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Grentz's magic works wonders for Illinois

You have your requisite Tennessee, Connecticut and Stanford. Then for tradition's sake, there are Old Dominion and Vanderbilt.

But thanks to the continuing evolution of women's basketball, the NCAA Tournament has a few fresh faces this year. It isn't just the Same Old Sixteen anymore, and nowhere is that more evident than at Illinois.

Second-year coach Theresa Grentz, who found fame as a player at 1970s power Immaculata and as a coach at Rutgers, has worked her magic with the Fighting Illini. Under her guidance, Illinois (24-7) is in the Sweet 16 for the first time and in the NCAA Tournament for just the fourth time.

Illinois is one of three teams _ the others are Florida and Notre Dame _ in the regional semifinals for the first time. George Washington makes its second appearance, and Louisiana State is in the Sweet 16 for just the third time, and the first since 1989.

Illinois' quick turnaround is a prime example of how women's basketball is taking hold around the nation.

"I don't think a lot of people really knew a lot about women's basketball here," Grentz said this week. "Not that they didn't care, they just didn't think it was something on the top-10 list of things to do."

That, apparently, has changed. This season the Illini averaged a school-record 4,023 for home games. On Feb. 23, Illinois played Purdue at home in front of 16,050, breaking the Big Ten single-game women's record.

That crowd was larger than the total season attendance at Illinois for every year before Grentz arrived.

Selling it

Grentz was well-known when she got to Champaign. She was a high school star in Pennsylvania, then led Immaculata to three AIAW titles, from 1972 to 1974.

Her coaching career has been equally successful. She is seventh in wins in NCAA women's history with a 498-177 record over 23 seasons, 19 at Rutgers.

At Rutgers she won the 1982 AIAW title and led the Scarlet Knights to nine straight NCAA appearances. In 1995 she left for Illinois to pursue "a new challenge."

Once there, she started her sales pitch _ to the fans and the players.

"The older kids bought into my system," Grentz said. "I told them, "We're going to win the national championship, we're going to work hard, you're going to be good students. You're going to get As and Bs.'

"Everybody stayed."

And they have prospered. Last season they went 13-15 and beat No. 23 Florida and No. 14 Arkansas, the first time since 1987 Illinois beat two ranked teams in the same season. They also received rare votes in the Associated Press poll.

This season the Illini were ranked No. 16 in the final AP poll and are seeded fourth in the Midwest Regional. They will take on top-ranked Connecticut (32-0) in Iowa City on Saturday.

It's safe to say a number of their new-but-faithful fans will be there with them.

"The players are there anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour every game signing autographs," Grentz said. "They stay until every child, every youngster gets what they want. There's an intimacy between the players and the community, and they like it."

Caution: Parity ahead

Many agree this is one of the most exciting NCAA Tournaments in years.

While it is true no seed lower than No. 6 reached the Sweet 16, blowouts have been rarer, and No. 1 seeds Old Dominion and North Carolina were forced into overtime in second-round victories over Purdue and Michigan State, respectively.

"I don't think there's any question there are more better teams in the tournament this year," Florida coach Carol Ross said. "That will probably continue to be a trend in women's basketball.

"More girls are playing basketball around the country. If more are playing, more are good players. That means they can't all go to one school anymore."

Grentz said teams are doing a better job of recruiting in their back yards. Her first Illinois class, the best in school history, included four of the state's top players.

Having players from Illinois has helped bring in the fans, but the victories have kept the fans coming back.

"The community has really embraced us," Grentz said. "I've been promoting since the day I got here. We're just doing the things that we said we were going to do, and we're having a good time doing them."