Sunday, March 11, 2001

Women's Tournament Preview

Injuries make Tennessee, UConn vulnerable

AP Sports Writer

        Defending champion Connecticut and Tennessee were seeded No. 1 in the NCAA women's basketball tournament Sunday, even though injuries leave some uncertainty over how far each can advance.

        The other No. 1 seeds went to Notre Dame and Duke, which edged Georgia for the final spot.

        Tennessee, the No. 1 seed overall, tops the bracket in the Mideast Regional and Connecticut was installed as the top-seed in the East.

        Notre Dame was placed in the Midwest Regional and Duke in the West, meaning the Blue Devils would have to fly across the country if they reach the West Regional in Spokane, Wash. The other regionals are in Pittsburgh (East), Birmingham, Ala. (Mideast) and Denver (Midwest).

        The Mideast and East winners would not meet until the national championship game in St. Louis on April 1, so another Tennessee-Connecticut matchup for the title is possible — if they can survive that long.

        Connecticut beat Tennessee 71-52 in last year's championship game in Philadelphia. They split two regular-season games this season, each winning at home.

        First-round games are Friday and Saturday at campus sites.

        The selection committee ranked the No. 1 seeds as follows: Tennessee, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Duke. The difference between Duke and Georgia for the final No. 1 seed came down to performance in conference play.

        Duke was the regular season and tournament champion in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Georgia won the Southeastern Conference tournament, but finished three games behind league champion Tennessee in the regular season.

        The Lady Bulldogs are seeded second in the East.

        Connecticut (28-2) goes into the tournament with 11 straight victories but without its two first-team All-Americans from last season, Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph.

        Abrosimova tore a ligament in her left foot in a loss Feb. 1 at Tennessee. Ralph, the MVP at last year's Final Four, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in the Huskies' 78-76 victory over Notre Dame in the conference tournament championship game.

        “We always said we were a great team. We never said we were perfect,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We're a little imperfect right now, a little bit banged up. But I don't think anybody is going to want to play us when it comes to crunch time.”

        Connecticut has won every game since Abrosimova went out, but Ralph's injury could complicate things for the Huskies in later rounds. Though not as gifted physically as Abrosimova, Ralph often set the tone for UConn with her gritty, determined play.

        “I think UConn has already proven they can play without those players,” said Maryalyce Jeremiah, who chairs the selection committee. “They did early on when they lost Abrosimova, and they also did when they lost Shea Ralph.

        “Those are huge losses for them, but I think they have proven they have earned that spot and can play and be competitive.”

        Tennessee, a No. 1 seed for the 13th time in the last 14 years, lost Tamika Catchings, twice a first-team All-American, to a torn ACL in a win Jan. 15 over Mississippi State. Others took up the slack and the Lady Vols (29-2) won 13 straight after Catchings went out before losing to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament semifinals.

        “If we were in fact the No. 1 seed in the country, I thought that we should be,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. “I didn't know if the loss to Vanderbilt would take us out of that position, but I felt we'd earned that right.”

        Notre Dame (28-2), which shared the Big East regular-season title with UConn, and Duke (28-3) were seeded No. 1 for the first time. Notre Dame began the season with 23 straight victories and earned its first No. 1 ranking in history before losing by one point at Rutgers.

        Jeremiah was questioned repeatedly in a conference call with reporters about Georgia. If the Lady Bulldogs were so close to being a No. 1, why were they put in a region with Connecticut and No. 3 seed Louisiana Tech?

        “They couldn't stay in the Mideast,” because Tennessee was there, Jeremiah said. “The East was the next closest region.”

        The Lady Bulldgos were puzzled, too.

        “I'm actually disappointed,” guard Coco Miller said. “I kind of felt like we had played a tough schedule and had some good wins. After winning the SEC tournament, I definitely thought we deserved a No. 1 seed.”

        The first- and second-round games will be played on the home courts of the 16 highest-seeded teams with one exception. Iowa, seeded fourth in the Midwest, could not be at home because its arena will be used for the NCAA wrestling championships later this week.

        The Hawkeyes, winners of the Big Ten tournament, will play in a subregional at fifth-seeded Utah.

        Both Texas and Arkansas got in after finishing with losing records in conference play. Texas was 7-9 in the Big 12; Arkansas went 6-8 in the SEC.

        The five highest-rated leagues — SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Big East — accounted for nearly half the field with 29 teams.

        The Big 12 led with seven teams: Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Baylor, Colorado, Missouri and Texas. The SEC and ACC each got six teams in the tournament, while the Big East and Big Ten have five apiece.

        The surprise of the field was Fairfield, which received an at-large bid out of the Metro Atlantic Conference, a league that usually sends only its champion. Fairfield (25-5) lost to automatic qualifier Siena 70-68 in the conference tournament championship game.

        While middle-of-the-pack teams from the power leagues made it, Cincinnati was left out after going 22-9. It finished second in its division in Conference USA and reached the finals of the conference tournament.

        Santa Clara (20-7) was also bypassed. It shared the regular-season title in the West Coast Conference, but lost in the first round of the league tournament. tournament coverage

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