Thursday, April 3, 2003

Star power, tradition in women's four



By Chuck Schoffner
The Associated Press

Diana Taurasi and Alana Beard will be there. So will "Rocky Top" and "Hook 'em, horns!" The women's Final Four will feature two of the game's top stars, a ton of tradition and plenty of orange.

Taurasi will lead defending champion Connecticut against Texas in one semifinal at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Sunday. Duke, which looks to Beard for leadership at both ends of the floor, faces six-time champion Tennessee.

If this group looks familiar, well, it should. Connecticut, Tennessee and Duke reached last year's Final Four. Texas is bringing the burnt orange to the sport's showcase event for the first time since 1987, the year after the Longhorns won the national championship.

Texas coach Jody Conradt has 817 victories, second only to Tennessee's Pat Summitt, who has 820.

Connecticut (35-1) made it the national semifinals for the fourth straight year despite losing four starters from last season's unbeaten team. Coach Geno Auriemma has no seniors and his new starters include two freshmen. A third freshman plays major minutes.

"I don't think people really understand what we went through and what Coach has gone through with us," forward Jessica Moore said. "For us to be here is just amazing, and it's like a sense of relief, a real blessing for me. I just feel so proud to be a part of our team."

Tennessee's orange-clad faithful will follow the Lady Vols (32-4) to their 14th Final Four and clap with gusto every time the band strikes up "Rocky Top."

This is the last chance for Kara Lawson and the other Tennessee seniors to win a title. The Lady Vols lost to UConn in the semifinals last year and haven't won a title since 1998.

"This is a confident group. We believe in each other," Lawson said. "We want to go a couple of steps further this year."

Duke (35-1), which has lost only to Connecticut, is in the Final Four for the third time in five years. The Blue Devils are the only team in the field without a national championship, but they've won 15 straight games and have been playing outstanding defense.

Texas (29-5), winner its last 17 games, was the No. 2 seed in the West Regional. The other semifinalists were seeded No. 1.

The Longhorns' men's team also reached the Final Four.

The matchups:

Duke vs. Tennessee

Duke's 76-55 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 24 was so long ago that it's hard to draw any conclusions from it. But Summitt hasn't forgotten it. Nor has she forgotten her team's 63-62 overtime loss at Connecticut on Jan. 4.

"Anytime you get beat along the way, you immediately want to play again," Summitt said. "When we saw the brackets, we saw that we had a great opportunity for revenge. We shouldn't need motivation. (But) we do have something to prove."

Tennessee is deeper than Duke and has the athletes and size to stay with Beard and 6-foot-4 Iciss Tillis, who plays on the perimeter and inside.

The Lady Vols have the consummate leader in Lawson, who has played every game as if it were her last. At 6-2, Gwen Jackson can shoot from the perimeter or post up, and with her deep bench, Summitt can go with a big lineup, a small lineup or a combination.

Beard, a smooth left-hander, is tough to defend because she can drive, pull up for the jumper or hit the fadeaway from in close. She's also Duke's best defender.

So far, Beard has been carrying Duke in the NCAA tournament. To beat Tennessee, she'll need more help from Tillis, Sheana Mosch, Mistie Bass and Michele Matyasovsky.

Connecticut vs. Texas

Connecticut's young players have rallied around Taurasi, the only returning starter. She's averaging 25.8 points in the tournament, prompting Auriemma to compare what she has done to when Larry Bird led Indiana State to the 1979 Final Four.

"That's the last person I can think of that had a cast of characters that nobody will ever remember on the men's side," Auriemma said. "I think D has the same sort of responsibility. She's got to do a little bit of everything every night. It really has been remarkable."

Moore has become a key player after averaging only 3.8 points in last year's NCAA tournament. Freshmen Barbara Turner, Ann Strother and Willnett Crockett all have had big moments - and some sour ones, too. But Taurasi usually has been there to bail them out.

Texas could give the Huskies trouble with its inside duo of Heather Schreiber and Stacy Stephens. The Longhorns also have a heady point guard in Jamie Carey, a good shooter who left Stanford after a series of concussions and was cleared to play at Texas.

The victory that sent Texas to the Final Four, 78-60 over top-seeded LSU, came on Stanford's floor.

"Since I was in the seventh grade, I dreamed of cutting down the nets at Stanford to go to the Final Four," Carey said.




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