The recurring theme for Friday's NCAA women's Final Four in Charlotte, N.C., is, well, recurrence, with a little bit of variety thrown in.
For the first time in the 15 years the NCAA has sponsored a national women's basketball championship, the four national semifinalists -- defending champion Connecticut, Georgia, Stanford and Tennessee -- are the same as the year before.
And for the 14th time, the Southeastern Conference is represented in the Final Four, with two teams -- regular-season champion Georgia and tournament winner Tennessee -- the third time the SEC has landed half the semifinal field.
The variety is the routes the four teams took to the Charlotte Coliseum.
Perhaps the most taxing road was taken by Stanford (29-2), which had to overcome the temporary departures of coach Tara VanDerveer, who is coaching the U.S. Olympic team, and forward Kristin Folkl, who is pursuing a spot on the U.S. Olympic volleyball team.
"If someone had told me the team would return to the Final Four, it would have saved me a lot of worry," said VanDerveer, who watched the West Regional final in Seattle on Monday.
The Cardinal, which has won 23 straight, however, breezed through the Pac-10 season unbeaten, and save for a narrow overtime win over Alabama in Saturday's West semifinal, never seriously was challenged in the tournament.
In Monday's game, Stanford led Auburn by 18 early and saw that lead nearly evaporate before pulling away down the stretch, 71-57, behind 17 points from Kate Starbird.
The Huskies (34-3), the top seed in the Mideast Regional, found their road back significantly more difficult than last season.
"Last year was incredible, and the championship and the way we did it was incredible," guard Jennifer Rizzotti said. "But this year, there were so many people that doubted that we could come together as a team. Hopefully, we've got two more wins in us."
Connecticut, winner of 20 straight, held off a stiff challenge from third seed Vanderbilt Monday night to win, 67-57, by out-rebounding the Commodores, 51-35, and by limiting Vanderbilt's Sheri Sam, who had been averaging more than 32 points and shooting 75 percent from the field, to 16 points on 8-for-19 shooting.
Awaiting the Huskies in the first semifinal Friday will be Tennessee in a rematch of last year's championship game.
The Lady Vols (30-4) almost didn't pick up their invitation. They trailed Virginia 31-14 with 17 minutes to play in the East Regional championship. But they gritted out a berth in their record ninth Final Four with a 52-46 victory, giving them a chance to avenge not only the 70-64 title-game loss, but also a 59-53 setback to the Huskies in January that ended Tennessee's record 69-game home winning streak.
Georgia (27-4), meanwhile, played the equivalent of a national championship game in knocking out top-ranked Louisiana Tech, 90-76, in the Mideast title game, aided by a career-high 37 points from the national player of the year, guard Saudia Roundtree.
Pub Date: 3/27/96