Will USF fans be cheering on Cierra Dillard and Buffalo this season, or does last year’s tourney loss still rankle?
Dent in the dynasty?
A down year for UConn is still a dazzling one for most other teams. Nonetheless, the Huskies (31-2) have shown signs of mortality this season and aren’t a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006. That honor in this region goes to Louisville (29-3), which defeated UConn by nine at home on Jan. 31. “There’s a 50-50 chance we’re not coming (to Tampa),” coach Geno Auriemma said following his team’s 57-47 win against USF on March 4, when UConn trailed at the half. Much of the Huskies’ fate hinges on the health of 6-foot-3 All-American Katie Lou Samuelson, who missed the American Athletic Conference tournament (back spasms). The Huskies are the only team that made Tampa’s two previous Final Fours.
Towson’s Cinderella story
You won’t find many better stories in the tournament than Towson. The Tigers had never made the Colonial Athletic Association’s final, let alone won the thing, before upsetting Drexel in the championship game this year. That secured Townson’s first conference title in 35 years (back when they played in East Coast Conference) and the program’s first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
An empty seat
No. 7-seed Rutgers (22-9) will play this tournament without Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, on sick leave since Feb. 24. Without Stringer, who turned 71 on Saturday, the Scarlet Knights have gone 4-1 to earn a 7 seed. Veteran assistant Tim Eatman is running the team in his boss’ absence. “Being away from my team has been more difficult than I could have imagined,” Stringer said in a statement, “but thankfully they are under the great care of Tim Eatman and my assistants.”
If the name Cierra Dillard rings a bell to USF fans, it’s only because she rung up the Bulls for 36 points in last year’s NCAA Tournament. A year after sinking seven 3-pointers in Buffalo’s 102-79 romp of USF, the 5-foot-9 senior (25.2 ppg, 5.7 assists) has evolved into a finalist for the Dawn Staley Award, presented to the nation’s top guard. Dillard ranks second in the nation in scoring, and leads the country in both free-throw attempts (270) and made free throws (219).
UT close call
The Vols have never missed the NCAA Tournament but found themselves on the bubble this year at 19-12. But Tennessee — which won the title here in 2008 — squeaked in as an 11-seed to earn a first-round matchup with UCLA and extend its NCAA tourney streak to 38 consecutive years. Body of work, according to the selection committee, gave Tennessee the edge.
Women’s Final Four
Amalie Arena, Tampa
April 5: Semifinals, 7 and 9:30
April 7: Final, 6
More info/tickets: www.ncaa.com/womens-final-four