Women's Final 4 will test nerves

MINNEAPOLIS — MINNEAPOLIS -- For this year's NCAA women's Final Four, all the old things are new again.

The four schools that will meet in tomorrow's national semifinals -- Stanford, Connecticut, Tennessee and Georgia -- have all reached this platform before, but none of them has advanced to the Final Four since the 1991-92 season, when Stanford won it all.


"This is one thing that I want the players to feel for themselves. You can't explain what it's like to be at a Final Four to them," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who also coached the 1989-90 team to a national championship.

Quelling the excitement that is sure to wash over their respective squads is bound to be the first order of business for VanDerveer and her three colleagues -- Connecticut's Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Georgia's Andy Landers -- between now and tip-off, at 12:15 at the Target Center.


But, beyond settling a few nervous stomachs, each of the four coaches will have a few matchup problems to overcome as well. Here's a look at each of the four teams:

Connecticut: The top-ranked Huskies (33-0) seek to join the 1986 Texas Longhorns as the only teams in the 13-year history of the NCAA women's tournament to complete a season unbeaten.

Auriemma has said he doesn't know how to approach that prospect and what to tell his players about how they should approach it.

"That is one thing we've not talked about all year long," said Auriemma. "All we've thought is we've got two more games to play. Let's hope we're playing in both of them."

The Huskies, who faced their first serious test in the past 20 games in last week's 67-63 regional final win over Virginia, have the consensus national Player of the Year in 6-foot-4 senior forward Rebecca Lobo, who superbly blends a strong inside game with the ability to hit three-pointers, with good support from sophomore center Kara Wolters, a third-team Associated Press All-America selection.

Junior guard Jennifer Rizzotti is efficient at the point, earning second-team All-America honors, and forward Nykesha Sales is one of the nation's most promising freshmen.

Stanford: The fourth-ranked Cardinal (30-2), which will meet Connecticut in the second semifinal, are the deepest team here, with 11 of the 14 players on the roster averaging at least 10 minutes a game.

VanDerveer has employed eight different starting lineups this season, even making a change for last weekend's regional final win over Purdue.


Of particular concern to Connecticut is that Stanford has three starters -- sophomore Kate Starbird and seniors Anita Kaplan and Rachel Hemmer -- who are 6 feet 2 or taller, with four other such players on the bench.

That abundance of height could help the Cardinal neutralize Wolters and Lobo.

The player who could be the X-factor for the entire weekend is forward Kristin Folkl, who joined the basketball team in late December, after helping the volleyball team to a national championship.

Folkl, a 6-foot-2 freshman, is hitting 57 percent of her shots for the season, and leads the team in scoring (17.0) and rebounding (8.3) in the tournament.

"Her teammates have really embraced her. They see that she can help everyone get to where they want to go," said VanDerveer.

Georgia: The 12th-ranked Lady Bulldogs are perhaps the most surprising entrant here, advancing to the Final Four after not even being invited to the tournament last season, the first where 64 women's teams competed.


But many in the game expected Georgia (28-4) to get here eventually, since Landers signed the best recruiting class in the nation two years ago, with four of those sophomores in the starting lineup and two others playing valuable roles off the bench.

"If you look two years ago, when Andy Landers signed this remarkable class, everybody said, "Look out for Georgia down the road," said Summitt. "They've demonstrated how much they've grown and the maturity from last year to this year is so evident."

The Lady Bulldogs, who knocked off top seed Colorado in the Midwest regional final, have a terrific inside-outside blend with sophomore frontcourt players La'Keshia Frett (16.0 points, 6.1 rebounds), Minneapolis native Tracy Henderson (15.6, 7.7) and junior college transfer Saudia Roundtree, one of the best point guards in the country this season.

Still, their youth and the fact that Tennessee, which they'll meet in the first game tomorrow, pounded them 83-61 in the Southeastern Conference regular-season finale, may indicate a short stay in the Twin Cities.

Tennessee: The third-ranked Lady Vols (33-2) come north with the most championships (three) and the most pressure to win. The Tennessee players took a virtual blood oath to get to the Final Four and to win the national title.

Anything less than the title will be viewed as a tremendous disappointment.


"I really think that our team and staff made a conscious effort to work harder from the beginning than we ever have to get here, but getting here wasn't just it. We want to win it," said Summitt.

Tennessee has been impressive in its tournament run, dispatching two Top 10 teams, Texas Tech and Western Kentucky, by more than 20 points each.

While the Lady Vols have played well throughout the season, the difference during the tournament has been the shooting of their perimeter players, particularly All-America senior forward Nikki McCray and junior point guard Michelle Marciniak, who have been hitting their jumpers from 15 feet and beyond, thus freeing senior forward Dana Johnson underneath.

But if Marciniak and McCray go cold, as they did in Tennessee's losses to Connecticut and Vanderbilt, the Lady Vols could see their title dreams become a nightmare.