- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

ST. LOUIS (AP) - No matter who wins the title game on Tuesday night, the Big East is guaranteed to be the first conference ever to sweep the NCAA and WNIT championships in the same season.

South Florida topped Kansas 75-71 on Saturday to win the WNIT title, which began in 1998. It’s the second straight season a Big East school won that championship after Marquette took the 2008 crown.

Connecticut found itself pulling for conference rival Louisville against Oklahoma in the first semifinal game on Sunday night.

“During the tournament I was cheering for all the Big East teams,” Connecticut center Tina Charles said. “When they (Louisville) were playing against Maryland we were cheering for them and even when they were playing against Oklahoma. We really support each other and I think the Big East is really making a statement.”

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WALZ WAYS:@ Though Louisville is making its first Final Four appearance, the Cardinals have an experienced guide.

Coach Jeff Walz, an assistant on Maryland’s 2006 championship team, knows the setting can be pressure-packed. He wants players to have fun, too, and reminded them during warmups before Sunday’s first national semifinal.

“We are on a huge stage, and I told the kids when they came out when the court opened to just kind of stop and take four or five minutes to look around and enjoy it,” Walz said. “We hope to get back here many times, but I’ve got two great seniors on this team.

“This is it for them.”

Players might have been too emotional for their own good during the Cardinals’ dismal first half. Walz sat down Angel McCoughtry for a minute, then called a second early timeout after Oklahoma went ahead 16-2.

The Cardinals’ 0-for-13 shooting start included a shot from underneath by Keshia Hines that rocketed past everything.

“She air-balled a 1-footer, we couldn’t have gotten her any closer,” Walz said. “I knew it was just tightness, it was jitters. I had to just try and get our team calmed down.

“And I’m really, really proud of how we responded.”

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MISPERCEPTION:@ Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma bristled when asked about the perception that Stanford is a soft team and suggested that players are sometimes judged based on racial stereotypes.

“I know this is going to get played out the wrong way. But I’m going to say it anyway,” he said. “And I know I’m going to get criticized for this. White kids are always looked upon as being soft.

“So Stanford’s got a tremendous amount of really good players who for whatever reason, because they don’t look like Tina Charles or Maya Moore, the perception out there is going to be, well, they must be soft.

“Well, I think that’s a bunch of bull. I watched them play and nobody goes harder to the boards. Nobody takes more charges. Nobody runs the floor as hard. Those kids are as tough as any of the kids in the country. But people in the sports world like to make judgments on people by how they look. And it’s grossly unfair.”

Auriemma went on to recount somebody telling him, “Well, you know, Stanford’s really disciplined.”

“As if to say we’re not,” he said Saturday. “You know, it’s just the perceptions out there that people make. And, yet, you don’t get here to play in these games if you’re not tough, if you’re not disciplined, if you’re not talented, and you don’t do all the little things that good players do.”

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POST POWER:@ Count Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer among those impressed with the immense talent in the post at the Final Four.

Her Cardinal team is led by 6-foot-4 star Jayne Appel, while Oklahoma has one of the most imposing post players of all-time in Courtney Paris. Throw in Connecticut’s Tina Charles and this may have been one of the best groups of centers in a Final Four.

“How often do you get three that good coming through at the same time?” VanDerveer said.

Paris has gotten the most attention with her NCAA record double-double streak of 112 games, while Appel has put together an impressive tournament, including a 46-point effort in the regional finals against Iowa State.

“These women are really comfortable with themselves and who they are,” VanDerveer said. “You can just tell being around them that they love the game of basketball.”

Charles has steadily improved her game this season, leading coach Geno Auriemma to consider her the key to the team’s success.

“When she plays well, we win,” he said.

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WNBA SUCCESS:@ UConn has no equal in the Final Four when it comes to having WNBA players. A dozen former Huskies played in the league last season, including Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Swin Cash. Stanford was second on the list with four active players: Nicole Powell, Olympia Scott, Brooke Smith and Candice Wiggins.

Neither Oklahoma or Louisville had anyone playing in the league last season, although that is sure to change with the Sooners’ Courtney Paris and the Cardinals’ Angel McCoughtry expected to be taken among the first few picks in the draft Thursday.

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LATE GAME HEROICS:@ UConn has run through its opponents and hasn’t allowed anyone to come within 10 points all season. But coach Geno Auriemma isn’t worried if the game comes down to one or two possessions at the end.

“If you told me there’s 30 seconds left and we need a 3 to win the game, I’d dare you to pick anybody in this tournament that you would want shooting the ball other than Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore,” he said. “So I feel pretty good about that.”

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BATTLE OF THE BANDS:@ UConn took two victories over Stanford on Sunday. The WBCA sponsored a Battle of the Bands competition between the four teams and the Huskies walked away victorious. Connecticut’s band beat defending champion Stanford.

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AP Sports Writer R.B. Fallstrom contributed to this report.

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