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Original Issue

Top Conn-tenders

No team has come within 11 points of beating the Huskies this season, but here are four upset-minded teams with a chance to prove there's no such thing as a sure thing

A side from one blot on its otherwise perfect record, an 80--68 loss at Connecticut on Dec. 23, Stanford (30--1) has been the West Coast mirror of the Huskies: The Cardinal's average margin of victory is 23.1 points. The team's strength is the star-studded frontline of 6'4" senior All-America center Jayne Appel, who recently broke Lisa Leslie's career Pac-10 rebounding record; 6'4" junior Kayla Pedersen, who hits 39.5% of her threes; and 6'2" sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who was named Pac-10 player of the year after leading the conference in scoring (18.4 ppg) and shooting percentage (63.5). All three grab nearly 10 rebounds a game. The less-heralded backcourt has performed well: Fifth-year senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude provides lockdown defense, while junior Jeanette Pohlen averages 9.3 points and 4.5 assists and hits 90.6% from the stripe. "They don't get rattled, they enjoy each other and they are very coachable, which we have to be," coach Tara VanDerveer says of her team. "We have to outwork our opponents."

That assessment should sound familiar to Nebraska (30--1), which ran the table in the regular season in RPI's top-rated conference thanks to its chemistry and composure, in addition to hard work. Senior forward Kelsey Griffin, the Big 12 player of the year, is averaging 20.3 points and 10.3 rebounds while fellow upperclassmen Cory Montgomery, Yvonne Turner and Dominique Kelley have combined for 36.9 points and 12.8 rebounds a game. "Kelsey Griffin is so good and Cory Montgomery is so good and Vonnie Turner is so good," says Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale. "But as I watch film of them, I find myself watching Nebraska. They are just so good together."

The same can now be said of Tennessee, which a year ago went into a nosedive that included the program's earliest NCAA tournament exit—a stunning 71--55 first-round loss to Ball State. The Lady Vols got back to work the next day and quietly built a 30--2 season, winning both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles for the first time since 2000. "I think they are the most talented team in the country," says Coale, whose Sooners lost 96--75 in Knoxville on Jan. 3. "They're deep, they're athletic, and they have size and speed." And unlike last season Tennessee is now playing with urgency and commitment. Among the jolts to the team over the last year has been the life-threatening stroke suffered by sophomore forward Amber Gray following shoulder surgery in July. (She is redshirting this season and hopes to play in 2010--11.) "That really brought us together and gave us perspective," says junior guard Angie Bjorklund. "Amber tells us every day, Don't take any of this for granted." The Lady Vols want a shot at ending a three-game losing streak to UConn.

Finally, no team does a better job of matching Connecticut's effort possession for possession than 12th-ranked Oklahoma (21--10), which nevertheless lost to UConn 76--60 in Norman on Feb. 15. The Sooners have a top-shelf point guard in junior Danielle Robinson, who leads the team with 16.9 points and 5.2 assists, and a never-say-die senior forward in Amanda Thompson (13.2 points, 10.5 rebounds). They also have a history of making the Huskies sweat in San Antonio, the site of this year's Final Four. In the 2002 NCAA title game at the Alamodome, Oklahoma gave undefeated UConn its toughest game of the year before bowing 82--70. Says Coale of this year's team, "We're a little unpredictable."

That's a characteristic this tournament needs.



Kayla Pedersen Stanford



Cory Montgomery Nebraska



Shekinna Stricklen Tennessee



Danielle Robinson Oklahoma