Originally created 03/24/01

Even without its stars, UConn is supposed to be UCan



PITTSBURGH -- It's difficult to imagine the Lakers without West and Baylor. The Yankees without Mantle and Maris. The 49ers without Montana and Rice.

Take away All-Americans Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph from defending NCAA women's champion Connecticut, however, and it seems nothing changes at all.

Not the expectations. Not the performance. Not the intense pressure to succeed in one of the few states where women's basketball rivals the men's game in fan interest and support.

Even without the two stars, the top-seeded Huskies (30-2) are expected to beat North Carolina State (22-10) Saturday in the NCAA East regional semifinals, win again Monday, then win a second successive national title a weekend from now in St. Louis.

Such are the expectations of what coach Geno Auriemma said Friday "was supposed to be the greatest team of all time." One that, thanks to coast-to-coast recruiting and an impossibly deep roster, still might have national championship talent.

"This year we started the season with the goal of winning a national championship, and until somebody beats us that is still the goal," Auriemma said. "We have seven players left who have played a lot of minutes, and I wouldn't trade these seven for anybody else in the tournament. So let's go."

UConn's fans listened.

Pittsburgh is as close to NC State's campus in Raleigh as to UConn's in Storrs, yet the Huskies expect to have a significant home court advantage.

First, their fans travel like no other. Second, junior Swin Cash, UConn's leading scorer and rebounder now that Abrosimova and Ralph are injured and out, is a former Pittsburgh high school star.

"I hope there will be 10,00 rooting for us," Cash said.

NC State coach Kay Yow will be cheered on by one of her former players, Kaye Cowher, the wife of Steelers coach Bill Cowher and a former Wolfpack star, yet she wonders if Pittsburgh truly is a neutral site.

"I said, `Pittsburgh - that's Swin Cash's town,' " Yow said. "How did that happen?"

NC State overcame plenty of adversity of its own to reach Pittsburgh, including the injury loss of two of its top three scorers and rebounders from last season, Terah James and Kaayla Chones.

The Wolfpack could have folded after losing seven of nine at midseason, but finished strongly by winning seven of eight. They lack the scoring stars most top teams have, but are suffocating defenders, limiting opponents to a 57.6 scoring average.

The fourth-seeded Wolfpack also are slightly irritated that so few believe they will end UConn's run at a third NCAA title since 1995.

"Nobody expects us to win. So why be tight?" Tynesha Lewis said. "But only 13 people need to believe we can win -- and we do."

She should know. The last time the teams met in NCAA play, NC State upset UConn 60-52 in the 1998 East region finals. Lewis, then a freshman, contributed 11 points, four rebounds and four assists.

The other semifinal matches third-seeded Louisiana Tech (30-4), which also expected to be here, and Missouri (22-9), which most definitely did not. The 10th-seeded Tigers pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament so far, defeating No. 2 seed Georgia, considered a prime national title contender.

Louisiana Tech is in the round of 16 for the ninth consecutive season under coach Leon Barmore, who retired for 17 days last summer only to return when the school couldn't locate a suitable replacement.

The brief retirement seems to have relieved some of the pressure on Barmore, the only coach -- men's or women's -- to win 30 or more games in six consecutive seasons.

The Lady Techsters, however, are wary of Missouri, whose coach, Cindy Stein, is the only one of the four in Pittsburgh who hasn't won at least 400 games. Yow has 611 victories, Barmore has 550 and Auriemma has 423.

Not wary, enough, however, for Barmore to follow the NCAA-issued timetable that called for a pregame shootaround at 5:15 a.m. The schedule was necessitated by a 11:37 a.m. EST tip-off for his team's game.

"My dad used to get up that early to go 'coon hunting and squirrel hunting," Barmore said. "I've been up that early in the morning, too. But no, not now. I make more money than my daddy did."