Connecticut is ready to play and put the Nykesha Sales commotion to rest. Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer returns to Iowa, where she had some of her happiest and saddest times. And Tennessee awaits Liberty -- the school, not a pass ashore.
The NCAA women's basketball tournament -- led by Tennessee's bid for the first three-peat -- starts Friday with 16 first-round games at eight sites. Sixteen more games will be played at eight other sites Saturday.
Connecticut, the 1995 national champion and a No. 1 seed in the four previous NCAA tournaments, was made a No. 2 this year. The Huskies (31-2) will meet No. 15 seed Fairfield (20-9) in Storrs, Conn., on Friday night.
But the opponent isn't as important to the Huskies as the chance to play in hopes of silencing the debate over Sales and her school scoring record.
"I think we're anxious to get going with a game," coach Geno Auriemma said. "We haven't played since (March 3). It's been awhile and we're anxious to have Friday night get here."
The Sales debate resurfaced this week when ESPN The Magazine reported in its inaugural issue that she had mistakenly been credited for a basket at Seton Hall on Jan. 22.
Thus, even with the gift basket the injured All-American was allowed to score against Villanova, she still was two points short of the record. Seton Hall has said it would not change its game stats.
Georgia plays George Washington in the second game at UConn.
The other East Regional games also are Friday. In Norfolk, Va., top-seeded Old Dominion plays St. Francis and Nebraska takes on New Mexico. In Raleigh, N.C., it's Memphis against Youngstown State and North Carolina State against Maine. And in Tucson, Ariz., Virginia plays SMU and Arizona meets Santa Clara.
Notre Dame, seeking a return trip to the Final Four, faces Southwest Missouri State and its outstanding freshman, Jackie Stiles, in a Midwest Regional game in Lubbock, Texas.
Last year, Notre Dame began its Final Four march with two victories in Austin. In 1996, the Irish upset Purdue in a first-round game at Lubbock. And in 1995, the Irish won two of three games at the women's NIT in Amarillo.
"Well, the third time was charm. I don't know about the fourth yet," said coach Muffet McGraw, whose team made it back to NCAA play despite returning just one starter.
Texas Tech, seeded No. 1 in the Midwest, plays Grambling in the other game at Lubbock. Also in the Midwest on Friday, second-seeded Alabama plays North Carolina-Greensboro and UCLA faces Michigan. Both games are in Tuscaloosa.
Iowa City, Iowa, and Chapel Hill, N.C., have the other Friday games. In the West Regional at Iowa City, it's Iowa against Massachusetts and Kansas against Tulane. In the Mideast Regional at Chapel Hill, North Carolina meets Howard and Florida International faces Marquette.
Top-ranked Tennessee (33-0), trying to become the first women's team to win three consecutive NCAA titles, is a big favorite in Knoxville on Saturday against Liberty -- a matchup of the nation's only unbeaten teams.
Liberty (28-0) was not pleased at being seeded 16th.
"We're being told they're expecting a tremendous crowd at Tennessee," Liberty coach Rick Reeves said. "I told my players, what if they do sell out? What if you do play in front of 25,000 fans? That would be something special. What's the worst thing that could happen? The worst thing is that we get beat by the best team in the country and finish 28-1."
Stringer's Rutgers team plays Oregon in a Mideast game in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday. It'll be her first game in Iowa since she left the University of Iowa to take the Rutgers job in 1995.
At Iowa, Stringer's teams won or shared six Big Ten titles and reached the Final Four in 1993. But she had a difficult time after her husband died of a heart attack in November 1992.
"I consider Iowa home right now, even though I was raised in the East," Stringer said. "I lost my husband and therein it became a sad place for me. I needed to get away. It was a personal adjustment, not a professional one."
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