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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT

UC Santa Barbara Is the Lone Southland Representative

NCAA overview: Top seedings would set up a Final Four of Connecticut versus Notre Dame and Tennessee versus Duke.

March 12, 2001|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The traditional powers and cupcakes of NCAA women's basketball were aligned Sunday, with three usual suspects--Tennessee, Duke and Connecticut--joining Notre Dame on possible flight paths to this year's Final Four in St. Louis.

And in a season in which neither UCLA nor USC came close to achieving adequate records, UC Santa Barbara was the only Southern California team to get an NCAA women's tournament bid.

The 22-8 Gauchos, making their eighth postseason appearance since 1991, were sent to the Mideast regional with a No. 14 seeding.

Unranked Santa Barbara travels to West Lafayette, Ind., for a Friday matchup against first- and second-round host Purdue (26-6), seeded third in the Mideast regional and ranked ninth in the nation.

Left in the cold was Loyola Marymount (21-9). The Lions had hoped to be the second West Coast Conference team taken, after St. Mary's gained the conference's automatic bid and was given a ninth seeding in the East regional. The Lions had more victories than 19 of the 64 teams taken, plus a top-50 RPI number.

"It was great just to have been considered, but we're definitely disappointed," said Loyola Coach Julie Wilhoit.

"We feel we should have been in there somewhere. But we had a great season, and this should by no means take away from what our players accomplished."

Several hours after its NCAA disappointment, Loyola received an invitation from the Women's NIT. The Lions will host Nevada Las Vegas (18-9) Thursday night at Gersten Pavilion. UNLV was a 62-54 loser to Brigham Young in the first round of the Mountain West tournament Wednesday.

Defending champion and No. 2-ranked Connecticut (28-2) and No. 3-ranked Tennessee (29-2) emerged with No. 1 seedings in the East and Mideast, respectively, despite injuries to their top players.

No. 1-ranked Notre Dame (28-2) was the clear choice for the No. 1 seeding in the Midwest and the other top seeding went to Duke (28-3).

The NCAA selection committee even left the door open for a national championship-game rematch of Connecticut and Tennessee by matching the East versus the Midwest winners in one national semifinal and the West versus the Mideast in the other.

If the seedings hold, that would mean Final Four semifinals of Connecticut-Notre Dame and Tennessee-Duke.

Tennessee lost Tamika Catchings to a knee injury on Jan. 15, but won 13 in a row before losing to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Connecticut lost two All-Americans. First, Svetlana Abrosimova was sidelined for the season because of a foot injury, then Shea Ralph suffered the third torn anterior cruciate ligament of her career in the Big East tournament.

Ralph was named most outstanding player in last year's national championship game at Philadelphia, where Connecticut routed Tennessee, 71-52. The teams split two games this season.

Georgia (26-5), ranked fourth, won the Southeastern Conference tournament but was dropped to a No. 2 seeding in the East regional, with Connecticut, because it finished three games behind Tennessee in the regular-season SEC race.

Georgia opens against Liberty (18-11). Notre Dame, a midseason conqueror of Connecticut, will start against Alcorn State (21-10). Tennessee will get Austin Peay (17-13). Connecticut will play Long Island (16-14). Duke plays Wisconsin-Milwaukee (19-10).

Only once has a a top-seeded team been eliminated in the first round. It happened in 1998 when Harvard, behind Allison Feaster's 35 points, shocked the Stanford women, 71-67.

The only other time in recent years when the loser in such matchups came within 20 points was 1998, when Grambling lost to Texas Tech by 12 points.

Yet there were signs Sunday of a broadening of the talent pool across Division I. Ten of the 64 teams selected Sunday had never been to the tournament. And 35 of those chosen a year ago did not repeat.

But there was no indication of any change in the sport's power structure. The Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12, and Southeastern conferences supplied 24 of the 64 teams selected. The Big 12 led with seven.

Getting a No. 1 slot was the good news Duke. The bad news is that the Blue Devils are in the West regional. If the Blue Devils reach the West regional final, they would have to travel to Spokane, Wash.

The other final regional sites are Pittsburgh (East), Birmingham, Ala. (Mideast), and Boulder, Colo. (Midwest). The Final Four is March 30-April 1 at Savvis Center in St. Louis.

The much-maligned Pacific 10 Conference put four teams in the tournament, but the highest seeded was No. 6 Washington (19-9). The Huskies play No. 11 Old Dominion (21-8) Friday at Gainesville, Fla.

The other three Pac-10 teams:

* Arizona State (20-10) vs. Louisiana State (19-10) Friday at West Lafayette, Ind.

* Oregon (17-11) vs. Iowa (20-9) Saturday at at Salt Lake City.

* Stanford (18-10) vs. George Washington (22-9) Saturday at Norman, Okla.

Tennessee and Louisiana Tech continued their streaks of having participated in all 20 Division I tournaments. Georgia, Old Dominion and Virginia are in for the 18th time.

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