Connecticut’s path to a third straight national championship could include a renewal of the most heated rivalry in women’s college basketball.
For Geno Auriemma to match Tennessee coach Pat Summitt with an eighth national championship he might have to go through her Lady Vols, who earned the top seed in the Dayton region. The Huskies earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Monday night.
If both come through their regions, UConn and Tennessee could meet again in the national semifinals at Indianapolis.
Auriemma’s Huskies didn’t have to face Tennessee during its record 90-game winning streak that was ended by Stanford on Dec. 30. The two pre-eminent teams in the sport broke off their annual matchup in 2007 in a testy split.
Baylor and Stanford were the other two No. 1 seeds. It was the second straight No. 1 seed for the Cardinal, who fell to UConn in the title game last season.
“I think if it’s a four-horse race, there are some dark horses,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I don’t think there is a clear-cut favorite. Last year they (UConn) were a clear-cut favorite.”
“We’re not a clear-cut favorite. Tennessee’s not a clear-cut favorite; Baylor’s not; and UConn’s not.”
The most emotional matchup of the tourney, however, likely will be in the Dallas region between No. 6 Georgia and No. 11 Middle Tennessee State, which is still dealing with the stabbing death of teammate Tina Stewart on March 2.
“The tragedy was most unspeakable and our full committee and shared our thoughts and condolences,” selection committee chairwoman Marilyn McNeil said. “However, what we want to assure everyone is they were considered like everyone in the field. We looked at their body of work and what they had done on the floor over the entire season. They were selected as one of the 33 best at-large teams in the country.”
The Blue Raiders watched the selection show at coach Rick Insell’s house. The coach was glad to see the committee reward this team after all it has gone through over the past two weeks.
“These kids deserve it. What they’ve been through these last 10, 12 days, I don’t know. It’s been the toughest thing I’ve ever had to endure since I’ve been in coaching, and I’m sure it’s the toughest thing they’ll ever have to endure. I’m proud of them. I’m just proud of them,” Insell said.
First up for UConn is Hartford, which won the America East title, and is coached by former Huskies star Jen Rizzotti. The two teams have played each other over the last six years but didn’t meet this season. The Hawks are winless in 11 meetings against UConn.
The Huskies will be trying for their third consecutive title, matching their run from 2002-04 and Tennessee’s from 1996-98. UConn is one of a record nine Big East teams in the field. The Big East got 11 men’s teams in their field announced Sunday.
Auriemma said he’s happy they got nine bids but was surprised Syracuse didn’t get in.
“I was hoping that we’d get 10,” he said. “I don’t know what the rationale was for not taking Syracuse.”
Unlike the men’s bracket that expanded to 68 teams this year, the women decided to stick with 64. Indianapolis will host the Final Four on April 3 and 5.
The last time the Final Four was in Indianapolis, Baylor won the championship as a No. 2 seed.
The Lady Bears, led by sophomore center Brittney Griner, will face No. 16 Prairie View in their opener on Sunday in the Dallas region.
If the seeds hold, Baylor could face No. 2 Texas A&M for the fourth time this season. Baylor beat Texas A&M by a total of 15 points in their three meetings — including a three-point win in the Big 12 title game.
“I can’t ever used the word shocked with the NCAA anymore,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “You want to see new faces, you want to see new teams. I don’t think anybody wants to see the same teams that you see from your conference.”
Mulkey was excited for the fans, however, if the two Big 12 rivals meet.
“It should be a great crowd; it should be a sellout,” she said.
Stanford, which opens against UC Davis, could also face a team for the fourth time this season — UCLA. The Cardinal swept the No. 3 seed in Spokane three times, but the Bruins had a late lead in the Pac-10 title game on Saturday.
“I didn’t know UCLA would be in our bracket. Honestly, I’m shocked about that,” VanDerveer said. “We didn’t play against UCLA the way we should have. A lot of the mistakes we made are correctable.”
UC Davis is one of six teams making its first NCAA tournament appearance.
Tennessee is making its 30th trip to the tournament. The Lady Vols have been in every NCAA tournament since it began in 1982. They advanced to the regional semifinals last season before falling to Baylor. Two years ago Tennessee lost in the opening round for the first time ever.
This time the Lady Vols will open up against No. 16 Stetson, which needed a 55-footer at the buzzer to advance to the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game.
Summitt was focused on the team’s first-round opponent and not worried about a potential showdown with UConn in the Final Four.
“Well, we’re not even going to think about that,” she said. “It’s all about one game at a time and survive and advance.”