No clear favorite in women's Final Four
INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State is back where it started the postseason, Baylor is riding a surge of community support and LSU comes in with a quiet determination.
And Tennessee is, well, the same ol' Tennessee -- confident, experienced and eager to end a national championship drought that probably seems like decades to the Lady Vols but in reality is six years.
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It's a women's Final Four with good stories but no clear-cut favorite.
Yes, Tennessee (30-4) has come this far for the fourth straight year and 16th time overall and owns more NCAA titles (six) than any other school. But the Lady Vols' opponent in Sunday night's semifinals (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET), Michigan State (32-3), already has beaten No. 1-ranked Stanford in this tournament, has exceptional teamwork and isn't likely to be intimidated.
LSU (33-2), the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, has a unanimous All-American in Seimone Augustus and brings experience from its Final Four trip last year. Don't count on any of that rattling Baylor (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET Sunday). The Lady Bears (31-3) beat top-seeded North Carolina to get here and lost to LSU by one point back in November after trailing by 21.
Wide open? Definitely.
"I think there's just parity now in women's basketball,'' Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said. "We've talked about it for many years. I think each year, you just have players that go and help build programs for whatever reason. The more parity, the more exposure we're each going to get.''
The Lady Bears certainly have brought some positive exposure for Baylor, which was rocked by scandal in the men's basketball program and never made the women's NCAA Tournament before Mulkey-Robertson arrived in 2000.
Baylor was the worst team in the Big 12 when she took over. Now, the Lady Bears are two victories from becoming the top team in the country, and Mulkey-Robertson will be the first to have played and been a head coach in the Final Four.
She played in three Final Fours at Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s.
"It's happened rapidly,'' Mulkey-Robertson said. "I don't think any of us expected it to happen this quickly.''
Baylor won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament championships and takes an 18-game winning streak against LSU, which has impressive credentials of its own.
Coach Pokey Chatman got the Lady Tigers to the Final Four last year while subbing for Sue Gunter, who later retired. This season, LSU spent 11 weeks at No. 1 and went 14-0 in the Southeastern Conference. The team's only loss in the last 21 games was to Tennessee, 67-65, in the final of the SEC tournament.
Last year's Final Four trip ended on a disheartening note. The Lady Tigers lost to Tennessee, 52-50 in the semifinals on a basket with 1.6 seconds left, after Temeka Johnson stumbled and lost the ball.
"To some point, we used that as motivation to work hard during the summer,'' Augustus said. "Once the season kicked off, it was a new season and that was behind us. But we did use that as a little motivation to help keep us going.''
Though Michigan State's Joanne P. McCallie didn't have to start at the bottom as Mulkey-Robertson did, she still has brought the Spartans a long way in her five seasons. Before this year, Michigan State had never advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but McCallie felt this team could be different.
So as the Spartans left Indianapolis after winning the Big Ten tournament in early March, they set a goal.
"We looked around and said, we're coming back,'' McCallie said. "This is where we're coming back.''
They made it with a team built on local talent. Starters Kristin Haynie, Lindsay Bowen, Liz Shimek and Victoria Lucas-Perry all are from Michigan. With the Spartan men playing North Carolina on Saturday, Michigan State is the sixth school to get both teams in the Final Four at the same time.
Tennessee, seeking its first NCAA title since 1998, survived an injury-wracked season. Three of the team's highly touted freshmen were sidelined by knee problems, including the most acclaimed member of that group, Candace Parker. Late in the season, reserve Sidney Spencer was lost to a knee injury.
But coach Pat Summitt made all the right adjustments and along the way, she passed Dean Smith as the career victory leader among NCAA coaches, her total now at 882.
"If you had told me going into the year that come March we would be without (those) players, I would have said that it was going to be a long and very challenging year for us,'' Summitt said.
"Yet this team just handled it so well and just pulled it together. I think coaches, behind the scenes, sometimes panic. But it is all about the players handling adversity and they have done it very well and played with maturity.''
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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