When the final eight are winnowed to the Final Four late tonight, women's basketball followers might be looking at a Stanford-Connecticut showdown in the national semifinals at Minneapolis next Saturday.
UConn, unbeaten in 32 games, has made three tournament opponents look like NAIA teams in storming into tonight's East title game on its home court against seemingly overmatched Virginia (27-4).
Stanford (29-2) looms as a solid pick over Purdue (24-7) in the West final tonight at 9 at Pauley Pavilion.
Less certain are the other regional final matchups. In the Mideast at Knoxville, Tennessee (32-2) meets Texas Tech (33-3). And in the Midwest at Des Moines, Colorado (30-2) goes for its 26th consecutive victory against surprising Georgia (27-4).
UConn-Virginia matches coaches who once sat on the same bench. The Huskies' Geno Auriemma was an assistant under Virginia's Debbie Ryan before moving to Connecticut in 1985.
Leon Barmore, the Louisiana Tech coach whose team was beaten by Virginia on Thursday, said No. 1 UConn is within shouting distance of becoming one of the game's great teams.
"They're one of the best teams I've ever seen," he said. "If they go undefeated, you'd have to take a hard look at them as one of the best women's teams ever. But they have to play it out."
UConn has beaten each of its opponents by at least 10 points, and since defeating Tennessee by 11 in January, has won by an average of 35.
Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer says her team is playing like her 1992 team, which won the NCAA title in Los Angeles. The theme: Run-run-run, substitute freely, wear the other team down. It certainly worked Thursday night at UCLA. Stanford's relentless, up-tempo game wore down defending champion North Carolina at the end of each half.
"We try to play at a 78 (r.p.m.) speed and keep the other team at 45," she said.
"I think North Carolina got tired against us, and when you don't have your legs you foul a lot, you don't rebound and you don't shoot well.
"We've tried to take this team back to what our '92 team did--play fast and get good shots. Our '92 team had real track people on it, but until this year we haven't had the depth to play that way."
VanDerveer played seven players for at least 10 minutes each against North Carolina. The Cardinal got solid defense from seniors Rachel Hemmer, who held North Carolina's Charlotte Smith to 13 points, and Anita Kaplan, who also scored 16 points.
Kate Starbird had six steals, six rebounds, seven assists and 12 points. And freshman reserve Kristin Folkl had a game-high 21 points and 12 rebounds, many in the homestretch.
Tennessee, against most foes, would be a prohibitive choice on its home court. The Lady Vols' crowd of 10,629 was easily Thursday's biggest.
But Texas Tech, which won it all in 1993, has also been in cruise control in the tournament, like Tennessee and UConn. The Lady Red Raiders have easily defeated Tulane, Wisconsin and a strong Washington team.
Colorado has routed three tournament opponents, but so has Georgia. Bulldog Coach Andy Landers starts four sophomores and a junior.
"The fact we're young and loose, that's helped us," he said. "We don't have the pressure and anxiety of a senior-dominated team."
At Des Moines, All-American point guard Shelly Sheetz of Colorado is on familiar ground. She's from Cedar Rapids and had her own cheering section Thursday night.
There were two dunks in pregame warmups Thursday at UCLA, by North Carolina's 6-foot Charlotte Smith and Purdue's 6-6 Michele VanGorp. No one from UCLA could be found who could recall a woman dunking in Pauley Pavilion. For the record, VanGorp did it first. . . . Stanford's Rachel Hemmer never regained the offensive mobility she had before ankle surgery a year ago, but it hasn't hurt her defense. "When practice started last fall, I nearly wrote her off," Coach Tara VanDerveer said. "She's come a long way. When she blocked Smith's first shot, it gave us all a lift. One thing she can still do is play tough, physical defense." Stanford was a big favorite over Purdue a year ago at the West Regional final too. But Purdue won, 82-65, at Stanford.