Chalk holds: top eight teams make regional finals

DOUG FEINBERG AP Basketball Writer Published:

KINGSTON, R.I. (AP) -- 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."