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WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT | 1998 NCAA WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR

Road to Top Not Rocky One for No. 1 Tennessee

Women's basketball: Volunteers open Mideast Regional at home and would proceed to Nashville before leaving state for Final Four.

March 09, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was completely logical to Tennessee freshman Tamika Catchings.

"How much closer can you get to Knoxville than Nashville?" she asked.

Well, there's Pigeon Forge, but the gym there isn't big enough to house an NCAA women's regional, so the No. 1 Volunteers (33-0) will have to win twice down the road at Vanderbilt after winning twice at home before they have to play out of state, at Kansas City for the Final Four.

That's OK.

"We've played at Vanderbilt so many times, it feels like our home court for the tournament," said Chamique Holdslaw, odds-on favorite to be college basketball's player of the year.

As the top-seeded team in the Mideast Regional, Tennessee, which has been No. 1 in both polls all season, will open its tournament run on Thursday at home against Liberty (28-0), the Big South Conference representative.

"Facing the only other undefeated team in the country is good for women's basketball," said Volunteer Coach Pat Summitt, who will be seeking her third consecutive NCAA title and sixth since 1987.

Not so good.

Liberty is seeded 16th in the Mideast, sending a message that the Big South ain't so big, ya'll.

As far as the NCAA selection committee is concerned, the Big East isn't either.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament concerned Connecticut (31-2), ranked third in the country but seeded second in the East, behind No. 2 Old Dominion (27-2).

"We beat two No. 1s," said UConn Coach Geno Auriemma, referring to the Huskies' victories over Stanford and Old Dominion. "But I guess they thought without Nykesha [Sales], we're not one of the top four teams in the country."

He's right.

"It wasn't a matter of us predicting into the future as it was a case of we had to determine if they would have the same record and standing without Nykesha," said Jean Lenti Ponsetto, who chairs the committee.

Sales ruptured an Achilles tendon late in the season and her career is over at Storrs.

As easy as Tennessee has it from a travel standpoint, sixth-ranked Texas Tech (25-4) has it easier.

The Red Raiders are the top-seeded team in the Midwest and open tournament play Friday against Grambling (23-6). If Texas Tech is successful in its first two games, it goes to the Regional semifinals . . . also at Lubbock, Texas.

Fifth-ranked Stanford (21-5) has it tougher, but not by much.

The so-called Harvard of the West was seeded No. 1 in the West and will open against the other Harvard (22-4) on Saturday at Palo Alto.

Should the Cardinal advance to the West semifinals, it will have to hit the road . . . all the way across the bridge to Oakland.

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