March 31, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer feels as if she's coming home to the women's Final Four.
She played at Indiana, coached at Ohio State and won four Big Ten titles before turning Stanford into one of the most prestigious programs in women's basketball.
Even her college coach, Bea Gorton, plans to be around for the games in Indianapolis.
Now, that's a Hoosier welcome.
"She's actually in assisted living and will come down to go to the game," VanDerveer said Wednesday. "That was a long time ago. It's very exciting and it does have a little special feel to it - and I love the arena."
VanDerveer isn't the only one eager to get inside Conseco Fieldhouse this weekend.
Two-time defending national champ Connecticut, 2001 champion Notre Dame, first-time Final Four participant Texas A&M and VanDerveer's team, which has finished second twice in the past three years, are all ready to play for a national title.
Three of the schools have strong ties to Indiana.
There's VanDerveer, an Indiana University Hall of Famer; UConn forward Kelly Faris, who played prep ball at Heritage Christian; and Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins, the 2009 Indiana Miss Basketball.
And, of course, South Bend is just a short drive away.
"We're hoping a big Notre Dame crowd follows us down to Indy," Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "We are so excited to be playing close to home and hoping for a lot of green in the stands."
Organizers could benefit from the field, too.
With roughly 18,000 seats in the arena and tickets still available, the composition could generate enough excitement locally to sell out the fieldhouse.
Spokesman John Dedman acknowledged Wednesday he expects most of those tickets to be gone before Sunday's two semifinal games, but having Notre Dame, VanDerveer and Faris in town will help.
"I think local fans will get to see some really good basketball," Dedman said. "Hopefully, they were excited about all the teams in the Elite Eight, but now that we've got some local story lines, hopefully, they're even more excited."
Besides, it could be a historic weekend.
UConn (36-1) is trying to become the third team to win three straight NCAA titles. Tennessee won three in a row from 1996 to 1998, a mark the Huskies matched from 2002-04. This will also mark the end of Maya Moore's incredible career. The second four-time All-American in history reached 3,000 points against Duke on Tuesday night.
To win the title, they'll have to get past homestate favorite and BIG EAST rival Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish (30-7) ended a 20-game losing streak against Tennessee to reach the Final Four, and now get UConn for the fourth time this season. The Huskies swept the previous three games - and they'll be at a home-court disadvantage.
"You don't like it, but you can't avoid it," coach Geno Auriemma said of the matchup. "When you get to the Final Four, you're going to have to play somebody really, really good. And so are they."
If any team understands the opportunity that comes with playing the same team four times, it's Texas A&M.
The Aggies (31-5) lost three times this season to Baylor, but won the game that mattered most - the Dallas Regional final. Leading scorer Danielle Adams is the first All-American in school history and coach Gary Blair has Final Four experience with Arkansas.
Texas A&M draws VanDerveer's Cardinal (33-2), who are making a fourth straight Final Four appearance. Stanford hasn't won a title since 1992, but ended UConn's record 90-game winning streak in December and comes to town with two players - Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen - who are determined to go out winners.
"More than anything, it's not about me or me going back there but what I feel is to be able to be going with this team," VanDerveer said. "To share this four times with Jeanette and Kayla."
Whatever happens, Faris wants people to leave with a better idea of what Indiana is all about - basketball.
"I don't live on a farm. I'm more the basketball girl in the driveway," she said. "When people think of Indiana, they think corn. For me, it's more than that. It's home. It's where I feel comfortable. My shell. It's the home of basketball."
And now the women's Final Four.