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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

A Happy Ending for Mideast-Bound USC

Women: Sixth-seeded Trojans to play San Francisco in first round Thursday at Gainesville, Fla.

March 10, 1997|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The shrieks of glee and a victory dance or two by his players had lasted maybe 30 seconds, not nearly as long as it took the NCAA selection people to pull his USC women's basketball team into the tournament Sunday.

"Yeah, I was getting a little nervous--there weren't a lot of spots left," said USC Coach Fred Williams, grinning.

USC was the 57th team of 64 named to the tournament, and the Trojans, seeded sixth in the Mideast Regional, will play 11th-seeded San Francisco at Gainesville, Fla., Saturday afternoon.

Pacific 10 champion and third-ranked Stanford (30-1) was put in the West bracket as the No. 1-seeded team and will play Howard (21-5) Saturday in Palo Alto.

In a bit of a surprise, the selection committee took five Pac-10 teams.

Undefeated and top-ranked Connecticut (30-0), looking for a third consecutive Final Four trip, opens with Lehigh (15-14) Saturday at home, in the Midwest bracket.

The other two top-seeded teams were No. 2-ranked Old Dominion (29-1) in the Mideast, and No. 4 North Carolina (27-2) in the East.

The women's selection show was nearing its end when USC began celebrating at Heritage Hall.

USC (19-8), third-place finisher in the Pac-10, was pretty much assured of a berth after its 101-59 win over Washington State Thursday. The Trojans lost to Washington, 71-66, on Saturday. USF (25-5), the West Coast Conference champion, was the 1996 tournament's Cinderella team, reaching the Sweet 16 before losing to Connecticut.

Most predicted three to four Pac-10 teams would go, but fast-finishing Washington (17-10), Oregon (21-6), and Arizona (22-7) were taken, joining USC and Stanford.

Stanford, Washington and Arizona (22-7) are all in the West bracket.

Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer had two observations Sunday about the women's draw.

"The first thing I saw was that they want new people at the Big Dance," she said.

Stanford, Tennessee, Connecticut and Georgia have made the Final Four the last two years. That streak is over. Stanford and Georgia are both in the West bracket, Tennessee and UConn are both in the Mideast.

Defending national champion Tennessee (23-10) was made the No. 3 seed in the Midwest and gets Grambling (24-5) Saturday at Boulder, Colo.

"And the fact they took five Pac-10 teams, I'm ecstatic about that," VanDerveer added.

"I'm happier about that than anything. It's great for our conference. I was afraid our 18-0 record in conference would penalize other teams--I'm happy it didn't."

VanDerveer has blasted the women's polls all season, for not ranking other Pac-10 teams in the Top 25.

A major difference between USF and USC--USF has two head coaches.

Bill and Mary Nepfel, a married couple, just finished their 10th season leading the Lady Dons.

And yes, they have arguments.

"We have some philosophical differences over some aspects of offensive philosophy . . . but I'm right more often than he is," said Mary, with a smile.

Actually, Bill said, they have bigger arguments over where to eat.

"We rarely agree on where to go out to eat--those are really big-time arguments," he said.

This season, San Francisco was in and out of the bottom of the national polls, recently winning the West Coast Conference tournament, beating Portland in an overtime title game, 65-59.

Bill Nepfel says his team's principal weapon is balance.

"We're not real big, but our strength is the fact our leading scorer, Brittany Lindhe, averages just 14 points a game, and our No. 2 scorer is the first player off the bench, Andrea Kagie," he said.

The Lady Dons won nine of their last 10 and hope to repeat the fast finish of 1996 that captured the attention of everyone in the women's game. They beat Florida and Duke, landed in the final 16, losing finally to Connecticut.

Talented but inconsistent best describes the USC team Williams takes to Florida this week.

The Trojans played three high-ranked teams (Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky and Stanford) tough this season, but at other times were dismal--such as Saturday's season-ending belly-flop against Washington.

Against Stanford on Jan. 12, Naismith Award candidate Tina Thompson got off a shot in the paint in the game's final second. It bounced once softly on the front rim, then fell away. Stanford won, 77-76, and went on to an 18-0 conference record.

After the Stanford loss at home, USC rebounded with one of its best efforts of the season, an 87-82 win at Tucson over Arizona. However, a month later, USC was flat in the Arizona rematch and lost, 82-64.

The 6-3 Thompson, who clinched the Pac-10 scoring title on the regular season's final weekend, averages 22.7 points and 10.6 rebounds.

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