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VanDerveer nixes role of favorite

Stanford is a strong favorite to win the NCAA title this weekend when the Final Four convenes in Cincinnati. Few people think the Cardinal will have trouble with Old Dominion in Friday night's semifinals and Tennessee or Notre Dame in Sunday night's final.

Don't tell that to Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. Her team may be the deepest in the Final Four and may have won its first four tournament games by 52, 22, 22 and 35 points. She says, in effect, so what?

"As you get further along," she said Wednesday, "teams play differently when they're ahead or behind. If you constantly dig holes against better teams, you don't get out of the hole. For the last 30 minutes of our games, we've been doing well, but for the first 10 minutes we don't always do that."

The Cardinal is out of synch because of injuries, VanDerveer said. All-America forward Kate Starbird does not practice because of a sprained ankle. Naomi Mulitauaopele, a dominating 6-4 post player, does not practice because of aching knees and goes in and out of games.

STARBIRD HONORED: The Sporting News picked Starbird as Player of the Year. Wendy Larry of Old Dominion was named Coach of the Year and Shea Ralph of Connecticut the top freshman.

IS IT REAL OR ?: The merchandise police, a k a representatives of the Collegiate Licensing Co., arrived in Cincinnati to look for the sale of counterfeit tournament items. The growth of women's sports in recent years has made the Final Four a bigger target for counterfeit merchandise.

VANDY COACH REJECTS WNBA: Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster said he has turned down an offer to coach in the WNBA's New York Liberty. "There were many attractive things about the job, but I want to get some things done here," Foster said.