RUTGERS (26-7) vs. TENNESSEE (32-3), 4 p.m.--Much has been made in Philadelphia this week about Kristen Clement returning to her hometown with her Tennessee teammates to compete for the national championship. Less has been made of the homecoming of another Philadelphian, Rutgers guard Shawnetta Stewart. "It's a dream come true--to start my basketball career here and then come home for my final college games and compete for the NCAA championship," Stewart said. Truth be told, Stewart has had a much better season than Clement, a junior point guard who lost her starting spot midway through the season. Clement almost completely lost her shooting stroke at the midway point. During one 10-game stretch, she made only 20% of her shots, finally being moved to the two-guard spot in favor of freshman Kara Lawson, who made 47.7% of her shots from three-point range in Southeastern Conference games. Some think of Tennessee as a four-player offense (national player of the year Tamika Catchings, Semeka Randall, Lawson and Michelle Snow) with an occasional key basket or steal from Clement, who remains a major defender. Rutgers, easily the best defensive team in the Final Four, is 8-0 since a 79-59 loss to Connecticut. The Scarlet Knights' major-domo is Stewart, an exceptionally aggressive defender--much like Tennessee's Randall--and who is expected to be a high WNBA draft pick in April. Thursday, Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer, the first coach to bring three different schools to the Final Four, was saying all the right things. "Tennessee's program is the one to which we all aspire," she said. "If we allow them to get shots with no hands in their faces, we're in trouble."
CONNECTICUT (34-1) vs. PENN STATE (30-4), 30 minutes after first game--Penn State under Rene Portland used to be called "the best women's program never to have reached a Final Four." After winning streaks of 12 and 10 games this season, the Helen Darling-led Lady Lions meet heavily favored Connecticut on the heels of their stunning 86-65 rout of Louisiana Tech on Monday. Darling is a 5-foot-7 senior from Pittsburgh. "When we're not doing well, I don't need to say anything," Portland said Thursday. "Helen is right on 'em with 'Come on, ladies, pick it up!' " Connecticut, ranked No. 1 all season and winner of 14 in a row since its 72-71 loss at home to Tennessee on Feb. 2, presents a heap of problems for Penn State, not the least of which is the Huskies' depth. But most troublesome is junior point guard Sue Bird's near-50% marksmanship from three-point range. Portland said Thursday her team's first priority in the transition game tonight is to find Bird. "She's the key that starts their engine," she said. Then there's Connecticut's Shea Ralph, with an uncanny knack to get behind defenses on breakaways, and the 6-2 Russian, Svetlana Abrosimova, of whom Coach Geno Auriemma said Thursday: "When she's playing the game the way she can play it, there's no one in the country who can do as many things as she can." Connecticut is 1-0 against Penn State, having beaten the Lady Lions, 87-74, at Orlando, Fla., in December. In that one, five Huskies finished in double figures. Ralph seemed to sum this matchup best Thursday when she said: "We all grew up in towns where great expectations were placed upon us. But I'd rather be sitting in our locker room right now than anyone else's."