Final Four breakdown
By Trisha Blackmar, Sports Illustrated For Women
Southwest Missouri State vs. Purdue; The Savvis Center, St. Louis, Mo., Friday, March 30, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Southwest Missouri State
Strengths: The indomitable Jackie Stiles. The senior guard is on a mission, and as long as she can fight off the fatigue from traveling more than 6,000 miles in the last three weeks, she will not be stopped from adding to her scoring records. Also, don't forget about Missouri native and senior guard Tara Mitchem. She's proven that she can score when needed.
Weaknesses: Post players. Thus far in the tournament the Lady Bears have not faced a pivot as talented as Purdue's 6-foot-4 senior center Camille Cooper . If Coop is on, it could mean trouble for SMS.
X factor: St. Louis has Jackie fever and the crowd will be a valuable sixth man for Stiles and Co.
The Lady Bears will win if: Post players Erika Rante, Ann Cavey and Kinga Kiss can contain Cooper and hit open shots. Stiles can take care of the rest.
Strengths: Senior leadership. In addition to the all-around solid play of swing forward Katie Douglas, Coopergets it done on the inside, scoring 14.1 points and grabbing 6.5 boards per contest. Six players on this team have rings from the 1999 title-game win over Duke.
Weaknesses: Though junior Kelly Komara handled the point with aplomb in the Mideast Regional final victory over Xavier, the loss of starting point guard Erica Valek to an ACL injury hurts the Boilermakers' depth at that crucial position.
X-factor: Purdue must take care of the ball. For the season the Boilermakers average more turnovers per game than assists (15.4 to 14.4)
The Boilermakers will win if: They play good team defense and don't allow SMS to score many fast-break points.
My prediction: The fairy tale isn't over yet. Southwest Missouri State's play in the regional has convinced me that Cinderella still has one night left at the ball.
Notre Dame vs. Connecticut, The Savvis Center, St. Louis, Mo.; Friday, March 30, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Strengths: The Irish have an excellent inside-outside combination with senior center Ruth Riley dominating in the paint, senior point guard Niele Ivey running the show and sophomore shooting guard Alicia Ratay hitting 54.7 percent from behind the arc.
Weaknesses: If Riley or Ivey get into foul trouble, there are few players on the bench who can step in to help. Four of Notre Dame's five starters average more than 28 minutes per game.
X-factor: Senior forward Kelly Siemon was the star, despite a broken hand, when the Irish defeated the Huskies in South Bend in January. She will need to score to take some of the pressure off Riley in the lane.
The Irish will win if: The officials let them play. If the zebras call a tight game, Notre Dame will be in trouble.
Strengths: Depth. Could any other squad lose two senior All-Americas and not only reach the Final Four, but overwhelm every team it meets? Geno Auriemma and his coaching staff will keep the Huskies loose and have them ready to play Friday night.
Weaknesses: Kelly Schumacher, a 6-5 senior, will be called upon to check Riley. The question is, which Schumacher will show up -- the one who blocked nine shots in last year's championship game or the one who disappears for long stretches?
X-factor: Diana Taurasi. The precocious freshman guard has stepped up big in the absence of injured co-captains Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova. The 6-0 Taurasi has increased her scoring average from 10.6 ppg during the season to 14.8 ppg in the tournament. However, she fouled out of three of her team's four regular-season games against Tennessee and Notre Dame, so she must try to stay on the court on Friday.
The Huskies will win if: Junior point guard Sue Bird can set the tone. If she keeps the offense steady and the Huskies play their usual tough defense, UConn will prevail.
My prediction: This will be a hard-fought battle which some are comparing
to Ali vs. Frazier III. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. I
believe that will be