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Basketball big in baseball town

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- The sign on the expressway that funnels traffic downtown tells a lot about this city.

Mark McGwire Highway.

There's no street named for Jackie Stiles -- not yet, anyway. Nor is there an avenue named after Geno Auriemma.

This is a Cardinals baseball town, the town of Kurt Warner and the Rams, of Chris Pronger and the Blues.

Women's basketball? This is a place where the Division I team considers it a good night when 1,000 show up.

But for the next four days, women's basketball will take center stage. The Final Four is in town.

Stiles will be here with Southwest Missouri State. Auriemma brought his defending national champions from Connecticut. Notre Dame and Purdue both have a first-team All-American.

"Any time you get attention for women's basketball, it's great for our sport," Saint Louis coach Jill Pizzotti said. "It's been neat all year to read the quotes from players in the papers, 'We want to get to St. Louis, we want to get to St. Louis.' "

Auriemma is happy to be in a baseball town.

"I love baseball. Baseball is my favorite sport," he said as the Huskies arrived at their hotel Wednesday. "I've got a couple of things we've got to do -- go to the statue of Stan Musial and pay homage."

It's not as though the city has lacked women's basketball success. Washington University has won the past four Division III national championships and had an 81-game winning streak. One of Notre Dame's best players, point guard Niele Ivey, played high school ball in St. Louis.

The area also produced Kristin Folkl, who played on two Final Four teams at Stanford. Until now, though, there has been nothing to push the women's game to the forefront.

And talk about timing. The Valley lands the event and one of its schools, Southwest Missouri State, makes it. That had Doug Elgin, commissioner of the host Missouri Valley Conference, gushing.

"It's almost incomprehensible," Elgin said. "Five years ago we bid on this event, Southwest Missouri State signs one of the nation's most heralded high school players, and lo and behold, she has a Larry Bird-like career and ends up coming to the Final Four in St. Louis her senior season."

The event has been sold out for a year.

Banners with the colorful logo and slogan -- Arch Madness -- hang from downtown lamp posts. A diner at Mike Shannon's restaurant, a bastion for the baseball set, heard Stiles' name mentioned two or three times.

"What we hope happens here is that Jackie Stiles will do to the women's Final Four, certainly in this region, what Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did in '79," Elgin said. "The frenzy over Jackie Stiles is something that I haven't seen in many years in women's basketball."

INDIANA'S LEGACY: Indiana boasts a legacy that includes John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird, not to mention outsiders such as Bob Knight and Reggie Miller. The movie Hoosiers was based on the state hysteria over high school basketball, and scores of books have been written about Indiana's love of the sport.

It's time for another chapter.

Purdue and Notre Dame on Friday will be the first women's teams from the same state to appear in the same Final Four.

It's happened six times on the men's side, including Ohio State and Cincinnati three straight years from 1960-62, meeting in the championship game the final two years.

The Boilermakers (30-6) and Irish (32-2) could meet in the title game Sunday.

"We in Indiana who are basketball-crazy Hoosier nuts couldn't be happier," said Roger Dickinson, executive director of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

In recent years, the women at Purdue and Notre Dame have been the most successful teams in the state. This is the third trip to the Final Four for Purdue since 1994 and the second trip in five years for Notre Dame.

"I think it shows we have great basketball here in the state of Indiana," Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. "The impact players from both teams are from Indiana."

They are Purdue's Katie Douglas (15.2 points per game) and Notre Dame's Ruth Riley (18.4 points, 7.7 rebounds), both first-team All-Americans, who played together on Amateur Athletic Union teams.

"It shows what kind of players come out of Indiana and says a lot about Hoosier basketball," said Riley, who considered attending Purdue.

"People in Indiana think it's a birthright. It's a way of life. It's a community-supported, community-spirited situation," Dickinson said. "We get people from all over the country and all over the world who come and visit the Hall of Fame. They know Indiana for three things -- the 500-mile race, corn and basketball. I would say that's a pretty good description."

STILES HONORED: Stiles was named player of the year by ESPN the Magazine, and Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw was coach of the year. For the men, Duke's Shane Battier was player of the year and Boston College's Al Skinner was coach of the year.

CONNECTICUT: Next up for the Huskies is their toughest competition, Notre Dame. The Irish defeated Connecticut during the regular season, but the Huskies won the rematch in the Big East tournament on Sue Bird's buzzer-beater.

Connecticut is the only team back from last year's Final Four.

"Hopefully we'll have a little edge over everybody," Tamika Williams said. "So why not use it?"

Any little thing the Huskies can do to relieve some of the pressure could make a difference.

"Right now we're going in the right direction," Williams said. "If we go the other way, we're going to lose."

Said Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore: "It is pretty obvious that if they take care of business, they will be the national champions. They are very, very good."

MARSHALL: Royce Chadwick, who led Stephen F. Austin to seven consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament, was named coach. Chadwick, 43, replaces Juliene Simpson, who was fired this month. Chadwick, who has a career record of 400-132, signed a five-year contract worth $90,000 per year.

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