By Mel Greenberg
Homecomings of sorts and other sites of familiarities are all over the NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket that was revealed Monday night for this year’s compelling three-week drama: Connecticut and 63 Other Teams.
The 11 teams in the Trenton Regional behind the overall No. 1 seeded Huskies had reasons to gulp hard knowing the barrier that stood between any of them and a shot to get to St. Louis for the Women’s Final Four.
Temple took great delight, however, for two reasons when ESPN finally got around to flashing the Owls’ name on the bracket board as the ninth-seeded team meeting eighth-seeded Florida at Connecticut to start their journey.
First, there was the sense of relief among the players who were beginning to wring their hands and squirm wondering whether the projections of themselves into the field as an at-large choice were all wrong.
“I was so nervous, I could not sit still,” said freshman Kristen McCarthy. “I’ve never been so antsy in my life. This is all new to me.”
Although a win over the Gators could mean a quick execution at the next turn at the hands of the Huskies, one player was overheard talking to another about the advantage of being in Storrs for the opener.
“This is great. We’re going to have all those thousands of fans cheering for us in our game because of Tonya.”
She was speaking of first-year coach Tonya Cardoza, a longtime assistant to Geno Auriemma during Connecticut’s rise to power.
Connecticut fans cheered for Temple several seasons ago under the former eight-site two-pod format when the Owls in an opposite bracket, played Rutgers, the Huskies’ arch rival in the Big East Conference.
For the past month, the Connecticut media had been fantasizing over the potential of Cardoza coming back to her stomping grounds after the Owls began making themselves looking NCAA worthy.
Cardoza had thought about it, also, and was delighted when she learned what lies ahead.
“Yes, yes, oh yes,” she gushed about the looming collision a win over Florida would bring assuming UConn quickly dispatches No. 16 Vermont.
On the other hand, life is different than in the past, and Cardoza knows she can only look at the opponent directly ahead.
“We’re not looking at UConn,” the former Virginia star and ex-teammate of former Temple coach Dawn Staley said. “I don’t think anyone is looking at UConn. Right now, we’re just focused on our opponent and our opponent is Florida. When I was at Connecticut, we could do that and look past things. Right now, we’re not looking past Florida.”
Still, two other members of Cardoza’s staff took delight in also making a return to the Nutmeg State.
“We’re going back to campus,” assistant coach Brittany Hunter said to grad assistant Stacey Nasser.
Hunter played for the Huskies, graduating last year, and it will be the second time this season she will have return to a ;previous residence. Prior to transferring to UConn, Hunter played at Duke, whom the Owls visited during the season. Nasser was a team manager last season.
The Florida game itself breeds some familiarity in that Temple had a series against the Gators under Staley. Florida’s coach Amanda Butler is in her second season and had previously coached at N.C. Charlotte, playing the Owls for several seasons after the 49ers joined the Atlantic Ten.
Temple’s selection, incidentally, keeps Cardoza alive as one of the top contenders for the Maggie Dixon Award given by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association to the top rookie head coach.
Back to the ACC Villanova’s appearance as a No. 8 seed against No. 9 Utah at top-seeded Maryland’s Comcast Center means Wildcats senior Laura Kurz will return to the arena she visited when the former Germantown Academy played for Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“Yeah, it’s in the back of my mind but not really in my mind,” Kurz said. “Right now we just have to worry about Utah. I’m just thrilled we get to stay on the East Coast and College Park is an easy trip for our fans and family.”
Kurz has NCAA experience, painful as it is. In 2006 she was on the bench at Duke when Maryland zipped the Blue Devils in overtime to win the national championship.
Terrapins all-Americans Marissa Coleman and Kristi Tolliver were freshman that season with Tolliver making the famous three-point shot that completed a wild second-half comeback and sent the game into overtime.
Maryland will meet No. 16 Dartmouth in the other game that is part of the overall Raleigh regional.
If No. 3 Louisville gets to the region title game against the Terrapins the matchup will reunite Cardinals coach Jeff Walz with Brenda Frese, his former Maryland boss.
Duke Be-Deviled NCAA committee chair Jacki Silar avoided havoc at home in Durham, N.C., when the Duke senior women’s administrator’s own team earned a projected No. 1 seed while she was forced to be out of the room during deliberations under committee guidelines.
However, the Blue Devils were placed in East Lansing, Mich., at Michigan State, where Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie previously coached. Her departure to replace Gail Goestenkors, who went to Texas two seasons ago, did not sit well with the fan base, who are sure to make their feelings known if the two teams meet in the second round.
Dragons Misery to Joy Drexel athletic director Eric Zillmer over the excitement caused by the Drexel women winning a first-ever Colonial Athletic Association women’s basketball title: “This has been great. We’ve still been hurting here from two seasons ago when the men didn’t get picked for the tournament. But Denise (Dillon) is so great with what she’s done with the team and they have really helped the healing process from what happened to Bruiser (Flint) and his team.”
Drexel as a 12 seed is going to Albuquerque, N.M., to meet No. 5 Kansas State.
“We’re checking our alumni base for fans,” Zillmer said. “We might have a few out there.
“The great thing about our two programs is we don’t have a men’s or women’s program, per se, we treat both squads under one umbrella as our basketball program, period.”
Family Affair Mika Ryan, head of the Trenton local organizing committee, is obviously delighted with Connecticut’s placement and what it will mean for ticket sales in the Sovereign Bank Arena.
“I just hope the games for the Regional Final are competitive, although I don’t know if any game involving Connecticut right now would be competitive the way they are playing.
“On the other hand, a Virginia-Connecticut game would be terrific.”
She has good reason to have that potential matchup on her wish list.
Virginia coach Debbie Ryan is her sister-in-law Mika Ryan has familiarity with Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma from his days as an assistant for Debbie Ryan before he took the UConn job in the late 1980s.
See Viv Smile Anyone with access to wire photos out of Rutgers’ selection party will notice a departure from recent years in terms of the reaction from coach C. Vivian Stringer when the Scarlet Knights would appear on the board./
Several times Rutgers as a higher seed would get sent to the home court of a lower seed. And there have been other problems such as last year’s stunner having Rutgers and Connecticut meet in a regional final even though they compete in the same conference.
This time the tables are reversed. Rutgers will be home this weekend as a No.7 seed in the Oklahoma City regional hosting No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth in the rest round. No. 2 Auburn will meet No. 15 Lehigh, the Patriot League winner who will make the short trip over I-78 from Bethlehem to Piscataway.
The Scarlet Knights are clear of Connecticut and longtime nemesis Tennessee all the way to the Final Four. While the road is still dangerous, it’s nothing Rutgers can’t handle if all the pieces come together.
Stringer, who was shown smiling and her reaction: “We can be the Cinderella.”