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NCAA WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT

East Games Show Depth of the Field

March 20, 2004|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

GOLETA, Calif. — Pick any one of the four East Regional teams here at UC Santa Barbara this weekend for the start of the NCAA Division I women's tournament -- Wisconsin Green Bay, Houston, Colorado and the host Gauchos. You'll find that all are here to make points, not just on the court, but about the women's game in general.

All four played a 2003-04 season during which no team had a firm grip on No. 1 in the polls. And in this tournament, the major conferences have no great talent advantage over mid-major conference teams.

"I think, judging by what's happening across the country in both men's and women's basketball, being No. 1 has been a dangerous thing," said Santa Barbara Coach Mark French. "There have been a lot of teams that have never been to a Final Four that have pulled off upsets, if they're still considered upsets at this point. It's further evidence of the growth of the game."

Added Houston Coach Joe Curl: "Two years ago, when the [title] game was played in San Antonio, the consensus was, if UConn didn't shoot itself in the foot it would win the national title. And they did win the national title. I don't see that being the case this year. I don't see a clear-cut front-runner. I see a bunch of really good teams, and I'm not just talking six or seven teams."

Colorado Coach Ceal Berry said she had filled out a tournament bracket "for myself." On it, she said she had teams reaching the Final Four that were not the usual crews.

"I won't tell you who they were," Berry said, "but I think we're going to see some different teams. The Final Four, for me, is much, much different from what we've seen the last five years."

Only one of the four teams here will still be chasing the dream after Monday.

Third-seeded Conference USA champion Houston (27-3) is in the tournament for the first time since 1992 and is looking for its own breakthrough -- winning a game in the NCAA tournament. Its lineup features All-American candidate senior guard Chandi Jones, (22.5-point average), but not many familiar names after that.

"We think our hunger will overcome a lack of experience," Curl said.

The 14th-seeded Phoenix of Wisconsin Green Bay (23-7) is making its seventh NCAA appearance. At one point, the Horizon League champions, led by junior guard Abby Scharlow (16.7-point average) and freshman forward Nicole Soulis (14.1), had only eight physically sound players. They have nine players available for the Houston game.

"Houston's loaded with talent, in my mind, as much talent as anybody in the NCAA," said Green Bay Coach Kevin Borseth. "But they're not the No. 1 or 2 team, either, so they're vulnerable at some point. I don't know if we've got the ability to expose any of those weaknesses, but we're going to try."

Big West champion Santa Barbara (25-6), 11th seeded, would seem to have a big advantage in the Thunderdome. The Gauchos lost only one game here this season, to Ohio State back in December, and that ended a 27-game home-winning streak. They have won 36 of their last 37 games in their building.

Still, the sixth-seeded Buffaloes (22-7) travel well. Colorado was 7-4 on the road this year, numbering Baylor, USC and Colorado State among the hosts it has defeated.

"This team has won more tough road games and close road games than any team we've had in a while," Berry said. "I feel we have a lot of experience in tough environments, coming from behind, playing on the road and having travel situations. I feel very confident that our team feels confident going in anywhere. There's no place that we would fear."

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