UConn women face unlikely foe in Tar Heels


PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- When the brackets for the NCAA tournament were announced two weeks ago, everyone pointed toward a possible North Carolina-Connecticut meeting in the East Regional final.

And, for once, the pairings yielded the desired matchup. Not in Miami, where the men will compete tomorrow, but in the Louis Brown Athletic Center at Rutgers University, where the women play today.

That the Tar Heels (30-2), the third seed in the East, are present for today's proceedings is almost as unlikely as, say, the North Carolina men losing to Boston College last week.

Charlotte Smith, North Carolina's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, was forced by NCAA rules to sit out Thursday's regional semifinal game against Vanderbilt because she was ejected from Sunday's second-round game for fighting.

Without Smith, the Tar Heels shut out the Commodores over the final three minutes to win, 73-69.

The fact that her teammates were able to win in her absence doesn't mean Smith, a first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection and the ACC tournament's Most Valuable Player, wasn't shaken by the experience.

"As they [her teammates] were warming up, I was thinking about what had happened and how I couldn't be a part of it," said Smith. "I started crying behind the bench. It was really hard to watch. I tried to be a part of the team, but it was really difficult."

Smith's return could make matters quite difficult for the Huskies (30-2), the region's top seed and the Big East regular-season and tournament champion.

"If I was Sylvia [Hatchell, North Carolina coach], I wouldn't play her. They did pretty well without her. She could screw things up," joked Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.

Smith's return, however, makes an interesting matchup all the more intriguing.

The Tar Heels, whose only losses this year came to Virginia in the regular season, are one of the quickest teams in women's basketball, and their backcourt combination of senior Tonya Sampson and freshman Marion Jones will likely trap and press the Husky guards, attempting to force turnovers and to pick up the pace.

"We haven't played against guards this fast," said Auriemma. "The challenge is probably the greatest we've had all season, but no two players are better at living up to the challenge than [Connecticut guards] Jen Rizzotti and Pam Webber."

North Carolina, meanwhile, will have to contend with Connecticut's depth -- nine players average at least 12 minutes a game -- and size.

At times, the Huskies play 6-foot-4 junior Rebecca Lobo, the Big East Player of the Year, who is as adept on the perimeter as down low, and Kara Wolters, a 6-7 freshman who led the Big East in field-goal shooting (62.8 percent).

"We've played some teams in the ACC with that kind of height, so I think we'll be OK," said Hatchell. "Athletic ability and being able to jump quick may be able to make up for height. We'll just use our athletic ability."

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