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Two teams make their first Final Four appearance tonight. One makes its second. And among the traditional powers, only Tennessee advanced.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published April 3, 2005
INDIANAPOLIS - Since it began in 1982, invitations to the biggest event in women's college basketball could have been printed at the beginning of the season.
The engraved cards would have included Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and Connecticut, who have combined for 22 appearances and 12 titles.
Newcomers are crashing the party tonight.
Michigan State and Baylor are at the Final Four for the first time. LSU is making its second appearance. And for the first time in three years, the national champion won't be Connecticut.
And as far as the Spartans and Bears are concerned, it's all good - for them and the game.
"I think it's a great thing," said Michigan State coach Joanne McCallie, who was named the Associated Press coach of the year Saturday. "I think it brings even more awareness to women's basketball. To bring out different regions of the country and to introduce the game at this level with different institutions, I think it's a great thing.
"You can get more people involved if there's different teams getting after it and making it."
LSU of the SEC plays Baylor of the Big 12 in the first semifinal, and the Big Ten's Michigan State meets Tennessee of the SEC in the second. No.8 Baylor lost to No.3 LSU 71-70 in the first game of the season after falling behind by as many as 20.
But the loss bolstered coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson's confidence in her team.
"I learned that we're not too bad," Mulkey-Robertson said. "When you can be down by 20 to LSU in your opening game and come back and have the ball in your hands with a chance to win it, I really felt we're going to be okay. I left there feeling as good as you could feel after a loss."
Mulkey-Robertson and McCallie have traveled similar roads.
Baylor won seven games the season before Mulkey-Robertson arrived, and it wasn't the program she had her heart set on leading.
After a stellar career at Louisiana Tech, she spent 19 years as an assistant to Leon Barmore and believed she would take over the program. She even turned down three head-coaching jobs to remain at Tech. The offer Louisiana Tech made stunned and hurt her.
"I felt that after 19 years, I was worthy of a five-year contract," Mulkey-Robertson said. "It's the standard in the business. They started out with a three-year contract. They felt they were doing me a favor by offering me a four-year one. I was hurt, and I left.
In her fifth season at Baylor, she reached the Final Four. "Thank God for unanswered prayers," Mulkey-Robertson said.
McCallie was coaching at Maine when her alma mater, Northwestern, came calling about the same time Michigan State decided it wanted to raise its program from the depths of the Big Ten. The Spartans were ninth, tied for sixth and tied for fifth in the three seasons before McCallie arrived.
They recruited her with promises of whatever she needed to make the team as successful as the men's. She took the job without visiting the campus, filled with nothing but a vision of what the program could be. Five years later, it's in the Final Four. "It's kind of funny. You always hope things can just go as they have for us," McCallie said. "But all I can really remember is just wanting so badly to get things pointed in the right direction. And I can remember my first year thinking, "I just can't stand this (10-18 record). I can't stand it. No NCAA Tournament, no nothing.' And I just remember being very motivated about doing better and growing the program.
"I had no particular year, and I think it's probably come pretty fast. It just has a lot to do with the players: Kristin Haynie, Kelli Roehrig, Liz Shimek and Lindsay Bowen. Those four are very key to what's happening right now."
The Spartans had their first 20-win season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year. Tonight, they take on one of the most storied programs in women's basketball history.
"It's just another game," Haynie, a senior guard, said. "We have played great teams this season. We have had a great schedule, and we're ready."
Baylor says it's prepared, too. After the Bears lost to LSU, the players said they were hoping for another meeting.
"You always want a second shot," senior forward Steffanie Blackmon said. "It was like what if we don't have a first half like that, what's going to be the outcome? So definitely I wanted another shot to see how we could do without such a shaky start."
So the upstarts take the floor in front of a national television audience with a chance to put a new face on women's college basketball. McCallie said history will take care of itself. The most important thing is making sure they don't disappoint the fans.
"You've got four great teams here, and they're all independent of each other," she said. "I hope the games are terrific. The most important thing is the quality of the competition and the battles out there.
"And that's a pretty key ingredient getting people to watch the games. I think that's the biggest issue."