March 27, 2001
By CHUCK SCHOFFNER
Four rounds filled with surprise, suspense and yes, even a bit of the expected has come down to this: a women's Final Four with the champions from the last two years and a dash of local flavor.
Connecticut has survived injuries to its top two players to stay in the hunt for a second consecutive championship. Purdue, the 1999 champion, has overcome change and heartbreak to earn its trip to St. Louis.
Southwest Missouri State, just 3 1/2 hours down Interstate 44 in Springfield, is ready to unleash Jackie Stiles and its horde of well-traveled fans on the city by the Arch. Notre Dame brings the nation's most dominating center, along with St. Louis native Niele Ivey.
"I know my phone is ringing off the hook with people wanting tickets," Ivey said.
They'll all be on the court at the Savvis Center for the national semifinals Friday night - Southwest Missouri State against Purdue, and Connecticut meeting Big East rival Notre Dame for the third time this season.
The winners meet Sunday night to determine the 20th NCAA champion in women's hoops.
"The Final Four is every girl's dream," Purdue's Kelly Komara said. "When you're out there working your butt off every day, this is what you live for."
With almost everyone back from last year's team, Connecticut (32-2) seemed a lock for a second straight title and third overall. Coach Geno Auriemma even guaranteed it.
But a 92-76 loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 15 made the Huskies appear human and things looked even shakier when All-Americans Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph were lost with season-ending injuries.
Shaky? Forget it. Connecticut hasn't had a game closer than 14 points in the tournament and thumped Louisiana Tech 67-48 in the East Regional final.
Freshman Diana Taurasi has emerged as flashy and fearless go-to player, while point guard Sue Bird remains as steady and effective as ever.
"Svet and Shea are such strong personalities that it was hard for someone to come forward," Auriemma said. "But when something in the huddle needed said, it was Sue. When the right thing needed to be said, Sue said it."
With center Ruth Riley leading the way, Notre Dame (32-2) looked like a national championship contender when it won its first 23 games, including that victory over Connecticut. Nothing has changed.
The two losses were by a total of three points - 54-53 at Rutgers and 78-76 at Connecticut in the Big East championship game - and Riley has been sensational in the tournament.
Notre Dame made its first Final Four trip in 1997 and lost to Tennessee in the semifinals. Coach Muffet McGraw senses a different attitude this time.
"Last time we went, we took over a thousand pictures," McGraw said. "Now, this team is focused."
After playing two games in New Jersey and two more in Spokane, Wash., Southwest Missouri State (29-5) gets to finish the season in the neighborhood. Look for the Lady Bears' maroon-clad fans to show up in droves looking for tickets to the sold-out event.
"Tickets are going to be a nightmare for our administration," coach Cheryl Burnett said. "What a great thing."
Stiles, often heard about but rarely seen by a national audience, finally gets to show what she's been up to these last four years. The NCAA career and single-season scoring leader, Stiles has averaged 35 points in the last three games after being slowed by a mild concussion in the first round.
"St. Louis - you can't script it any better than this," Stiles said. "I can't even describe it."
A strong freshman class at Purdue (30-6) has complemented veterans Katie Douglas, Camille Cooper and Komara, all members of the 1999 championship team. That trio has endured a lot since then, starting with a change in coaches, with Kristy Curry taking over for Carolyn Peck.
Four months after the title, team member Tiffany Young died in a traffic accident. Douglas, whose father had died in 1997, then lost her mother to breast cancer. Back-up center Mary Jo Noon blew out a knee at mid-season and starting point guard Erika Valek did the same in the regional semifinals.
"I can't put into words what this team has been through," Curry said. "To
lose Tiffany, to see what Katie's been through, we've been through so much. I
think that makes it even more special."