Women’s tournament set for March to the Arch

“We’re excited to be seeded No. 1. But we’re still pretty relaxed and at ease.”

That’s the way Notre Dame’s 6-foot-5-inch All American Ruth Riley described the feeling of her teammates Sunday after the Irish were awarded their first No. 1 seed in a women’s NCAA tournament.

The Irish will host No. 16 Alcorn State on Saturday – St. Patrick’s Day – in the first round of the West Regional.

“I’m elated,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “We’d better get out the green nail polish. St. Patrick’s Day can be our lucky day.”

McGraw said “the sky’s the limit” about her team’s goal in the tournament. “We’re confident because we’ve been playing well. We just want to keep playing well as long as we can.”

Like Riley and star point guard Niele Ivey, senior forward Kelley Siemon will be playing in her fourth NCAA tournament. “The No. 1 seed isn’t really so exciting because we expected it,” Siemon said.

Said McCraw: “There isn’t really much difference among the top four seeds because they all get the chance to play two home games. After that, we all play on neutral courts.”

Six-time NCAA champion Tennessee, two-time and defending champion Connecticut and Atlantic Coast champ Duke joined the Irish as No. 1 seeds.

Between them, Connecticut and Tennessee this season lost three first-team All-Americans to injury: Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph of the Huskies and Tamika Catchings of the Lady Vols.

Two years ago, the selection committee dropped Notre Dame, a Top 10 team in the polls, to a No. 5 seed because Ivey had been injured in the semifinal of the Big East tournament. This cost the Irish home games, and they lost in the second round to LSU playing on its home floor.

“That was unfair,” McGraw said. “The committee did the right thing this time by not penalizing them. They certainly deserved No. 1 seeds.”

Tennessee, Connecticut and Notre Dame, the three teams that shared No. 1 in the polls this season, were locks to be named No. 1 seeds. The fourth No. 1 was between Duke and Georgia. The committee picked Duke, so Georgia became a No. 2 along with three of seven Big 12 teams selected: Oklahoma, Iowa State and Texas Tech.

Five Big Ten teams were chosen: Purdue No. 3 in the Mideast, Iowa No. 4 in the Midwest, Penn State No. 6 in the East, Wisconsin No. 7 in the East and Michigan No. 8 in the Midwest.

Purdue opens at home against Cal-Santa Barbara. Katie Douglas and her teammates better hustle back fast on defense. Gauchos coach Mark French teaches a breakneck tempo.

Although Iowa is a No. 4 seed, the Hawkeyes lost the home-court edge to religion.

Wrestling is a religion in Iowa, and the NCAA wrestling tournament takes place this weekend in Hawkeye-Carver Arena. So No. 5 Utah became the host for the regional.

“It was exciting to know that we have the respect to get a No. 4 seed,” said Iowa point guard Cara Consuegra, MVP of the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten tourney upset over Purdue. “We weren’t counting on that.”

Because of their seeds, No. 6 Penn State, No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 8 Michigan run the risk of playing high-ranked teams on their home floors in the second round.Penn State opens at Louisiana Tech against No. 11 Texas Christian. If Rene Portland’s Lady Lions, a Final Four team last year, win their opener, they are likely to face the Techsters in the second round.

Wisconsin faces a similar situation. If the Badgers beat No. 10 Missouri, they probably would face the Miller twins, Kelly and Coco, and Georgia in Athens.Michigan opens against Virginia on Saturday at Notre Dame. The winner would be in line to go against the Irish in the Joyce Center on Monday.

“The Big Ten has some of the toughest teams because they all beat up on one another,” Siemon said. “It’s like the Big East in men’s basketball.”

The five highest ranked leagues supplied 29 teams in the 64-team field. After the Big 12 with seven, came the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast with six apiece and the Big East and Big Ten with five each.

Duke’s first-round opponent will be the No. 16-seeded Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers. They won their school’s first NCAA tournament bid Saturday night when they beat Green Bay in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament final at the UIC Pavilion.

Jessica Whilhite, the Wisconsin-Milwaukee guard from Glenbard West High, scored a record 36 points and seven three-pointers in the Pavilion. Her next game will be vs. Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“Why not play the best?” asked UWM coach Sandy Botham, former player and assistant for McGraw at Notre Dame. “This is why we play college basketball.”Notre Dame won five of eight NCAA games played in the IRS era of Ivey, Riley and Siemon. Riley averaged 17.1 points, five rebounds and 2.5 blocks in each of those games. Ivey and Alicia Ratay complement her with plus-50 percent shooting from three-point range.

An improved bench gives McGraw one other reason to to feel confident about the 2001 NCAA tourney. Amanda Barksdale, 6-3 forward, and freshman guard Jeneka Joyce provided capable reserve strength for the Irish in the recent Big East tournament.

“So at least we can go seven deep,” said McGaw, who earlier said she might have to play her starters for 40 minutes apiece.