March 26, 2005

Illinois Edges Past Arizona in Chicago Final

Deron Williams scored 22 points and sparked a late Illinois comeback, as the Illini advanced to the Final Four with a thrilling 90-89 overtime victory over Arizona in the Chicago Region final of the NCAA Tournament.

Louisville Wins Albuquerque Final

Larry O'Bannon scored five of his 24 points in overtime, and Louisville advanced to its first Final Four in 19 years with a 93-85 victory over West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament's Albuquerque Regional final.

Duke 63, Georgia 57

Opposing defenses worry about Monique Currie's offense. But they should also be concerned with the Duke All-American's rebounding. Currie and Mistie Williams led the Blue Devils' attack of the boards, a key in their 63-57 victory over Georgia.

LSU 90, Liberty 48

LSU showed again why it is good to be the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Lady Tigers posted their third straight blowout victory against an overmatched opponent, this time beating 13th-seeded Liberty 90-48 Saturday.

(3) Connecticut (25-7) vs. (2) Stanford (31-2)
Game Info: 10:00 pm EST Sun Mar 27, 2005
Kansas City Region - Municipal Auditorium (Kansas City, MO)

Not receiving a No. 1 seed despite finishing the season as the top-ranked team in the country hasn't been a factor in Stanford's run through the NCAA tournament -- until now.

After breezing past their first two opponents, the second-seeded Cardinal are now confronted with the daunting task of ending the reign of three-time defending national champion Connecticut in the regional semifinals.

Though Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer shrugged off the selection committee's snub both before and after easy victories over Santa Clara and Utah in the opening rounds, she did let on that her team could have waited another few days, or even a week, to face the Huskies.

``I think there's probably some people surprised that it's a regional semifinal game and not a regional final or a Final Four game,'' she said. ``I'm sure UConn feels the same way.

``I think it will be hard because one team is not going to move on. I'm sure both feel they're deserving of being an Elite Eight team or a Final Four team, but the bracket was not designed that way.''

The Stanford-UConn game is a rarity for the NCAAs -- the nation's No. 1-ranked team against the defending champion. The only other such game occurred in 1997, when Tennessee beat top-ranked Connecticut in a regional final on the way to the second of its three straight NCAA championships.

The third-seeded Huskies have cruised to easy wins over Dartmouth and Florida State to reach their 12th consecutive regional semifinal. Connecticut has won 20 straight tournament games -- one shy of Tennessee's all-time record -- dating to a loss to Notre Dame in the 2001 Final Four.

Though his team has had its way thus far, UConn coach Geno Auriemma expects a much stiffer challenge from the Cardinal.

``Hopefully we can come out with the same energy level on Sunday because it's going to be a whole different ball of wax,'' he said.

The Huskies used superior depth and defense to dominate Florida State on Tuesday. Ann Strother scored 19 points, and Jessica Moore had 11 points, 12 rebounds and three steals as UConn won its sixth in a row overall.

``Defensively we covered everything we wanted to cover. Offensively, we were really in sync with each other,'' Auriemma said. ``When we put in a whole new group, I think it took its toll on Florida State because I think they were already a little bit winded.''

The Cardinal have reeled off 22 wins in a row, including Tuesday's 88-62 rout of Utah. Brooke Smith scored 20 points to lead five players in double figures as Stanford got by without a big effort from top scorer Candice Wiggins, who finished with eight points in 25 minutes.

``We're really excited about what's to come,'' Smith said. ``What's really great about us right now is we're not expecting to win, but we're excited to win.''

Stanford leads the all-time series 3-2, but has lost its last two meetings with UConn, including an 87-60 defeat at the 1995 Final Four. The Huskies went on to win their first national title that year.

The winner will face either top-seeded Michigan State or No. 5 seed Vanderbilt on Tuesday for a trip to Indianapolis.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Connecticut - F Barbara Turner (10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), C Moore (8.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg), G Nicole Wolff (4.2 ppg, 2.2 apg), G Strother (13.0 ppg, 3.2 apg), G Ashley Valley (2.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg). Stanford - F Wiggins (17.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.8 apg), F Kristen Newlin (8.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), C Smith (13.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg), G Kelley Suminski (11.2 ppg, 2.7 apg), G Susan Borchardt (8.3 ppg, 1.7 apg).

