Semifinals are anybody's ball game

Updated: April 1, 2007, 1:48 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- LSU's Sylvia Fowles sat down at her locker and looked up at the approaching throng. Welcome to media day at the Women's Final Four, where on Sunday night LSU will meet Rutgers (ESPN, 7 ET), while Tennessee faces North Carolina (ESPN, 9 ET).

Of course, Fowles has been through this before. So have many of her LSU teammates. And most of the Tar Heels. And many players from Tennessee.

"When we came here, we knew we were going to have bags of merchandise and goodies," North Carolina junior LaToya Pringle said. "So everybody wasn't jumping around going, 'Oh my God, let's try this on, let's try that on!' We knew there would be a lot of security and fans and people asking for stuff. Lots of distractions.

"But this year we've done a good job of not paying much attention. We do what we have to do, but then we try to relax. Because it's not 'us' to be uptight. We just want to make sure we're here for one reason."

Erlana Larkins
Mark Duncan/AP PhotoErlana Larkins and North Carolina reached the Final Four for the second year in a row.
Well, that part is the same for everybody -- including Rutgers, which has no one with previous Final Four experience. LSU has been here four seasons in a row now, so this is the third trip for Fowles, a junior. North Carolina made it last season. Tennessee's 17 Final Four visits include four in the past five years.

The team that stopped the Lady Vols last season was North Carolina, in the regional final here in Cleveland.

"That loss last year was really hard," Tennessee senior Sidney Spencer said. "Coming in this summer, and just talking about what we want to accomplish, our team made it a point of emphasis to become that Tennessee defensive team we used to be."

A lot of folks seem to be picking Tennessee to win it all now. And that could definitely happen. But I'm having a hard time choosing a so-called "favorite." This is the kind of Final Four where I won't be a bit surprised no matter who wins. We've already had plenty of surprises.

If you follow the sport, you're pretty familiar with all these story lines now. If not, here's a refresher course (while hoping not to bore the junkies too much):

Candy Land: OK, I've never actually heard anyone call Candace Parker "Candy," but there are times she rules on court as if she were playing the children's board game. Obviously, the Tar Heels are going to do their best to see that doesn't happen here. But Parker played with particular passion and purpose in the Dayton Regional final against Ole Miss.

Parker won the Wade Trophy and was named a Kodak All-American on Saturday, after which she said the proverbial, "I wouldn't be here without my coaches and my teammates."

A nice sentiment, but let's be frank: They wouldn't be here at the Final Four without her. Parker has averaged 20.8 points and 10.3 rebounds in her four NCAA Tournament games, with 10 blocks.

Sidney Spencer has been very dependable, averaging 13.0 points in the tournament, and Shannon Bobbitt has stepped forward, averaging 11.5.

When Tennessee lost at North Carolina in December, Parker did everything she could with 27 and 10. But the Tar Heels won the rebounding battle, and will look to do the same Sunday.

Blue heaven: Speaking of which … those pests from Durham, College Park and Raleigh aren't here, so the Tar Heels can look around the Final Four without seeing anybody who has beaten them the past two seasons. So with the rest of the ACC out of the picture, can Carolina win its second national championship?

The Tar Heels seem loose and relaxed -- in a good way. When they won the Dallas Regional final against Purdue, there was no excessive celebration. More like, "Let's get back to work."

Behind the leadership of seniors Ivory Latta and Camille Little, the Tar Heels run the most high-octane offense of any team playing Sunday, averaging 84.6 points per game. Erlana Larkins had a monster performance last year in the semifinals against Maryland, but she was the only one who did.

The Tar Heels, who've won seven in a row, think they definitely have unfinished business here after what happened in 2006.

Syl's show: Fowles kind of shrugged when asked about her domination against UConn (23 points, 15 rebounds, six blocks) in the Fresno Regional final. She thought there were "flaws." We trust the Huskies would have no comment.

FINAL FOUR SCHEDULE

QUICKEN LOANS ARENA
CLEVELAND

SUNDAY
• (4) Rutgers vs. (3) LSU
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
• (1) UNC vs. (1) Tennessee
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
TUESDAY
• Semifinal winners
8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Fowles has taken so much on her shoulders this bizarrely wonderful season for LSU. She and her team played one of its best games of the season March 3: a 63-54 victory against Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinals. The next day, though, came a 51-46 loss to Vanderbilt.

And then a few days later, coach Pokey Chatman announced she was leaving the team for "other opportunities" after the NCAA Tournament. That ruse was soon shredded, and the next day Chatman said she was gone effective immediately.

She hasn't been heard from since, as allegations arose she had an improper sexual relationship with a former player. As everyone waited for some kind of explanation from Chatman, LSU's players focused on winning basketball games under acting head coach Bob Starkey.

Two more wins and they'll have what would be considered a most unlikely -- but well-deserved -- national championship.

Good Knights: Rutgers took back-to-back losses in early December against Duke and DePaul. The Scarlet Knights felt they were at rock bottom, and the season stretched before them like a big minefield.

Who knew that come March they'd be blowing up everybody else's dreams?

A 70-44 pasting by UConn on Feb. 26 was a big stumble, but it was also the team's last. Since then, Matee Ajavon, Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn have led Rutgers to seven consecutive wins, which included a Big East tournament title and an upset of No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16.

After taking out the Blue Devils and obliterating the Sun Devils of Arizona State in the Greensboro Regional, the Scarlet Knights don't have any demons left to slay. Now they set their sites on the big cats of LSU.

Coach C. Vivian Stringer has always been known for her defense, which is what has allowed Rutgers to get this far. It's her second trip to the Final Four with the Scarlet Knights, but her fourth overall. In 1982, her Cheyney State team lost in the title game to Louisiana Tech, and in 1993, her Iowa Hawkeyes fell in the semifinals to fellow Big Ten team Ohio State.

When Rutgers made the national semifinals in 2000, it lost to Tennessee but put Stringer in the rare position of having taken three different programs to the Final Four. Now seven years later, she's "repeating" with Rutgers.

"When we started our journey at the beginning of the year … it was a difficult thing to see the light at the end of the tunnel," Stringer said. "The team you will see is a testimony to what it means to persevere and continue to believe when others doubt you."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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