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NCAA WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT Big East lands seven berths



Published: Thu, March 20, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



It joined the SEC as the conferences with the most teams in the tournament.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Watch out Southeastern Conference. Step aside Big 12. The Big East is muscling in on your territory in the NCAA women's basketball tournament.

The Big East matched the mighty SEC with seven teams in the tournament bracket released Sunday. That's the most ever for the league, at times belittled as little more than Connecticut and a bunch of others.

Connecticut earned its usual No. 1 seed, this time in the East Regional. The selection committee also chose Villanova, Rutgers, Boston College, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Miami from the Big East.

There was good reason to do so, said Cheryl Marra, who chairs the committee.

"They were the No. 3 league in the country and clearly, night in and night out, they were playing a very, very tough schedule," Marra said. "What was impressive is what the Big East teams did against those tough teams.

"Come tournament time, we wanted them to be able to play against the tougher teams."

Other No. 1 seeds

Duke (Midwest), Tennessee (Mideast) and LSU (West) were the other No. 1 seeds, with LSU beating out Texas for the final spot in that group.

Tennessee and LSU head the SEC contingent in the tournament and are joined by Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Georgia. The league's coaches had felt Auburn deserved a berth, too, despite its 5-9 conference record.

"We can all sit here and say we're stronger than this conference or that conference and be surprised at what teams got in, about so many teams coming from the Big East," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said.

"All I can say is what our conference was like this year. You're playing every night against a ranked team and with so many teams consistently ranked all year, you would hope maybe to push through and get an eighth team."

The Big 12, which had seven teams in the NCAA tournament last year, has only five this time -- the same number as the more lightly regarded Conference USA.

TCU winning the league tournament was a bonus for Conference USA because the Horned Frogs would not have gotten in otherwise. The league also has Cincinnati, DePaul, Charlotte and Tulane in the NCAA field.

Change in tournament format

The tournament has a slightly different look this year because some of the top teams will be traveling next weekend.

Previously, the top four seeds in each region hosted the first- and second-round games. For this year's tournament, those sites were assigned last summer. So while teams such as Connecticut, Tennessee, Texas Tech and Kansas State will start the tournament at home, other high seeds will be on the road, including Duke, LSU, Villanova and Texas.

LSU, which earned a No. 1 seed for the first time, will travel halfway across the country to play Southwest Texas State in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday. Duke plays Georgia State in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday.

Both will be neutral sites because the home teams, Oregon and North Carolina State, did not make the tournament. The 14 other sites will have the home team playing, so NCAA officials will be watching the Eugene and Raleigh games closely for attendance and atmosphere.

"They're both going to tell us something," said Marra, the senior associate athletic director at Wisconsin. "What, we don't know at this time, but we certainly have that opportunity. It will give us a benchmark as we move forward."




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