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Connecticut - Automatic bid, Big East tournament champion; beat No. 14 Dartmouth 95-47, first round; beat No. 6 Florida 70-52, second round. Stanford - Automatic bid, Pac-10 champion; beat No. 15 Santa Clara 94-57, first round; beat No. 10 Utah 88-62, second round.

ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Connecticut - 55-11, 17 years. Stanford - 42-16, 19 years.

UConn faces major challenge in Final Four bid

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Connecticut has run into some major hazards on the road to its five national championships. Close calls, determined opponents and usually, somewhere along the line, Tennessee.

But a game against the nation's No. 1-ranked team in the regional semifinals? No, the Huskies haven't seen anything like this since they burst onto the national scene with their first NCAA title in 1995.

To get to the next step in its bid to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive championship, third-seeded Connecticut (25-7) has to beat second-seeded Stanford on Sunday in the semifinals of the Kansas City Regional. It's a matchup of two power-packed programs steeped in tradition.

Neither would look out of place at the Final Four, but only one will even make it to the final eight.

``As we were coming out here, we were thinking that each and every year, these two (regional) games are probably the most difficult games that you need to win,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

``And certainly this year when you think about the level of competition that's out here, it's probably more difficult than any other time that we've experienced in the last 10 or 11 years.''

The other semifinal has been overshadowed by the UConn-Stanford matchup, but it's a worthy game, too -- top-seeded Michigan State against fifth-seeded Vanderbilt. And if those teams might be flying under the radar a little -- if that's possible for a No. 1 seed -- then so be it.

Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie just wants to keep flying.

``We'll fly anywhere to the Final Four,'' McCallie said. ``Under the radar, over the radar, it doesn't matter.''

Stanford, which has won two national titles, comes in on the kind of roll that usually propels Connecticut into NCAA play. The Cardinal have the nation's longest winning streak at 22 and they've won those games by an average of 23.5 points.

They have a rising star in freshman Candice Wiggins, a second-team All-American; a solid post player in 6-foot-3 sophomore Brooke Smith and plenty of experience to go with them. A certain mystique has built up around Connecticut because of its incredible success, which includes 20 straight victories in the NCAAs, but that isn't likely to bother the Cardinal.

``I don't think you can say there isn't a mystique about them, but I think our team is really focusing more on ourselves,'' Stanford guard Susan King Borchardt said. ``We know it's going to be a good game. It's exciting for all of women's basketball. We're just going to be ready to play.''

Connecticut has lost more games this season than any UConn team since 1992-93, including three at home. At midseason, a sixth straight Final Four trip seemed out of the question.

No more. The Huskies have won six straight and nine of their last 10 and with a 10-player rotation, Auriemma has lots of options.

``We just have this understanding that this is March. You're one and done now,'' center Jessica Moore said. ``There's no more games to get better. We've been playing awesome. It seems like from one to 13, everybody's confidence level just raised up even higher.''

Some have suggested UConn has its swagger back. Auriemma won't go that far. These players, he said, aren't cut that way.

``We're very, very laid back,'' he said. ``We've been a very reactionary-type of group this year as opposed to where we walk out and we want to dictate how the battle's going to be fought. We're kind of wait and see. That's not normal for us, but that's kind of what we have.''

All the attention on UConn and Stanford has made Michigan State-Vanderbilt almost an afterthought. But if those two feel slighted, they're not showing it. Vanderbilt, in fact, seems to relish having the spotlight on someone else.

``I want to be able to surprise people,'' coach Melanie Balcomb said. ``I think it's easier to do that than to be the one everybody's looking at. I'm hoping a number one seed is looking past playing a number five and looking toward playing a UConn and a Stanford because of the whole recognition thing.''

Michigan State hasn't played like a No. 1 seed yet. The Spartans have looked tight and needed a last-second shot to beat eighth-seeded Southern California in the second round.

But this is all new for the Spartans, who went from being a No. 8 seed last year to the No. 1 now and are in the round of 16 for the first time.

``We played like we had a lot of stuff on our shoulders, like we had heavy shoulders the first couple of games,'' guard Kristin Haynie said. ``We just need to let loose and be free. That's what we did in practice. So tomorrow, hopefully we'll see a change in us and have more fun and play more free.''

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