Chalk holds: top eight teams make regional finals

All season long, the top teams in women’s basketball have set

themselves apart.

Now they are all that is left.

The top eight seeds have reached the regional finals of the NCAA

tournament, but making the next step to the national semifinals may

not be so easy.

”Every kid’s dream, every coach’s preparation is for the Final

Four,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. ”If you notice when

coaches and kids talk, they talk about the Final Four. The thing in

their mind is the Final Four.

”That one game (the regional final) means your 40 minutes away

from the Final Four. That’s when it starts to hit the kids. `This

is it, this is the one I’ve been waiting for. If we win this game

we’re going to the Final Four.’ Some rise to the occasion and some

are beaten down by the pressure of it.”

Auriemma’s team has consistently risen to the top and they hope

to make it five trips in a row to the national semifinals when they

face Kentucky on Tuesday night.

Top seeds Baylor, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Stanford have run

through their opponents to advance to the regional finals. The four

have won by an average of 26 points.

Some of the No. 2 seeds have had a little tougher time. While

Duke has cruised through the first three rounds, Kentucky,

Tennessee and Maryland all had harder times. The Wildcats had to

survive a tough game against Wisconsin-Green Bay in the second

round. The Lady Vols and Terps had to pull of huge rallies in the

round of 16 to still be playing.

It is the fourth time the top eight teams advanced to the

regional finals. The eight remaining teams have combined for 20 of

the 30 national championships with only Duke and Kentucky yet to

win one.

”That tends to be how it works in women’s basketball,” said

Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves. ”You don’t see many different faces.

In women’s basketball you don’t see a ton of upsets. I think it’s

changing. We’ve broken through three straight years to the Sweet

16. We plan on continuing to be here. I truly believe we have that

kind of program now. It’s interesting how that worked out. The 1s

and 2s should make for a great Elite Eight and tremendous Final

Four.”

The most intriguing matchup will take place Monday night when

top-seed Baylor faces No. 2 Tennessee in Des Moines. The unbeaten

Lady Bears and star Brittney Griner will try and reach the national

semifinals for the second time in three seasons and finish off

their perfect season.

Standing in the way is Pat Summitt and her Lady Vols. If the

Lady Bears win, it could mark the final time Summitt roams the

sidelines after 38 years and 1,098 wins with the Lady Vols. Summitt

announced in August she’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia,

Alzheimer’s type, and has not committed to coaching next

season.

Associate head coach Holly Warlick says Summitt hasn’t discussed

the situation with her or anyone else. Summitt likely won’t come to

a decision until at least a few weeks after the season, so for now

Tennessee is operating as though she’s not leaving.

”We don’t talk about it because we feel that tomorrow’s not a

guarantee for anyone. We’ve taken this whole situation with Pat one

day at a time, one game at a time, and I think (Monday) is no

different,” Warlick said. ”I think she will evaluate it, and

right now I’ll tell you she’s going to be back next year.”

One person who won’t be back next season is Stanford senior

Nnemkadi Ogwumike. She is trying to guide the Cardinal back to the

Final Four and the school’s first national championship in 20

years. She had 39 points in the regional semifinal win over South

Carolina.

For the Cardinal to match LSU and Connecticut as the only

schools to reach the Final Four in five straight seasons, they will

have to figure a way to slow down Duke.

The Blue Devils are not only shooting lights out but moving the

ball well to pile up assists and easy baskets – and they hope to

keep it rolling right into the program’s first Final Four since

2006. Duke has gone six straight games shooting above 50 percent in

the first half, and wound up at 53.7 percent overall Saturday to

follow up its season-best 65.6-percent performance from the field

in a 96-80 second-round win over Vanderbilt in which the Blue

Devils dished out 28 assists.

The Blue Devils fell to Maryland in the 2006 title game. The

Terps would love to get back there after beating defending national

champion Texas A&M in the regional semifinals. Now they will

try and knock off last season’s national runner-up Notre Dame.

The Irish routed St. Bonaventure 79-35 Sunday in the Raleigh

Regional semifinals, with their 44-point romp matching the

22-year-old record for scoring margin at the regional stage of the

women’s NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw was impressed by the Terps, who

rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the Aggies.

”They’re a strong, strong rebounding team,” McGraw said of the

Terrapins. ”They have great size. We’re a team that plays four

guards. We don’t match up well. They’re much more physical and so

much bigger inside than we are.”

Connecticut also likes to play four guards. The Huskies found a

balanced offense to complement their stellar defense in a 77-59

victory over Penn State that saw five players score in double

figures.

”We wanted to make sure that this was a team thing more than

looking around for someone to have a big night,” Auriemma said.

”The team would have to play great defense and the team would have

to execute offensively. I was really happy after the game to sit

back and say that’s exactly what it was.”

Kentucky was happy to be able to relax at the end of its

17-point win over Gonzaga. The Wildcats struggled to get to the

regionals, barely beating McNeese State and Green Bay. Now they’ve

reached the regional finals for the second time in three

seasons.

”It means a lot to our program,” Kentucky coach Matthew

Mitchell said. ”We are excited to be here and we know we can make

history.”