03/13/07 — ECU women headed to NCAA tournament

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ECU women headed to NCAA tournament

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on March 13, 2007 2:27 PM

GREENVILLE -- Not a single player on the current East Carolina women's basketball team was born when the Lady Pirates last advanced to the NCAA tournament in 1982.

In fact, head coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener was just 14 and had yet to begin her brilliant career on the court as a player and a coach. She served as Andy Landers' assistant at Georgia before moving onto the NAIA ranks as a head coach.

Now, nearly three decades later, she's taking her own Division I program to the "Big Dance." East Carolina seized the Conference USA championship with a come-from-behind victory over Rice and claimed the automatic bid for the 64-team field.

Surprised by the number of fans in attendance during Monday evening's NCAA selection party, Baldwin-Tener received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the purple and gold nation. After the fifth-year coach addressed the crowd, the team signed autographs and anxiously awaited for ESPN to unveil the brackets.

Once the show began, the crowd hushed in anticipation as murmurs floated around concerning the team's fate. The silence quickly turned to jubilation when the Lady Pirates (19-13) drew the No. 13 seed in the Greensboro Regional, and an opening-round date against fourth-seeded Rutgers at East Lansing, Mich.

The teams tip off Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN2 and ESPNU.

"We talked about in the fall that this team has the chance to be special," said Baldwin-Tener. "We have a chance to do something that's not been done. We just got side-tracked in November and December a little bit."

East Carolina hardly resembled a playoff contender in January. The team flip-flopped wins with losses, and struggled to navigate the ship through its challenging CUSA schedule. The Lady Pirates stood 4-5 in league play after a home overtime loss against UAB on Feb. 1.

But those choppy waters soon turned into a calm, smooth-sailing ocean. ECU reeled off seven straight victories to end regular-season play and grabbed a No. 4 seed for the CUSA tournament.

The Lady Pirates dumped SMU in the quarterfinals and exacted revenge against UAB in the semifinals. They completed their improbable championship run with a come-from-behind victory over Rice in the title game.

"I've never been more proud of a team, not only for winning the conference championship, but they just stuck together," said Baldwin-Tener. "We have players on this team who are accustomed to winning, and when they weren't winning, they were having a hard time.

"But what they've done, winning 10 in a row, is incredible and something they'll remember for the rest of their lives."

Rutgers (22-8) emerged an automatic qualifier with an eight-point victory over UConn in the Big East championship game. The No. 15-ranked Scarlet Knights have won eight of their last nine games, and have faced 14 of the 64 teams in this year's NCAA tournament.

Top-ranked Duke, which has never failed to make the Sweet 16, is the No. 1 seed in the Greensboro regional. North Carolina (30-3) is the top seed in the Dallas regional. Tennessee, which has appeared in all 26 NCAA tournaments, holds the No. 1 slot in the Dayton regional. UConn (29-3) is seeded No. 1 in the Fresno regional.

Judy Southard, the selection committee chairman, said the top four seeds caused no controversy. But adhering to principles when seeding teams from that point did create numerous conversations among committee members.

"The issue as we moved forward is we had a significant number of teams that we felt like were deserving of No. 2 seeds, and some were moved down to the 3-seed line," Southard told ESPN. "We also had a quality field for the 4-seed line spilling down to the 5 line.

"This is one of the years where there was great compression at the top of the bracket in terms of excellence of the teams."

Six conferences combined to comprise the top 4 seeds -- 16 altogether -- in each regional. The Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conference each had four representatives. The final eight were from the Big East, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-10.

Southard said the committee's ultimate goal was to avoid having two teams from the same conference meet until either the regional final or Final Four.

"The players and coaches don't want to play 'conference championship' (rematches) until they've advanced as far as they can in the bracket," said Southard.

The 64-team field has 31 automatic qualifiers and 33 at-large selections. The last time every No. 1 seed reached the Final Four was 1989. Tennessee won the second of its record six national championships that season.

Notes: ECU lost to South Carolina 79-54 in the 1982 East Regional. ... Rutgers is 24-17 overall in 17 NCAA tournament appearances, including a 10-4 record in first-round games. ... Maryland is the defending national champion and the No. 2 seed in the Dayton regional. ... Middle Tennessee State has the nation's longest win streak at 26 games.