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Archive for Saturday, April 2, 2005

No clear favorite emerging

April 2, 2005

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— 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.

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, 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 (31-3), which beat top-seeded North Carolina to get here and lost to LSU by one point 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.

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 NCAA women's tournament before Mulkey-Robertson arrived in 2000.

Baylor was the worst team in the Big 12 Conference 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.

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.

Michigan State's Joanne P. McCallie 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.

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.

But coach Pat Summitt made all the right adjustments and 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.

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