Staley vs. Rizzotti in the spotlight in first round
A look at how the Bridgeport Regional shapes up heading into the first round:
PLAYERS IN BRIDGEPORT
Monique Currie, Duke
Jessica Dickson, South Florida
Candice Dupree, Temple
Tasha Humphrey, Georgia
Ann Strother, Connecticut
The point guards people will focus on most here are Duke's Lindsey Harding and Connecticut's Renee Montgomery. But 10th-seeded Missouri's success rests on the shoulders of LaToya Bond. The 5-foot-7 senior is averaging 17.7 points and was an All-Big 12 honoree. She's a good athlete who can shoot and get to the rim and has a nice little pull-up to her game.
Of the many highly anticipated first-round games, sixth-seeded Temple vs. 11th-seeded Hartford ranks right near the top. Technically, despite Temple's budding success the past two seasons, it's two mid-majors. But the real story is that this game pits two of the best, feistiest point guards-turned-coaches in college history against each other: the Owls' Dawn Staley and the Hawks' Jen Rizzotti. Staley -- who led Virginia to three Final Four appearances -- has led Temple to her fourth NCAA appearance and a No. 18 ranking this season. The Owls are 1-3 in the NCAA Tournament in the Staley era, reaching the second round last season. Hartford, however, is trying to net just the second NCAA Tournament win in America East history (the league is 1-15 in NCAA play). This is the Hawks' third NCAA appearance, all under Rizzotti, who led UConn to the 1995 national title.
Both former national players of the year have turned around programs that hadn't really achieved any legitimate success in the women's game before. And both programs reflect their coaches' personalities -- which bodes well and means they have the competitiveness to keep making progress and win at the next level.
The Missouri-Virginia Tech matchup could be close. The seventh-seeded Hokies are undersized but have a lot of versatile players. They beat the opposing posts down the floor and can go off the dribble. I saw the Hokies play SMU in November and like them even more now.
Another game that really could go either way is 12th-seeded Chattanooga vs. No. 5 seed Kentucky. By virtue of their conference, their seed and the fact Mickie DeMoss is their coach, I'd still pick the Wildcats to win. A victory over Tennessee in SEC play gave them tremendous confidence. Now, DeMoss must convince her players they can win on the next level as the program makes its first NCAA appearance in seven years.
You never can count out Connecticut, the regional's No. 2 seed. Even though the Huskies have occasional problems scoring, their defense -- and coach Geno Auriemma -- keep them in games. Also, Montgomery, who is getting better and better every second she's on the court, and Ketia Swanier combine for about 12 points and four rebounds per game, which is a nice balance to have in the backcourt -- and something a lot of people overlook when singling out UConn's strengths and weaknesses. Then, of course, you have Ann Strother and Barb Turner, two experienced veterans with a pair of NCAA titles on their résumés.
Third-seeded Georgia also has a wealth of talent and NCAA Tournament experience, with some of the best guards in the nation and one of the country's best posts in Tasha Humphrey.
It likely will come down to top-seeded Duke and No. 2 UConn in Bridgeport's title game. Yes, the crowd will be pro-Husky, but Duke certainly has all the weapons to get to the Final Four. The Blue Devils just need to use their depth and balance to attack UConn. The Huskies can't outscore Duke, the nation's No. 1 offense at 87.6 points per game. UConn can play defense with Duke, though, so it has a better shot at upsetting the Blue Devils if it's a lower-scoring game.Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
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