Spring looks a lot brighter to state Division I women's teams


In the past two seasons, the Mount St. Mary's women's basketball team has won or shared two Northeast Conference championships and won an NEC tournament. But the team sat out the NCAA tournament because its league had no automatic bid nor enough clout to get an at-large nod, even for its tournament winner.

The Mountaineers may still stay home during March, but, thanks to last summer's expansion of the tournament, they'll be able to control their destiny.

"We have another goal to shoot for," said Candy Cage, assistant coach at the Mount. "It [the tournament expansion] gives us something to look forward to, and the kids are really excited about it."

Women's basketball advocates have been clamoring for years for an expansion of the NCAA tournament field from 48 to 64 teams, and the NCAA Executive Committee granted their request.

"This is a very positive move," said Maryland coach Chris Weller. "There was a time when we [the women's game] weren't ready, but the game has gotten so much better. That's obvious from the Final Four, where we have four brand new teams."

In addition, the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee, which governs the tournament, chose to grant all 32 conferences that offer women's basketball automatic bids.

That is important to the Mount, Navy of the Patriot League, UMBC and Towson State of the Big South and Coppin State, Morgan State and UMES of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference -- schools in conferences that until this season did not have automatic bids.

"I never would have taken the job here without the Big South having the automatic bid," said incoming UMBC coach Kathy Solano. "It kind of gives the kids a sense of exhilaration if they can go through and get into the tournament. It's a tremendous incentive for our players. We have a chance to compete, and now everybody has a chance."

Said Navy coach Debra Schlegel: "It's going to lend a lot of credibility to the Patriot League, and it's going to enhance our program knowing that we have the opportunity to participate."

Besides the chance to play for the national championship, the tournament expansion should help boost recruiting efforts of local schools.

"Schools in the middle of conferences with automatic bids used to use that against us when they recruited kids that we went after," said Coppin State coach Tori Harrison. "Now, we can tell the kids that we probably have as good a chance as they do to make it, maybe better. I don't think there's that much to differentiate us from other schools now."

There are disadvantages, even to getting an invitation. Just as in the men's tournament, the women's field will be seeded 1-16 in each of four regions, but first- and second-round games will be played on the court of the higher seed.

So, for all the effort and ecstasy of getting into the tournament, a team may be heading right into an opening-game blowout on someone else's floor.

"Oh, we know we'll have the lowest seed," said Cage. "I mean, the Rider men from our conference got in last year and had to play Kentucky in the first round. We'll probably get blasted, but we don't really care. We just want to get there. And besides, you never know what might happen."

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