No April Fool: This is UConn's 2nd trip to championship game; Since '95 title, despite 4 top seeds, Huskies have advanced to 2 Final Fours; Notebook; NCAA WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT


PHILADELPHIA -- For all the attention the Connecticut women's basketball team receives, that the program has won one national title and is playing in only its second title game tomorrow demonstrates to its coach that good things don't always happen to good people.

"I was talking to [Tennessee coach] Pat Summitt the other day, and with them having the best team last year and not getting here, I said, 'God does that to you to make you appreciate when you win all the more,' " said Geno Auriemma. "One little thing can happen. Being good is not enough. Being fortunate enough to be here, we cherish this."

Since winning the 1995 title, the Huskies have drawn top seeds in four of the past five years, but have only reached the Final Four twice, as injuries and off nights have hurt them.

But Connecticut, which has spent the entire season at the top of the rankings, will get a chance to win a title, against their arch-rivals, the Lady Vols, in their third meeting this season. Each team won on the other's home court.

"Everybody has been waiting for this. I think everybody, when they filled out their bracket, had UConn and Tennessee meeting in the championship, and that's what's going to happen," said Connecticut guard Shea Ralph. "It's definitely fate, but we've prepared. We worked hard and we're ready for it."

From the other side

From her seat at press row, Hilary Howard is taking a very different view of the Final Four than she did last year, when she was a player.

Howard, who operated the Duke offense from the point, is working for Total Sports, an Internet company that operates school web sites and is running the NCAA's official site at

"I'd rather be playing right now, but this is interesting," said Howard. "We felt so isolated. It seems a lot bigger this year than it was last year. It may not be any bigger, but it seems that way."

Howard, who is writing a column for the web site, said she began working for the Raleigh, N.C.-based company after a doctor told her that the stress fracture in her foot would preclude her playing professionally.

She said she still hopes to play, and one day hopes to follow her older sister, a senior adviser to First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton, into politics, but will continue with Total Sports in the immediate term.

Howard, whose Duke team beat Tennessee, 69-63, in the East regional final, one of the biggest upsets in women's basketball history, covered the Lady Vols at their Mideast Regional site this year and listened as the Tennessee players chronicled their disappointment about last year's game.

"It brought back a lot of memories, and as you can see, it brings a smile to my face," said Howard.

Leveling the playing field

The women's game continues to be dominated by the traditional power teams from the traditional power conferences, leading Auriemma to ruminate about the possibility of reducing the number of scholarships per program from 15 to 13.

"I'm sure there comes a point when it's not working out any more, having 13 scholarships, I do think, would level the playing field a little bit," said Auriemma. "You certainly saw it happen on the men's side."

Auriemma added that he did not favor reducing scholarships to women's sports, only to women's basketball, suggesting that he might unilaterally reduce his scholarships to 13.

Little Darling wins award

Yesterday, Penn State point guard Helen Darling received the Frances Pomeroy Naismith award as the top player under 5 feet 8, the second Lady Lions player to win the award. Suzie McConnell-Serio won in 1988.

Darling, who was earned most outstanding player honors in the Midwest regional, averaged 10.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists this season.

"I'd like to thank my parents for making me under 5-8," Darling said. "I've never been so proud of being under 5 feet 8; you don't have to be 6 feet 3 to play big."

Poised for a return

While Rutgers loses top scorer Shawnetta Stewart and three others, the team should be in good shape in 2000-01. The Scarlet Knights welcome Milford Mill star Mandikova Clark this fall and return four starters, including Marylander Davalyn Cunningham (Clinton).

Rarified air

Summitt continues her pursuit of the standards set by John Wooden a generation ago at UCLA.

This season, she equaled Wooden's 12 Final Four appearances. Her ninth title game tomorrow will bring her within one of Wooden, and a win would leave her three national championships short of him.

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