Stars ready to sparkle in women's first round

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Jocelyn Penn is healthy and rarin' to go, Diana Taurasi is hurting and so is her team's pride.

And Kara Lawson? The Tennessee senior is settling in for a comfy two-week stay at home that could send the Lady Vols to the Final Four for the 14th time in 22 years.

All three will be key figures in any success their teams enjoy in the NCAA women's basketball tournament, which starts today with 16 first-round games at eight campus arenas. Sixteen more games will be played Sunday at eight other sites.

"The seeds don't matter now," said Cincinnati coach Laurie Pirtle, whose team is seeded 10th in the West Regional. "It's really just survive and advance.

"I know that's an overused term, but every team is just as determined as the next one. That's just the way it is in this tournament."

Penn, the South Carolina senior who's fourth nationally in scoring (24.6), certainly is determined. She was slowed late in the season by a gimpy right ankle, a difficult injury for a player who excels in transition.

But the Gamecocks haven't played since March 7, giving Penn ample time to heal. Seeded fifth in the Mideast, South Carolina plays Chattanooga at Penn State on Sunday.

"The wheels are all oiled up and ready to go," Penn said. "I feel like I'm the old JP."

She looks like her old self, too.

"I tell you what, she hasn't lost a step," South Carolina coach Susan Walvius said.

Enduring setbacks

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma wishes he could say the same about Taurasi, the dynamic junior who has toughed it out through back and ankle problems for the past month.

Taurasi is the emotional as well as scoring leader for the defending national champions, a much-needed presence on a team that relies heavily on three freshmen. When things go wrong, the Huskies can always look to Taurasi.

"She can't be tired," ESPN analyst Stacey Dales-Schuman said. "If she is not on the floor, they do not win."

Connecticut (31-1) at least won't be carrying the baggage of a long winning streak in the tournament. The Huskies, seeded first in the East, had their 70-game string broken by Villanova in the championship game of the Big East tournament.

They had viewed the winning streak as something that just happened. What hurt was not winning the Big East tournament for the first time since 1993.

"We're just looking forward to starting a new season and trying to win six games," freshman Barbara Turner said. "Seventy victories was great and we appreciated it. But the most important thing is winning six games."

Six wins would bring Connecticut its third title in four years and fourth overall.

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