Saturday, April 02, 2005

Up for grabs in Indy

INDIANAPOLIS – For the first time in six years Connecticut isn't one of the last four teams standing. For the first time in four years the Huskies won't cut down the nets.

That is the beauty of this Final Four.

There is no true favorite among Baylor, LSU, Michigan State and Tennessee. Only the Lady Vols have won a national title, but it's been seven years since their last one.

Too often, women's basketball's showcase event has been a predictable coronation rather than a hotly contested clash for the championship.

"I don't think people totally care [that] an underdog has to win it," Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie says. "I guess the more important thing is the quality of competition and the battles."

Quality of competition shouldn't be a problem here. While these schools don't have much of a Final Four history, they have a history with one another.

In Baylor's season opener, LSU escaped with a 71-70 win after the Lady Bears trailed by 19 at halftime. Both teams have lost just twice since.

"I definitely had a good feeling that we would see them again," Baylor post Steffanie Blackmon said. "And you always want a second shot. What if we don't have a first half like that; what's going to be the outcome?"

Then there are the coaches. Baylor's Kim Mulkey-Robertson is Louisiana through and through – "LSU was all I ever heard of growing up until I left to go to Louisiana Tech to play," she said. As an assistant with the Lady Techsters, she recruited Pokey Chatman, who decided to attend LSU.

Now LSU's coach, Chatman can become the first person to lead a team to the NCAA title in her first full season.

Both Baylor and LSU would relish a chance to upend Tennessee in the title game – if, of course, the Lady Vols get past Michigan State.

The Lady Tigers lost last month's SEC tournament championship game to the Lady Vols. And LSU's first-ever Final Four trip ended in a 52-50 loss to Tennessee in a national semifinal last season.

Baylor's loss to Tennessee in last year's tourney may have been even more bitter. The Lady Bears wore a shirt with "0.2" on it this season to remind them of the controversial finish of their 71-69 loss to the Lady Vols in last year's Sweet 16 (a hotly disputed foul with two-tenths of a second left sent Tennessee to the line for the winning free throws).

So if the Lady Vols reach the final, they'll meet a motivated opponent with the talent to deny Tennessee a record seventh title.

But Michigan State, Tennessee's semifinal opponent, is more than the token "happy to be here" team. The Spartans beat Stanford when it was No. 1, Ohio State when it was No. 2, and Notre Dame when it was No. 3. They won by 16 at UConn.

They don't fear the Lady Vols.

"They have a tradition. They really do," MSU center Kelli Roehrig said. "[But] when we step on the court it's Michigan State of now versus Tennessee of now."

No matter which team ultimately comes out on top, you won't find anyone associated with this Final Four that doesn't appreciate what's about to happen here.

"You're always going to see the Tennessees and those guys because they committed long ago when nobody else did and they've got a legendary coach," Mulkey-Robertson said. "But it's good for some of us new folks to get a little bit of exposure."

Lady Vol head coach Pat Summitt agrees.

"I get real emotional sometimes just when I turn on the tube and I see all the fans and just see the level of play and to see players like Kim and Pokey that are now coaching the game," Summitt said.

"To me that's what it's all about."

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