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NCAA WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT

Gauchos Welcome Their Opportunity

March 27, 2004|From Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. — The opponent is Connecticut, the crowd will be large and hostile, and the game will be the team's most significant ever.

UC Santa Barbara has hit the big time in women's basketball.

Unranked and seeded 11th, the Gauchos (27-6) play second-seeded Connecticut (27-4) in the NCAA East Regional semifinals today at the 16,294-seat Hartford Civic Center, the Huskies' second home.

It's certainly not the Thunderdome, the cozy arena where Santa Barbara beat sixth-seeded Colorado and third-seeded Houston to reach the round of 16 for the first time. But it has only added to the Gauchos' enthusiasm.

"We're euphoric to be here," Coach Mark French said. "When you talk about our plane flight out here, I think we could've made it without our plane, probably just on our own energy."

They'll need all the energy they have to stay with a Huskie team seeking a record fifth consecutive Final Four trip and its third consecutive national title. After losing two of its last four regular-season games, Connecticut has bounced back in the NCAA tournament, winning by 36 and 26 points.

The Gauchos remain eager.

"We're just as good as any of them," said Lindsay Taylor, Santa Barbara's 6-foot-8 center. "We didn't come here because people felt sorry for us, that we were the only team from the West Coast [in the East Regional]. We proved ourselves. We did beat the No. 3 seed."

Top-seeded Penn State (27-5) plays fifth-seeded Notre Dame (21-10) in the first game today. The regional final is Monday, with the winner advancing to the Final Four in New Orleans.

"I think we're like stealth Gauchos this year," French said. "Hardly anybody's paying any attention to us. Then all of a sudden, we start playing really well at the end."

That low profile is what concerns the Huskies. "I think that can kind of scare you the most, when you don't really know a team," forward Barbara Turner said. "We're not overlooking them at all."

It's hard to overlook Taylor, who draws double- and triple-teams that free up teammates such as Kristen Mann and April McDivitt on the perimeter. Then again, Santa Barbara has no one like Diana Taurasi, the 2003 player of the year.

"She's always been the one that's really beat us at Tennessee," said McDivitt, who transferred to Santa Barbara after playing three years at Tennessee. "She was a great player then, she's a great player now."

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