        “You've got some eight and nine seeds that can do some damage now,” Greenberg said. “There is some flux going on with the middle teams, but you're not going to see real parity until those No. 1 seeds start changing. That hasn't happened yet.”


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